Composer and musician Weish talks digital creativity and what it takes to grow a garden of sound for Vogue Singapore
4 February 2021
Weish, also known as Chew Wei Shan, picked up a Playtronica for the first time a few weeks ago, determined to coax music out of a pineapple, pomegranate, and pumpkin. But her artistic journey really began years prior; here, she tells her story
The sound artist Weish deals in landscapes. Known for her ethereal live loops, she peppers her music with immersive vocal percussion and gossamer instrumentation. Having wrapped up a year chock-full of projects—including a new album for her indie-electronica duo .gif, and an experimental storytelling experience called Besides Ourselves for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival—the pandemic quickly pumped the brakes for her, as it did for all of us.
But she’s since gotten back to work, and is ready for anything. That’s why Vogue Singapore figured Weish would be the perfect artist to invite down to our studio to make music out of touch. The flowers that appeared on our February print cover? Weish picked a few of them to act as her instruments. Using a gadget called a Playtronica that lets you map sounds onto any object, she made plants sing. Afterwards, we spoke to her about how—and, more importantly, why.
How does creating sound from plants work?
The tech works basically by turning an object into a conductor of electricity; that then sends a signal to my software, where I’ve already programmed a certain sample of sound to be triggered by that signal. Sometimes the plants can be fickle, though. If you don’t find the right vein, the sound won’t be as clean.
I assumed that you just attached jumper cables to something and let it rip—I didn’t know there was programming behind it.
The Playtronica makes it very straightforward, where the circuit board is already designed. My job was to map which circuit board related to which sound. There was definitely a process of experimentation, too. A lot of it was me recording random samples of—well, me hitting plants in my back garden with a spoon. That was a lot of fun. Some plants were too leafy or thin to carry nice sounds, as well—they kind of needed to be juicy or succulent. Roses didn’t work, for example. That’s why a lot of fruit ended up being used.
What kind of plants? And what kind of sounds?
I have a couple of stalks of bird of paradise, heliconia, a pineapple, a pumpkin, a pomegranate, a ginger flower. And there’s a little cactus here. I tried to find sounds that seemed like they would fit the texture and shape of each plant. So the pumpkin has a big, round, bass sound. The cactus is this sort of prickly sound. And the pineapple screams.
You mentioned you started playing classical music before moving on to more experimental forms. How did you get from traditional training to screaming pineapples?
It was a process of me trying to break away from classical training. I started out on the piano, but I felt like I was stuck in a bubble of old Western classical music, which made me feel very disconnected from the larger music scene here. I discovered there was a whole world of other ways that people interacted with sound. I’d go to different kinds of gigs and see people turning all sorts of things into sound. From there, I got started on live looping, incorporating synths, and started writing for people. It kind of all spiraled out in lots of different directions at once.
What kind of community was there, for you to have the space to discover new kinds of music?
We had spaces in “the before times.” [Laughs] Home Club, Substation—back in the day, 2010 to 2016-ish, they used to have really diverse gigs. It would range from experimental groups doing noise gigs and really far-out stuff to drum and bass acts coming in to take over DJ-ing duties at night. Every Friday, there’d be like five different types of bands from vastly different genres, all playing the same stage. Cutesy twee pop followed right after by screamo. That was really mind-blowing. You got a sense of the possibilities.
As a musician, what spaces do you occupy—or hope to occupy—in 2021?
I don’t know if this is a very good answer, but I feel like things are quite bleak. We’ve all been driven out of our usual spaces. Everyone’s kind of operating out of their bedrooms now. That’s not totally a bad thing. Yeah, most musicians coming up now only have digital platforms, and never had a physical space with a community they called home, where they’d go for the scene or a gig. But new artists have really found a way—this is going to make me sound really old—to capitalise on and create the same feeling of community online. Live sessions on Twitch or Instagram are really heartening. But I still do miss live performance.
“But new artists have really found a way to capitalise on and create the same feeling of community online. Live sessions on Twitch or Instagram are really heartening”
When you’re working with someone else to contribute music or sound to their project, do you view your contribution as something that’s part of the whole, or as a separate element that’s married to the rest of the finished product?
I always kind of aim for the former. I always want to find a way where the music becomes integral, but not in an in-your-face kind of way. If I’m working with a poet or a storyteller, I want their voice to be the primary one. I have to balance not stealing their spotlight with not being, like, a stock track just sitting on top of the project. You have to find a way to make your thing become part of the conversation in a way that makes it inextricable, and make the collaboration worthwhile.
One of your biggest projects to date has to be helping piece together the Shirkers soundtrack. Can you talk a little about that journey?
It was crazy. Sandi [Tan, the director] didn’t give me any context. She reached out and was like, “Hi, I love your work. Let’s meet for coffee.” She was just this comet that landed in my life. I had no idea what the film was going to be about. And then she sat down across from me and told me the whole story in this stream-of-consciousness way. Totally overwhelming. I worked with an Israeli sound designer [Ishai Adar] who did the major scoring for the whole thing. I provided vocal samples and swatches of songs that he could pick and choose from the layer the soundtrack.
It’s interesting you use a tactile fashion term, “swatch.”
It kind of appears that way to me, especially when I’m going to work with people and I don’t always know what they like, or what kind of sounds would suit the project. I want to give them a whole pallet of sounds. I tend to do that, also, because I want to be upfront: This is me. These are the sounds I make. I can’t give you a K-pop or EDM sound, because I don’t know how to do that—or I wouldn’t want to, because it wouldn’t sound like me. So I’ll give you a bunch of swatches that represent me, and you can help me pick from those.
“These are the sounds I make. I can’t give you a K-pop or EDM sound, because I don’t know how to do that—or I wouldn’t want to, because it wouldn’t sound like me”
So every time you give your sounds to a project, whatever it might be, it’s like putting a part of yourself into it.
Yeah. I guess it’s also a question of what all of us are wrestling with, all the time. The idea that it’s impossible to have an original voice, so why try? “What can I possibly have to say that matters?” I used to teach literature to teenagers, and they always had these existential questions when I made them write poetry or short stories. “Why should anybody care what a random teenager in Singapore has to say about anything?” But if something comes from within and is authentic to your experience, you’ll be surprised to find how much it can resonate with another person.
When did you learn that?
I guess I learned it from my early Soundcloud days, when a random teen from another continent wrote to say, “This is how it feels! Yes! This is exactly it.” Yeah. When you read a story or something, and you just feel the humanness of that very specific experience. That’s what I try to remind myself: that any individual experience or emotions is worth expressing, for that reason. You never know when someone might relate. And if no one does, then just do it for yourself.
How do you reckon with people who might call that “selfish”?
I’ve heard a lot of people say that. It really does cut. But if you have a life without art-makers, you lose Netflix, and the entire history of music. And that’s doing so much good. So much of what’s gotten me through life has been seminal albums and great movies. And for others that might be great visual art, or dance. There’s this huge unspoken redemptive power of art that’s so often overlooked.
There’s more to someone’s art than meets the eye, that’s for sure. Does tactility play into that at all?
Absolutely. I met pianist Azariah Tan a few years back. From him, I learned how much understanding vibration adds to music. I mean, first and foremost, sound is essentially vibration. Watching him work—the velocity, the force of each finger hitting the keys, and getting your art from the physical feedback. It was a much more vivid experience to him, I think.
Did you incorporate that understanding into your own practise?
For sure, especially when I started working with analog synths. Visually understanding the shapes of waves, how connecting each wire will affect the sound you want to produce. It’s all one big body, this monster that reacts to different kinds of touches. It’s a lot of discovery. There’s still so much to it that I don’t understand, that’s still a mystery to me. But that’s what’s exciting about it, you know?
Editor-in-Chief: Norman Tan
Digital Creative Producer: Vanessa Caitlin
Director of Photography: David Bay
Sound Engineer: Leonard Soosay
Video Editor: Hazirah Rahim