Written by Cheryl Tan

With his works spanning across multiple facets of experimental music, from ambient and drone to improvisation, multi-instrumental sound artist ASUNA brings his acclaimed installation-performance 100 Keyboards to Singapore at this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA).

ASUNA’s landmark work 100 Keyboards is primarily a sonic experience in which audience members are invited into a room to sit around an installation of 100 battery-operated keyboards arranged in a circle.

In the show I attended, several seats were laid out against the walls of the room. Some audience members chose to sit on these seats, while the others chose to make themselves comfortable on the floor.

ASUNA entered the room to applause, and then proceeded to turn each individual keyboard on one by one. Selecting specific notes on each keyboard. He jams an ice cream stick into the crevice between the key he has selected, holding the note down.

The show opens with a gentle ambient drone, enveloping the room in an atmosphere of quietude and calm.

Credit: Minoru Sato

As ASUNA goes around the circle of keyboards, turning each one on and selecting more keys to hold down, the drop eventually grows louder with more keyboards coming to life with sound. The sound waves start to overlap and intersect, coming together at times and pulled apart at others, hovering in the room with a weighted sonic mass.

As the volume elevated, audience members started to walk around the space, realising that the sonic experience affected them differently depending on where they situated themselves in the room.

Having selected a room in The Arts House that offered a considerable level of resonance to the sounds emitted from the keyboards, this performance worked wonderfully well. Each minute discrepancy between sounds coming from the keyboards — differences in tone or battery level, for example — contributed to building a subtle sonic moiré effect that grows more apparent with the gradual rise in volume and passing of time.

Eventually, as he completes activating the 98th, 99th, 100th keyboard, the drone had grown into a loud, deep ambient roar, its sound waves seem to vibrate the room. At this point, several audience members were huddled on the floor cupping their ears with their hands. Several others had started walking around the room, and ASUNA gestured to those who remained seated to get up and walk around to have a look.

There was something terribly unsettling in these moments, and it personally felt almost as if the sound had taken control of me. As someone prone to sensory overload, I imagine this experience as a whole would be unsettling for people with varying sensitivities to sound and sonic effects, and understandably so.

Credit: Minoru Sato

However, as the sheer volume shook the room and right when it felt as if the ambient roar had continued for just another ten minutes it would be intolerable, ASUNA started turning his keyboards off. As steadily as he had turned them on, he reversed the process entirely and turned the keyboards off one by one, releasing the ice cream sticks.

At first, the effect was negligible. The drone was still deafening, and audience members still sat on the floor in foetal positions, their ears cupped in their hands. Slowly, the roar died down into the same gentle hum that had opened the show. The audience had then returned to their original seats and positions, and we shared a silent gratitude for the quiet hum that now enveloped the space.

The entire experience was unexpectedly comforting. The simple concept of turning on a hundred keyboards individually and then turning them off gave the experience several stages.

It was interesting to see each keyboard get turned on and the sound in the room rise with each layer of sound added, and then almost unbearable to sit in a room with a hundred keyboards blaring, and then oddly comforting and perhaps even cathartic waiting for ASUNA go around to each keyboard to turn it off.

In this year’s SIFA, 100 Keyboards is the gift of sound. That we sat in a room listening to nothing but sound for 1.5h struck me as nothing short of amazing, and proves once again that some of the best pieces of art created and experienced are not seen, but heard.

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