Goh Lee Kwang: Nerve Center

Navel-Gazers #21 is an interview with Goh Lee Kwang who is going to talk to us about Nerve Center. As anyone familiar with Navel-Gazers knows, each of these interviews chooses to focus on a specific album and I must say that this one was a difficult decision. Lee Kwang has literally hundreds of albums... in fact as I scroll through the becoming shadow discography I genuinely wonder if he's the most prolific artist on all of Bandcamp. There are so many individual items here that I need to set aside time for the page to load! I forget what caught my attention about 'Nerve Center' (after returning with a coffee) but relistening through headphones the other day I found it utterly mesmerising. Its four tracks - each of comparable length - are all completely different. And I hadn't realised it's all the way back from 2002, which means it's one of his earlier ones. 19 years later I'm feeling lucky to get a glimpse into the world of Goh Lee Kwang even though there are no practical barriers to our email correspondence between London and his physical locale of Malaysia. As for Malaysia I'm thinking.. certainly a country with a rich and diverse culture but not a place I'd normally associate with experimental music! But I have much to learn. Let's get an explanation from Lee Kwang...

AC: Thanks for joining me! So I've described 'Nerve Center' as one of your earlier albums but it's just an approximation - from my research it looks like you’ve been doing music for around 20 years. Why don’t you tell us how you got started in the very beginning. When exactly did it start? What was your background?

Goh Lee Kwang: Hey! Yes ‘Nerve Center’ was something from the early days, but still very tasty I must say. It's a long story of how I got into experimental music, or sound art. I was (still am) into world literature, underground music and comic / manga and movies as a teenager. However there were not many options after I finished my high school, there was no music school for the partly self-taught, no creative writing courses, and no movie production courses either so I went to art college and picked fine art as my major, without knowing exactly what that was. During the college years I took the opportunity to explore different art forms, went to art house movie screenings, underground music gigs, and learned about contemporary arts from friends and books from the library. It was surprisingly happening. 

After graduating from art school, I only took part time work for a living, started to get real in the arts - at the time not only music, also writing and painting too. At that time computers and internet became a really big thing, I got sucked into that, exploring lots of software, and started to focus on electronic music. In about 2 years I produced more than 100 tracks, mostly techno with rhythm, some guitars with processing, and some of those works went into the first 3 albums I released on CDR. With the CDRs I made more friends, mostly around the same age, got invited to do live performances, collaborate with dancers and also make soundtracks for indie movies. ‘Nerve Center’ came about right around the time I was becoming able to produce what's inside my head, and beyond.

AC: That's interesting to consider... it's appropriate that the recording is called "nerve center" then. Do you think that before that time, you couldn't produce what was in your head? What was it that helped you get to the next step, were you learning new techniques, having new ideas, just getting more confident? How do you look back on the earlier stuff before 'Nerve Center', do you still like it?

Goh Lee Kwang: As a matter of fact, the piece ‘Nerve Center’ came first, before I decided to call the album Nerve Center, haha. I got the idea from the jamming studio I shared with some friends. 

What I meant by finally producing what's inside my head, it was going beyond music, poetry and painting, new media installations etc. As time went by I got to know more about sound editing, process etc, I was self-taught, basically I learned about how to operate a computer, audio software, and English and mathematics, all at the same time. And I slowly upgraded my computer hardware, making it possible to produce longer pieces without crashing the computer. And I did a project which enabled me to purchase, so to say, an up-to-standard sound system. And yes I gained more confidence too, by getting to know that there are a lot of people who were making so-called experimental music. And yes, I still like what I produced before ‘Nerve Center’, I can still hear parts where I was trying to break some rules.

AC: I wanted to ask you about the specific piece Nerve Center which is my favourite track here. There are so many different sections on this one, a wide array of sounds and a lot of surprises. But I can’t really picture how it was made. Do you recall how you created it?

Goh Lee Kwang: Oh no, I can't remember the details.. except for A Lie To Liar, which was supposedly for a compilation, I had a friend come by and we started to sit down and see if I could produce something (for the compilation) while we were chatting, a few hours later I decided to keep the piece for myself. But I remember the concept, or the rules of the piece, or rather the album. All the pieces on ‘Nerve Center’ are produced in 2 channels, in stereo, only. No multi-tracks, no adjusting the levels, matching the levels etc. It was only in 2 channels, almost touch and go, pick a sound, change the pitch, add effects, layer another sound file, and so on, and save and export the file before the computer crashed. Then continue with the same madness with the file from the day before. This is to live with the limitations of the slow computer. Because it takes time to export the track, best to do it only after the ideas have dried up, otherwise my head might have exploded while waiting!

But this is not something new to me, because it is like making visual artwork. When you do live sketching, you need to give the model a break from time to time, when you do outdoor painting, you deal with the sunlight, only certain hours in a day. So when I am not producing, I will gather ideas inside my head, draw inspiration from day to day life, books, movies etc, always with a lot of What if...? in my head.

AC: Many artists seem to have that experience. Stephen Nachmanovitch says in Free Play: “Insights and breakthroughs often come during periods of pause or refreshment after great labours. There is a preparatory period of accumulating data, followed by some essential but unforeseeable transformation.”

Most of your catalogue after ’Nerve Center’ consists of much longer pieces. It seems this was made possible by improved hardware. But why? Do you prefer the longer format now?

Goh Lee Kwang: Hardware is definitely something to do with it. But there’s more. Before I explain, there is something I forgot to mention about ‘Nerve Center’. The concept behind ‘Nerve Center’, which determined how I selected the tracks to be included on the album, was something about taking away the rhythm and melody. It's not something new in experimental music, but at the time, most of my pieces were still very much with a simple rhythm and melody… when I worked with dancers, they needed rhythm to hold them together, and when I performed live, a piece without melody was like an unfinished one. I was trying to break away from those limitations when producing work in the studio, I left them all behind. With a longer piece, it's like a bigger canvas, where I can paint a bigger picture, and that's what I did. The rhythm and melody became part of the picture - to see the whole picture, you will have to take a few steps back.

After the ‘Nerve Center’ release, I had so many collaboration projects, hardly producing anything on my own - sadly most of the collaborations were not recorded. Then I spent a few years mostly in Europe, touring and making sound installations. At the same time I also started a small CD label, releasing CDs & CDRs, with now more than 100 titles to date. And I began to look into the limitations of a format - the more I learned, I felt like breaking the limitations of a format, or of all formats, and I began to produce works without taking the limitations of a CD (72 minutes) into account. Those were the years before Bandcamp, there are still lots of those works I produced I’ve still yet to make public… or only the partially edited versions.

I was into the idea of text, of how a piece of work stands as a piece of work, how an album stands as album, and other possibilities. I have works where only the first half is published, or only one of the channels (left or right) etc. The longer format was to break away from the limitations, and then I began to work with volume, making a large amount of works public, to get on people's nerves.

I was into the longer format until 4~5 years go, when I finally became comfortable not caring about length. You can tell by the fact that some of the recent albums on Bandcamp include more than 1 piece of work, and you might find some albums which have a huge amount of tracks but which last less than 20 minutes. At the moment I enjoy making work without caring so much about the length, and I also look into the possibilities (format/ app) of whether a track can be played back at a different playback rate, pitch etc. with different computers (maybe with different RAM, a different generation of OS…), just like in the old days, the turntables had different speeds…. 33 1/3 rpm, 45 rpm, 77 rpm...

AC: Yeah this is part of what drew me to your work. Questioning those limitations when it comes to length, format, the sheer volume of output (“to get on peoples’ nerves”! funny) it makes me think of… Merzbow for one, or Sun Ra or earlier figures like John Cage or even filmmakers like Kieslowśki…?

Goh Lee Kwang: I try not to name-drop because once the hell breaks loose, the name list might double the length of the interview. 

AC: Ok let me stop before this gets out of control!

But a good example is Fragments, ’Nerve Center’s final track, which joins several disparate passages including a stretch of silence.. which is no earth-shattering concept but something about the way it all plays out is very unusual. Tell me about ‘Fragments’?

Goh Lee Kwang: ‘Fragments’ is taking the same concept as the other pieces, the bigger picture, but it went the opposite direction. It's like… some details here and there, but open for people to make the connection. The silence allocation is meant for looping the CD, it will connect back to the first track. Although I doubt there are people who actually listen to the CD twice in one go. 

AC: What is it like being an experimental artist in Malaysia? Is there a lively scene in KL? Are there improv events or other ways for people to network? How do you think experimental art fits into the Malaysian culture and the broader Southeast Asian culture?

Goh Lee Kwang: The arts scene here is very liberal, or at least those I’ve befriended. I am not the only weirdo around. The scene here is alright aesthetically too, and conceptually, and the common understanding is different from UK and maybe most parts of the world. Before the pandemic, we had arts events here on a weekly basis, and there were festivals outside of the capital, musicians could do small road trip tours, not only daytrips. We have a contemporary composer collective, a contemporary music festival too. Improv gigs almost on weekly basis, where the understanding of improv at one might be different from others. And visiting experimental musicians on an almost monthly basis too, thanks to the low cost airline AirAsia… to travel in Asia, they transit here. I started an event series in 2009 called Switch ON! mainly producing events for visiting artists.

The contemporary culture, or as some academics prefer to call it, sub-culture in South East Asia is very interconnected. Most people know most other people in the scene. As mentioned with the low cost airline, traveling is not difficult among the regions, and some musicians travel intensively outside of Asia too. 

AC: That's awesome Lee Kwang! I lived for awhile in that neck of the woods, and never got hooked into the scene but it would be great to go to a "Switch ON!" whenever this bloody pandemic ends.

Personally I like a good nasi lemak and some poh pia. What influence does Malaysian food have on your music?

Goh Lee Kwang: Oh all my works are related to Malaysian food, the variety and one of a kind. Guess you can agree with that?

AC: I can agree with no reservations.

Well, this has been a really thought-provoking conversation, now it’s time to start wrapping up. Before we go, what’s next for you? are you working on anything new you’d like our readers to know about? Will the discography on Bandcamp keep growing and growing?

Goh Lee Kwang: It's nice chatting with you. There are albums to be released and always new projects (and opportunities for more projects too). But allow me to do a plug - in the time of the plague, everyone needs some extra support. I have a Patreon page, and drop by my Bandcamp as well. Your support is very much appreciated. Thanks again! ;-)

Lee Kwang can be found at Bandcamp and Patreon.

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