Alvin’s been a supporter of Vocalogy since our inception. Alvin is a classical singer, a ballet enthusiast and dancer, and a trained visual artist.
We interviewed him to understand how he perceives creativity and how he manages his different creative interests.
GN (Grace Ng): Let’s talk about your experience in visual art. Why does visual art appeal to you?
AK (Alvin Koh): I find a blank piece of paper or canvas very liberating. It’s like a clean slate and I can do anything I want. It’s like being a god, being a creator. After all, what does a god do but create?
GN: Yes, that’s true. Creating something is a way of playing god.
AK: At first I didn’t think that way at the time but during my teens, I felt that I just needed to create something. I started taking classes at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) when I was about 13 years old. I always liked to draw. I began withdrawing still life. We perceive reality in 3 dimensions but to put it on paper which is 2 dimensions, requires a kind of skill in translation.
GN: What is your favorite subject matter?
AK: At the moment, I like flowers, the sea, birds and even amorphous shapes. These interest me.
GN: How would you describe your current style?
AK: My current style these days begins with one shape. I start with a shape on canvas and see what images come to mind. Say if I want to draw a flower, I just splash paint on the canvas and then something comes. Usually, it becomes something semi-figurative like a flower or a bird, maybe hills or even a face or part of the human anatomy. So I don’t have a fixed idea of what I want to paint but I do have any idea of the colors that I want to use.
GN: What makes you choose a certain color?
AK: First, if I paint in the medium of watercolor, it makes sense to start with a lighter shade like yellow or orange because in that medium you work from light to dark. In a way, I find this medium unforgiving. I prefer working with acrylic because you can cover up your mistakes. In watercolor, mistakes are there and irreversible. So the nature of the medium predisposes me to start with lighter colors such as orange, yellow or light red.
GN: Apart from the medium, are there any other considerations that determine your choice of colors?
AK: For me, it is also the spiritual aspect of the colors. So for example, blue or a certain shade of blue has a more spiritual tone or dimension to it. It is actually recognized by a lot of healers and mystics. For me, a tone of yellow may represent purity.
GN: What is your favorite color? Do you have one?
AK: Royal blue. I can’t explain why I like it. It seems to me that color indicates a differing world, a world that is different from the one that we live in.
This is a pure watercolor. I didn’t start out with the idea to paint two persons. I started out splashing color on the paper, with the lighter shade first and yellow is the lightest in a way. I started out with yellow and I slowly added the other colors to merge with it. In watercolor, there are techniques called ‘wet on wet’, ‘wet on dry’ and even ‘dry on dry’. I played with different techniques in this painting. This happens at a subconscious level. I’ve been drawing hundreds and hundreds of paintings so this is all quite intuitive for me like waiting for the right moment to apply color so that they fade at the right moment before I add color. The timing is very important. When people on the street ask me, ‘why did you draw it this way’, I have stopped for a while and think because this comes intuitively to me. It must be how it’s like with the voice to you, you hear it and you can give an exercise without thinking.
GN: Yes I am quite intuitive now. But I had to look and refer to materials when I started out.
GN: So tell me more about your choreography. When did you get involved in dance and choreography?
AK: I started not too long ago when I had to choreograph a number for an event at Wesley Methodist Church. My friend needed a dancer and a choreographer. I chose a song that I was singing at the time, ‘You Raise Me Up’ for the dance number. My friend and I danced first and then I sang my song.
GN: How have you felt your dance has progressed through the years?
AK: I felt that I was a horrible dancer. When I started off I couldn’t catch the first beat. I like to think that I’ve improved a lot over the years. There’s always more room for improvement. I’m not born with a facility for ballet. I don’t have a good turn out. I’m not naturally flexible. I find it hard to bring my legs all the way up. I’m also very tall. For me to move to music that is created for people who are not that tall, I have to prepare my mind and body way beforehand. People sometimes think I’m ahead of the beat but if I don’t do that, I can’t get to the next point on time. Anacruses are very important to me.
GN: When did you get interested in dance?
AK: When I was 21.
GN: Is there a connection between your work in dance and your work in painting?
AK: I saw how dancers moved and thought they looked beautiful. They were not only beautiful when they were dancing but they were beautiful when they were pausing as well. Grace, poise, the lines, the shapes they form-dance is definitely visual. While dance is visual in nature, it is also more than visual at the same time. Dance is like many visuals combined. It is thousands and thousands of visuals combined. You move from a certain storyboard to another one. It’s like capturing something from point A to point B to point Z successively and smoothly. Unlike the visual arts, you are not restricted to capturing just that one moment in time. Ironically people are drawn to dance for that movement in time in the same way that visual arts capture a moment in time. Marketing materials for dance productions show that high moment in a dance where the dancer is dancing alone or with a partner.
GN: It’s like a flipbook where there are all these pictures and then you take out one little page.
AK: Yes, something like that.
GN: How has dance affected your philosophy of Art?
AK: I felt that it is possible to condense all the different moments in dance onto a 2D platform if one is diligent. You can also map different moments in time onto the canvas. The interesting thing is that the canvas is just this blank white thing existing in one point in time, but you’re putting down all the moments in the time, all those stills, at the same time. That is very powerful. It may cause the viewer to be confused because there are so many things going on in the painting. They could feel ecstatic or troubled without being able to explain it. You see this a lot in non-figurative art, semi-abstract art. Some images are archetypal. They stir up a certain emotion. They might even convey situations that are universal or states of being that pertain to emotion but not restricted to it.
GN: Is this wordless expression a wordless communication? I would like to understand if you are talking about the medium, the process or the impact of the work?
AK: The work may also include words and text by the way. I’m talking more about that primal quality of state of mind.
GN: Where do you think that comes from?
AK: I think there is a big reservoir of collective consciousness. It may also have been programmed genetically into us. Of course, I don’t rule out social programming.
GN: How does what you’ve mentioned about your visual art work and your dance work impact you as a singer? How does it impact your artistic choices?
AK: I dance to contemplate the suitability of my technical and phrasing choices such as legato or staccato and line.
GN: Do you use Dalcroze Eurhythmics (Music and Movement) in your work as a singer?
AK: I don’t think that Dalcroze Eurthymics specifically and consciously addresses technical issues in singing. It doesn’t address the micro aspects of singing either such as small muscular movements and certainly not in a codified manner
GN: How and where does Singing fit into your creative consciousness?
AK: After I’ve sung something, I have an impulse to put that into painting. Singing, unless you record it, is ephemeral. In the visual arts, once you capture it, it’s there. The transient nature of Singing and even Dance creates this yearning in me to codify that visually.
AK: I sang before I did this. After I did this, I felt inspired to sing another song- ‘Wanderer’s Nachtlied 2’ by Schubert.
GN: Tell me about the first song that inspired the painting.
AK: I wasn’t singing a particular song. I was vocalizing when the images just came into my mind.
GN: What inspires these images? Is the process like word painting where you draw a line that goes up when the melody goes up? Is that what you are talking about or is it something else?
AK: It’s not a linear thought direction. The process is intuitive. It is not constrained by pitch although it can be.
GN: Can you explain the choice of colour in this work?
AK: The choice of colour was not directly influenced by the singing or vocalizing. After I got the images, I started painting. When I paint, I don’t sing. I chose sepia and grey because I find that the colours have a complementary quality. I didn’t use orange here because it would be too ‘in your face’. So I used shades of brown and blue.
GN: How did you plan the layout of the painting?
AK: There wasn’t any planning. The vocalizing just triggered the impulse to paint.
GN: Who is your favourite painter and why?
AK: William Turner. I find his colours so scintallating and yet subtle. His use of colours, especially how he places colours side by side, creates this euphoric effect in me. His work creates this moment that draws you in so much that you just have to keep looking. I also like the pastoral quality of his subject matter.
GN: Who is your favourite singer and why?
AK: I have a few. I like Sumi Jo, Kiri Te Kanawa. I like Yma Sumac, Robin Mano.
GN: Next. Favourite dancers?
AK: I like Sylvie Guillem. She is unlike any other dancer that I’ve seen. She dares to break boundaries. She was a gymnast. She was classically trained. She gave it up to do her own contemporary, autobiographical thing. She makes dance accessible. She dances with technical perfection and yet you can still relate to it.
GN: What makes a good Artist?
AK: You need to know your craft well. You need to be well-read and well-informed as to what’s going on. He or she dares to say and do something he or she personally feels compelled to, whether or not, it is acceptable by the majority after much deliberation and even at the risk of social and political persecution.
GN: Are you talking about an irrational compulsion to express oneself?
AK: I’m talking about a decision to express oneself that may not seem rational to the public. This doesn’t mean that they have to do something new. It may be just a matter of revisiting or rehashing something that has been done before yet remains undeveloped.
GN: This has been a fascinating interview. Thank you.
AK: Thank you.
Grace Ng is a voice teacher and holistic healer. She is based in Singapore and teaches with her studio Vocalogy.