lololol interviews #2: Alice Hui-sheng Chang

Alice Hui-sheng Chang: Two step forward and one step back

Interviewed by Ficus S


Tainan-based Alice Hui-sheng Chang is a sound improviser, art therapist and co-founder of sound organization Ting Shuo Hear Say. Alice weaves between the many facets of her practice with a focus on social connections, togetherness, and the possibilities of non-lingual communication. As a musician, she creates performances as site-specific responses, using a dynamic range of timbres and textures to amplify the acoustic qualities of a space, while also responding to the social conditions in the room. lololol sits down with Alice to discuss her experiences with sound, connection and the nonverbal.

Distal Fragments, collaboration with Environmental Performance Authority (2014), photo by Ssuhua Chen

Can you talk about your work with sound in Tainan?

Before returning to Taiwan, Nigel [my partner] and I had performed in Melbourne, Europe and various places. We mostly played for audiences who were familiar with the scene of experimental music, and we appreciated the coming together of people from common backgrounds and shared languages. When we returned to Taiwan 12 years ago, there was a sense of freedom to go beyond the limitations we had previously put on ourselves. Sometimes we would perform for first time listeners of experimental music, which would bring a fresh energy, a new curiosity or excitement to the room. To this day, the audience for Ting Shuo Hear Say remains quite a mix—having people come from different musical backgrounds, it is a constant challenge to translate our music to a diverse crowd.

On top of running Ting Shuo Hear Say, you are also an art therapist and sound artist. Do these fields of work correlate with each other?

In my own practice, my work as an artist and art therapist go hand in hand. When I run group art therapy sessions, I try to respond to the various expectations or non-expectations in the room. I seek to ‘hold’ the variety of connections that make up the flow of energy in the group. This act of holding is important in my art practice as well, in which I explore how people connect with each other. I use voice as my instrument because it is the most direct communication, and when I perform, I feel I am creating a spider web for holding everything together.

When audiences come from different backgrounds, the weight of how each individual leans into the performance varies quite a lot. I try to tune into what is happening in the space, it could be emotions, states of being, or all kinds of body expressions—Is he relaxed? How much of her hair is standing up? Are they immersed in their own inner reflection or inner imagination? For me it is all these small observations that reveal the connections in the room. The observing process is not so much in the head, it is more empirical; by experience and practice, observations become heightened and there is a sensitive tuning process involved while I respond to the collective feeling and atmosphere in the space.

As a performer, how do you see your relationship with the audience?

There’s a saying, “Two step forward and one step back,” which gives me an image of someone perpetually getting somewhere, slowly. This image relates to my own interpretation of existential theory, which is that loneliness is the core of our existence, and while we come and go as individual bodies, a core aim of life is to connect with each other. During my performances, sometimes I do feel such a [connection between people].

For me, performing is not about selling an idea, it is a medium for people to transition together and enter a realm of suspended space and time. This process involves trusting that every individual has his or her value and identity. Trusting that in a finite time, togetherness will happen and will happen here, and afterwards, we will separate again.

My way of engaging with people is very different from the educational system in which I grew up. My school system upheld a hierarchy between teacher and students and maintained that students should be shaped or formed into a certain mold.

I believe that everyone is different, there is no unified way, and in my performances, the audience takes in something as their own reflection, their mirrored self, and directs this feedback into whatever they are thinking or whoever they are in that moment in time. After the performance, every individual takes away some residue from the collective experience.

Gentle steps with an open mouth vocal group, Liquid Architecture and Nite Art Festival (2015), photo by Keelan O'Heir

Do you always work with an audience?

Sometimes, without an audience, I can work with images or texts in my head. Sometimes, there are from dreams I have had, stories I have read, or just inspirations from my own imagination. I once made a performance using a scene from a Haruki Murakami novel, which described a feeling of sinking down into the ocean, sinking down, losing breath, continually sinking, and so on. I did a couple performances with this departure point. Perhaps for me it is a sad narrative about someone who has lived a life not having their own say and feeling getting more and more choked up. What attracts me to such sorrow is its complexity.

Sometimes I find that images are able to describe what language cannot. The ocean, forests, the moon, and scenery…these are typical themes for poets and artists because there are no words that can quite describe them. I attempt to embody an image by putting it inside my body; I feel it and try to form it out. It is an attempt to translate something indescribable to other people. Whilst this process can be understood as a way of communication, it could also be understood more poetically as an artist putting her body in a very imaginative, emotional, complex state and performing it.

How do you describe your sound palette?

I do not listen to a lot of music, in fact, I find everyday sound much more fitting to my palette of sound--the bathroom fan, vertical roller gate, all the daily industrial or natural sounds that we live in--they embody a language that is honest and real. My voice is shaped by the soundscape of my environment.

After performing for many years, it is easy to become fixed, and I try to make myself more flexible. Sometimes I sense an intuition and there is a voice coming out; sometimes I mute that intuition and work with something else. Quite often I work with the feedback people give me about my performances. One of my lecturers from university had once commented that, in my work, silence is more important than the voice. His comment made me reflect on how to use time, how silence still holds certain attention, and carries the residue of the sound that had come before it. It holds an imagination that reflects back to the viewer, like a black mono painting or the blank spaces in Chinese painting.

"Refract" Video Still by Jessie Scott

How do you experience space and time in your work?

In my earlier work, during my university years, I performed a lot in stairwells, hallways, transitional spaces, as I worked with the idea of travelling. It was not a matter of going from one point to another; it was about the tunnel, the transitional process that happens in between. This practice of working in a perpetual cycle of suspended time and space is perhaps influenced by minimal music or drone-based stuff. Both Nigel and I in our 12 Dog Cycle band, and my other duo with Saxophonist Rosalind Hall, work with this idea. Someone had commented that our music always feels like it is starting and ending all the time, because we are constantly working against the flow, not following any situation and continually surprising ourselves.

Is there anything specific you are working on right now?

I have always wanted to develop my art therapy practice further. Since coming back to Taiwan, I have spent a lot of my time setting up Ting Shuo and more recently, I have been busy raising our child. But now I find my art practice is becoming more diverse—I have been running workshops for children from age 0 to 6 as well as for old people over ages 60 to 80. Next month, I am running workshops with people who are blind. Meanwhile, I am also working on my solo album, “Alice in Wonderland,” based on Lewis Carroll’s 12-chapter storybook. I will be working on this album and text/contemporary scores in the next few years.

(update / 2020.05.26)

☯ Alice Hui-Sheng Chang
Sound improviser, art therapist and co-founder of sound organization Ting Shuo Hear Say. Alice weaves between the many facets of her practice with a focus on social connections, togetherness, and the possibilities of non-lingual communication.