Rishin Singh is a composer from Kuala Lampur now living in Berlin. Having composed for The JACK Quartet, Piano+, and others, his latest work is a solo piece for the Liszt organ in Denstedt, Germany. The instrument is legendary in its own right, but Singh’s approach to it is unique. mewl infans stretches across four pieces, the longest of which, “said the roots to the twig,” premieres today. Intricate tonal clusters and surprising harmonics bend and mutate into new sound worlds making it seem as though there is a chorus of different instrumentation present. This music is liminal and expressive. It builds in unexpected ways to engage us in the moment and showcase the organ’s seemingly infinite possibilities.
Singh’s work often feels singular and on its own island. His work is shaped from a unique path that is woven into the foundational fabric of this music. mewl infans will be released on July 29 via Beacon Sound. Stream “said the roots to the twig” below and pre-order HERE. Rishin Singh can be found via his website HERE.
I would love to learn about some of your earliest memories and experiences with music and sound. What music made an impression on you when you were younger or what experiences that have stuck with you all these years?
Since an early age I have been hyper sensitive to sound – Misophonia – so there are some quotidian sounds and spoken words which I find extremely calming and others that are absolutely unbearable and disgusting.
The music which had the most profound impression on me when I was younger:
– The ghazals my father would blast on the stereo when he cooked dinner on the weekends when I was a child
– The first time I heard The Velvet Underground: a downloaded MP3 played on Winamp from my friend’s computer
– The first time I heard Scriabin Piano Etudes being played in a practice room at the Conservatory where I studied
Did you always want to be a musician – or composer?
Yes. Except for a brief period in my teens when I considered a career as a chef. A few years’ of working my way up from dishwasher to a position on the line in a Sushi restaurant put paid to that idea.
What, then, was the impetus for starting to learn to play and create your own works?
I am a Western Classically trained musician – piano and theory from a young age and then trombone, theory, harmony, analysis, history, solfege, etc at the Conservatorium in Sydney, Australia. I always wrote my own music for my own amusement: improvised songs with which I narrate my day-to-day, as well as more structured attempts at instrumental composition.
I only started to dedicate myself seriously to the art and craft of composition about ten years ago.
I would love to hear about your first impressions of when you saw and worked with the Liszt Organ at Denstedt.
It was the perfect instrument to realise the music I was hearing in my mind’s ear. Despite its relatively small size – Hauptwerk, Oberwerk, Pedal; 19 stops – it is very flexible, sensitive to different articulations, and has the ability to make small adjustments to the degree to which each stop is pulled out.
The neighbouring regions of Sachsen and Thüringen are steeped in organ music culture and history, with the organ at Denstedt being a much later but integral part of it. German canonical organ music in the region is incredibly influential – from Bach to Liszt to Reger and beyond – so it was a real privilege to work at the instrument and to have Martin record and premiere it there.
How did you meet Martin and come to work with him on this project?
We met when a choral piece of mine was being performed at the Conservatory in Weimar where he is a professor. He asked if I’d be interested in composing a piece for him. I replied that I would first need to better understand the Organ. And so it began…
Often the music on mewl infans sounds like it’s not played on an organ at all, but electronics or field recordings but it is just solo organ, right?
Yes, it’s just solo organ. The music is composed of many shades of instrumental colour achieved through Martin’s very sensitive ears and phenomenal musicianship but also through flexible wind pressure created by pulling the stops in and out fractionally.
I composed the registration (an indication as to which stops an organist should use in each part of the music) in poetic – rather than instructional – text in order to create, together with Martin, flexible and ever-shifting timbres and soundworlds.
How did you create cohesion across such a long piece over four movements?
Throughout the larger architecture of the four movements, melodic motifs return over and over, fractured by noise, fragmented by carefully calibrated alternate tunings, dissolving into thin air, and generating drones which then transform into new melodic variations. Over the 44 minutes of the piece the organist at times attempts to exert complete control over the instrument, and at other times relinquishes all control entirely.
There has been much discussion lately around BIPOC composers and white hegemony. How do you see yourself fitting (or not) into this ongoing conversation? What is your take on the “White Out” essay by Wire editor Tony Herrington? Have you encountered much racism, overt or covert, in Germany, a country that seems to be running from its past in all the wrong ways (suppressing free speech, banning the BDS movement, etc)?
OK, this is a big question with a correspondingly detailed answer.
Yes, of course: overt and covert, in professional situations and in other aspects of life, from colleagues and people in the industry as well as from strangers.
An apt example – and one that relates to this record – is that Adam Asnan (mewl infans sound engineer and fellow bearded darkie) and I were harassed by the police on our way back to Berlin from recording in Thüringen. We were waiting for our train in the official waiting room of the train station in Erfurt – using the space in its most literal sense – when a group of cops singled us out demanding to know what we were doing, demanding our ID cards and broadcasting our details to their colleagues over their walkie-talkies awaiting confirmation or refutation of our apparent-to-them illegality. Needless to say that there were plenty of other (white) people throughout the train station and in this waiting room in particular who were left in peace by the same cops.
Whilst this might not sound like a big deal to white people, for someone to whom this happens often it is a dehumanising experience which brands one as obviously a criminal/terrorist/illegal whose use of such public spaces is fraught with anxiety and danger. You have to keep a cool head and be gracious, not argue when your right to simply be in public is aggressively policed by The State. Such situations can escalate easily.
Such racism also has a profound effect on the people who witness it. Just imagine: when you see non-white people cordoned off in public space by cops, a conversation about them being broadcast over police radio, you are being conditioned to equate such people with danger, fear, and otherness.
This sort of performative racism is magnified greatly in the German state’s collusion in the oppression of Palestine. Whilst the current culture of remembrance and responsibility surrounding the genocide of Jews, Roma, and Sinti committed by Germany during the Holocaust Era (1933-1945) and the vigilance against anti-Semitism is to be applauded, there is also a performative element to it which steers away from a real engagement with responsibility and what that means to contemporary politics towards a hysterical banning of voices and movements in support of Palestinians.
Now, speaking of hysterical performances: The Wire Magazine and Tony Herrington’s “White Out!” editorial. My take on it is: it was confusing and annoying. It sounds a like a person with immense power – as a British white dude and as the publisher of an institutional magazine with serious clout within the industry – trying to allay their guilt once racism/BLM became the mass-media flavour of the month by telling everyone “this is what I’ve been saying all along and no one has been listening to me!”, contrary to decades-long printed evidence. The strangest thing about “White Out!” is that it reads, unintentionally, like a direct criticism of The Wire itself.
Maybe I’m naive in my expectation that Herrington, the publisher of music criticism, can take some criticism from a musician. If not, I guess I’m blacklisted by The Wire. The third and most likely scenario is that he won’t even hear it as, quoting from “White Out!”, composers such as me either don’t exist or “have come to expect being ignored by this industry as a matter of course, because of course such musicians don’t make experimental music or sound art, they are not avant garde composers”.
I hope as many people who read “White Out!” also read George Lewis’ “New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps” (https://www.van-outernational.com/lewis-en/), which is an antidote to hysterical white hand-wringing and also offers real concrete solutions.