B2B: Aquarian x Sougwen Chung
With his debut album due for release this month, we asked DJ and producer Aquarian to discuss the making of the album and his collaboration with artist and researcher Sougwen Chung
Musician/artist collaborations are hardly a new thing, but the depth of collaboration can differ greatly. For his debut album, The Snake That Eats Itself – due out on 14 February via Bedouin Records – Canadian-born, Berlin-based DJ and producer Chris Leung, aka Aquarian, requested the assistance of acclamée artist and researcher Sougwen Chung for its art direction.
The pair have known each other for years, and recently collaborated on Chung’s Exquisite Corpus installation, for which Leung provided the musical score. As well as returning the favour in the form of the art direction for Leung’s debut, Chung will also be collaborating with him on the production of an accompanying live A/V show, which is currently in development for later this year.
Ahead of the release of the album, we asked Leung and Chung to have a conversation about their separate artistic practices and how they came to collaborate on this project.
Aquarian: Boring question, but what's your relationship with music? When did it start factoring into your practice and how?
Sougwen Chung: You know, it’s not one I get asked very much.
Well, I have a background as a classically trained violinist and pianist. But I think music culture and its ties to the early internet had a greater influence on my current practice, especially electronic music and the visual art surrounding that really resonated with me.
I started out working with musicians and labels when I first moved to NYC – Sepalcure, Ghostly International, Percussion Lab, Hotflush – where I was developing my approach as a visual artist. It was probably through those communities I became intrigued with installation art, and what could be accomplished with that form.
I do think that's one of the refreshing parallels about our collaboration; we both have a background in music/visuals. I have always really loved your photography, so perhaps this question mirrors yours, but I consider you to be a multidisciplinary artist. Does your background as a photographer influence your music practice at all, or are they separate? I'd be curious to know more about your trajectory as a musician actually. I feel like I've had an ambient social awareness of it, but I wonder how you'd describe it?
Yeah, I think I'm a multidisciplinary artist, although the visual side is a lot less prominent right now. To be completely honest, I don't think my photography influences my music directly, although they are similar sources of inspiration for both.
Would you hate me if I asked what your inspirations are?
No, not at all.
I know that can be such a cliched question, but I'm genuinely curious.
My photographic work was heavily influenced by a school of photography that draws its inspiration and reference from cinema, mostly staged and related to film still photographers, like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall...
Cindy Sherman for life.
I've found the medium of cinema to be a big influence on me since I was young, from the films themselves to the soundtracks. And for a period of time when I was small I'd find myself just listening to film scores.
Re: multi-disciplinary, I really appreciate when an aesthetic and conceptual sensibility can be carried out across a variety of mediums. You learn so much more about the artist that way.
Ooh fave film score? Clint Mansell's Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, unsurprisingly, kicked me in the face when I was younger.
It's hilarious because I don't know if I have one currently, but I do remember the music from the Bourne movies – composed by John Powell – being particularly influential to me. They're action movies after all, but for the genre I'd say quite inventive and thoughtful generally.
I can see your music being described as cinematic as well; the scoring work I've listened to of yours, definitely – it’s a kind of worldbuilding.
Yes, definitely. I think it's more about the sensibility of transportation and worldbuilding that's important to me.
Yeah, something I'm thinking about too with the A/V show – what environment the set evokes, what the visual language of the textures, rhythm could be.
It makes me curious about how you would compare the process of creating a record like The Snake that Eats Itself vs composing a score for an installation. Are they similar? The outcome of the form is so different. More generally, do you have the audience in mind when writing music?
Yeah, I'd say for the LP the writing style is definitely different. There was definitely an audience or at least context in mind, moving from music geared for direct club/DJ use to something that is meant to be absorbed and not necessarily designed to facilitate partying. I’d say that function is the middle ground between "club music" and something more contemplative and cinematic like the scoring.
Yeah, that's one of its strengths. It also demands more of the genre too – whatever genre means in 2020 anyway.
FWIW, I just asked some of our mutual friends what I should ask you in this interview and the results are very entertaining: what is the most underrated cut of meat?
What hair product do you use?
Lol. I really want to keep that for the interview.
What are the challenges of creating this new A/V set vs something like DJing? Both are performances/performative.
At some point maybe we can talk about how we both know each other too, for context. This interview can have a little context, as a treat.
I think it relates to the above, right? The A/V set uses the language of club music, but hopefully can speak to the audiences beyond that context. The rules of ebb and flow are a lot more loose, or rather there should be no rules. The DJ is a performer but also a facilitator; the live musician is free from the latter.
Yeah, I like the idea of the DJ as a facilitator. It’s weird but I hadn't really thought about it like that until more recently, the kind of dialogue they create with the room.
You worked with Sepalcure many years ago, which was when I met you – huge fan and very important music to me, shout out Praveen and Travis.
God, that was so long ago – shout out Praveen and Travis.
I think that’s one thing that still fascinates me about music culture, perhaps electronic music culture in particular. It’s constantly changing, hard to pin down.
Given the amount of time that's passed and how your own practice has evolved over the years, what is different or the same in the way that you are approaching this collaboration?
Oh yeah, that's a great question.
We could even talk about style-wise how different my music is or the fact that I consider this more a very collaborative process – and talking about letting go of my own control freak sensibilities.
Hah. High Expectations Asian Father meme here!
My approach to this A/V show is definitely more narrative than the work that was done with Sepalcure. I think about visuals differently than I used to, and your music has more of that cinematic arc, which in a way is more challenging.
To tie into the notion of worldbuilding too, my interests in my own practice involve a certain amount of speculation about the future, so I'd like to bring a bit of that thinking, inspiration, research into the concept of the Aquarian show. And the music speaks well to that – examples of musicians that do that off the top of my head are Holly Herndon’s Proto show or Max Cooper's A/V show, for instance.
Killer. Okay, as we've gotten pretty deep into this, let's see if we have any more expository or chill questions. What's your favourite food?
I would eat Szechuan food as my last meal forever. In particular, dan dan mein, which I am trying to perfect. Chinese street food, in general.
That's a better question: last meal.
My last meal would be a tour de force, broad spectrum exploration of all the cuisines of the world. and it would last maybe eight hours.
Last meal: all the mala spice my mortal husk can handle. NO REGRETS.