Photo Essay: Soundscaping Singapore’s fading wilderness with Botanical Orchestra


A collaboration between two young local artists, Botanical Orchestra is an exploration of an imaginary landscape created using data collected from natural environments in Singapore. This avant-garde cross-platform alliance between a musician and a visual artist kicked off earlier this year and has manifested itself as a fascinating marriage between nature and technology as the duo explore Singapore’s fading greenery to seek out and promote the importance of such habitats.

While the nation’s wildlife still exist, the Botanical Orchestra lads have made use of their creative expertise to preserve its landscapes: one records the resonance of nature and integrates electronic tones into the soundscape while the other captures the visual kaleidoscope of these hidden locales. Coconuts Singapore follows their journey during two of their expeditions and check out the beauty of what they do deep in the heart of the country’s wilderness. 

26-year-old visual artist Heider Ismail plays the role of visual and physical sample collector in the project. Operating under the moniker Super System, the Lasalle College of the Arts undergrad has had his pieces displayed in international exhibitions in Singapore and London, focusing on art projects that fuse science, data and design. Aside from Botanical Orchestra, he’s working on a new creative initiative entitled Lepak

Outside his job as a freelance sound designer, Louis Quek is more popularly known as DJ and electronic music producer Intriguant, who released his debut EP Ellipse last year under renowned audio-visual collective and label SYNDICATE, while also attracting fans from all over performing in various shows across Singapore including the 100 Bands Festival and Bandwagon Music Market 2014. 

How did this ambitious project take root in the first place?  “Al-Jilani. Nuff said.” Heider laughs. “Well not really — I was working on a school project similar to Botanical Orchestra, but decided to shelve it as I had other plans for that module. Lou was from the same college as me and we’ve been good friends for quite a bit so I thought it was time we should work on something together.”

Quek agrees. “Yes, like how all great ideas started from Al-Jilani Restaurant, this is one of them. When Heider told me about this project, I found it pretty interesting to produce music using the natural ambience of the jungle as a main sound palette.” 

Throughout their repeated expeditions into Singapore’s little-known wilderness, the duo are accompanied by a small, revolving ensemble of other creatives who render assistance in any way they can, while also providing the much needed good company and laughs during the strenuous treks. And strenuous it was, walking beyond the trodden trails and footpaths, venturing deeper into the lesser-known sections of the forest in search of more accurate visual and aural data of our surroundings. Numerous times we had to bash our way through the foliage only to stumble across forgotten clearings, fallen trees and unmarked reservoirs. The almighty Google Maps provided our much-needed bearings when we lost our way. 

The further we could get away from civilization and artificial sounds, the better it was for Quek to collect his audio samples. Ever ready with his Zoom H6 portable recorder (complete with a furry red windscreen possibly made out of troll doll hair), he motions us to keep silent every time he picks up an interesting atmospheric tone — the tall grass shivering in the wind; the sound of groundwater gushing out from fractures in the soil; the communicative warbles and chirps between the birds across the canopy. Other times, he induces the chords of nature, stepping gingerly on twigs, rustling up the crisp dead leaves on the ground and thumping his fist on tree bark. 

The locations that we trekked in —off Kranji and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve — provided distinct variances in the audio he recorded. Bukit Timah’s proximity to the quarry meant the presence of more wildlife and flowing water sources, while the dryer Kranji offered a windier resonance.

“Each forested area carries its own individual sonic characteristics. The soundscapes recorded differs from one another and sometimes sounds are discovered by chance which makes the trip even more interesting,” remarks Quek. “The collections of sound are categorized into their respected musical element such as soundscapes, percussions, etcetera”. 

“Every natural environment differs from one another. For example, when we were bashing through the jungle at Location 3, there was a plethora of termite mounds. Location 1 on the other hand had an unusual huge body of still water,” Heider recalls. You would never expect it to be there cause of the area where its located at. The flora growing in all these areas are pretty different from one another too.”

Heider, as collector of visual elements, takes a more independent approach to his documentation. As Quek zones in by himself listening in to his surroundings through the recorder, Heider readies his Canon 550D and his field kit of various lenses to take pictures and record footage of his collaborator and the natural environment around him. Instead of mainly shooting landscapes, Heider locks his focus on the distinct features of the sites, be it the still mangroves of Bukit Timah or the oscillating overgrown grass of Kranji. He often wanders off into the greenery by himself, returning with a multitude of vibrantly colorful ferns and flowers, all of which are kept snug in mini ziploc bags. 

On how they decide on which places to explore, Heider points out that each location represents a cardinal direction of Singapore, making sure to visit a forested area in the northern, southern, eastern and western regions as equal representations. “It was challenging for us to find places to explore actually due to the fact that most of these natural environments are restricted areas. There are still pockets of accessible natural environments though. You’ve just got to go out and seek them. Oh yes, Google Maps too.” 

The duration that the duo take during each Botanical Orchestra expedition varies from time to time — our trip at Kranji lasted a couple of hours (could’ve taken even lesser if Quek hadn’t forgotten to bring an extra battery pack for his recorder) while the trek into Bukit Timah Nature Reserve stretched from 11am to 5pm, as we literally walked for over 14km, ending up in the Central Water Catchment before finally reaching civilization in Upper Thomson. 

All that time isolated from the hustle and bustle of the civilization however was truly a rejuvenating experience, and the one-ness between the Botanical Orchestra lads and nature couldn’t have been more apparent deep in the wilderness. “Growing up in a city takes away the importance of being in a natural environment and I believe most Singaporeans have never seen the beauty of this small little island. It’ll be good to expose people to these places before they’re turned into HDB flats,” Heider notes. “On a personal level, I like going outfield.”

Quek on the other hand, enjoys the hiking workout and the soothing experience of being around nature. “Even through some of the sound recordings we could hear the human-made sounds of traffic and construction underlying the natural soundscape. One day, the urban city sound will be too overwhelming and the delicate sound of nature will soon disappear.”

Now that their documentation phase for Botanical Orchestra is over, the lads will be going into the post-production chapter of the project, as they begin working deeper with the sounds and visuals of what they gathered during their expeditions that will soon culminate into an art exhibition set for launch later this year. Heider excitedly talks about one of the artworks, where he’ll be converting the sonic data gathered from the locations into physical landscapes via processing before 3D-printing it out. On Quek’s part, his wizardry with organic samples and synthetic sounds will only be revealed in due time. 

Stay updated on their progress on their Facebook page

Photos: Ilyas Sholihyn / Coconuts Singapore

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