Profile: Shueh-Li Ong

Published on 3 February 2015

No, she’s not stabbing the air. Musician Shueh-li Ong is merely playing the theremin.

BY PAMELA HO

Shueh-li Ong has been hailed ‘Singapore’s first and only diva of the theremin’ by The Straits Times and indeed, this US-based Singapore artist remains one of a handful of professional thereminists in the world.

The theremin is one of the oldest electronic musical instruments and the only one played without touch. Invented by Russian Leon Theremin around 1919, it consists of a box-like body with two antennae: a vertical rod that controls pitch and a horizontal loop controlling volume.

“It may look to the audience like I’m stabbing the air or pulling an invisible string. Basically, I use discrete finger movements with the right hand for pitch and the left hand for articulation and phrasing,” Ong explains.

Classically trained in piano, Ong holds a Bachelor of Music (Performance) from the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium and a Graduate Diploma in Contemporary Music Technology from La Trobe University, Australia, specialising in sound engineering, computer programming and music synthesis.

Her unique combination of skills in music and technology led her to establish a performance art group, Electric Muse Singapore, in 1998. As director, she designs concerts and music for theatre and multimedia performances. In 2004, she launched her show concept, Xenovibes.

A sonic meeting of instruments ranging from synthesizers to theremins and electronic drums, Xenovibes made its American debut in 2005, attracting over 4,000 people to the Dallas Museum of Art. Since then, Ong has performed in electronic music festivals across the United States and has released four albums, which she wrote, recorded and produced. She is currently based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Besides public performances, Ong also accepts private students, conducts masterclasses and lectures. She’s currently back in Singapore as adjunct lecturer for Singapore Polytechnic’s Music & Audio Technology diploma course for a semester, and plans to return annually.

Ong is proud of her eclectic roots and the myriad influences that define her music style. “I assembled an arsenal of instruments that would make up my signature style: synthesizers to represent my training, the guqin and tin whistle to represent my Chinese and Australian heritage, and the theremin to tie me to the beginnings of electronic music.”

As for future plans, Ong discloses, with a twinkle in her eye, “I’m keen to produce a festival of virtuosic electronic music. Perhaps Singapore would like to host the inaugural event?”

To find out more about Shueh-li Ong, visit www.shuehli.com.

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