On Our Radar is a VICE Asia series that profiles young, upcoming creatives across the Asia-Pacific, giving an inside look into their interests, communities and inspirations.
It’s often tough to break away from conventional expectations and make a dynamic move away from what you’re familiar with. For Singaporean musician Mervin Wong, that safe space was classical music, and that great unknown of limitless prospects was electronic music.
Mervin started his musical career playing the violin and the viola, having majored in the latter at school and progressed into years of conservatory training. The devotion to honing his craft was all-consuming, and his 128GB iPod Classic “filled with classical music” is a time capsule of those early days.
“There wasn't music from any other genres. I had completely locked myself in and I was completely focused.”
And while most would regard that total devotion as a positive force in his growth as a classical musician, surprising advice came from Mervin’s mentor at the time. “My viola teacher who is Lionel Tan of the T’ang Quartet asked me to take a step back and look at what else is out there,” he said.
Mervin soon discovered what exactly was “out there” when an internship landed him an opportunity to be backstage at a major festival, while the likes of Jon Hopkins, FKA Twigs, and St Vincent were on stage performing.
“That was my first exposure to electronic music, and when I saw the power of a live performance in such a high-energy setting, it evoked something that inspired me.” He recalled, “I started to question why I was focusing so strongly on classical music when the same essence could just as well be found in other forms and genres. I kept an open mind from then onwards, which led to the world of electronic music.”
He described the essence he witnessed on that day as spirituality. A connection which he thinks has the power to “transcend the musician and the audience to a place of purity.” That transcendence is no doubt a reflection of his own journey — from a classically trained performer to genre-bending producer.
Mervin enveloped himself in his newfound appreciation for electronic music while still at the conservatory, releasing his first digitally produced album Aphelion in 2018, along with a series of collaborative works with local artists and filmmakers. Imbuing his new explorative works with the familiar sounds of his past, he weaves harmonies from the viola and electric violin into deeply contemplative and moving catalogues of music.
“I realised at some point how these two seemingly different realms intertwined, and they both were a balancing act of simplicity, subtlety and complexity. One thing essential to my shift from solely the classical realm is the idea of genres as gateways to different identities, cultures and subcultures, values and viewpoints. It is this variety and colour of human experience that I am excited to explore.”
More recently as Planeswalker, Mervin is set to release Perihelion, a four-track EP which shows his increasing confidence in exploring aural space, transcending classification and getting closer to the sun. It is a work that is comfortable moving through musical styles, disciplines and dimensions, and does not shy away from ambiguity of interpretation.
“Perihelion is a 20-minute listening journey, to let your subconscious and your imaginations lead you through. It’s not necessarily narrative in nature, nor is it completely abstract. Perihelion brings you through this audio-visual wandering. I say audio-visual because I like to think that Perihelion aids in conjuring subliminal imagery within us when we listen to it as a journey.”
It’s fascinating that the otherworldly Planeswalker sound comes from a place where Mervin has finally found his footing: “With Perihelion, I would say that I'm in a place where I'm more certain and more grounded. I'm further pushing on trying to blur the boundaries and definition of electronic music as a genre. I want to transcend that. With Perihelion, the objective was always to push the amalgamation [of classical and electronic music] to its limits.”
We caught up with Mervin and talked about his beliefs, his bad days, and what the future looks like for him.
I believe that… music and sound are expressions of energy, which is why they hold the power to evoke emotions, imagery, and nostalgia within us.
My friends say I am… too dreamy and idealistic.
But I like to think I am… exploring multiple realities.
I’ve been working on… my album, Perihelion.
I’m inspired by… artists who are able to stick to their beliefs and stay true to themselves.
Recently I’ve been really into… the FKA twigs live performance at the Valentino men's collection for Paris Fashion Week, where she performed songs from her album Magdalene. What I find really amazing is how much it differs from the album. Her album was designed in a way that you can’t really replicate the songs live unless you use a backing track. The way she re-interpreted the songs for this performance was so amazing. Things like this are really what inspires me to perform.
You can usually find me at... my studio near Coney Island, Singapore. There’s this stretch where you can sit on the steps and look out into the water and disappear. It really clears my mind.
On bad days I… try to work through it objectively. Knowing that it’s just a bad day, acknowledging it, not being too critical of myself, and looking to move forward, at least until the next day.
I live for… being able to have the privilege to create work and share it with the world. That’s the one thing I would live and die by.
In five years I… hope to grow more as a person and to connect to people more, not just through my art, but in general. I feel that collaboration has been key to the creative process of my new album and how it will be treated. It’s at a point where I’m very inspired by my collaborators.
Planeswalker’s ‘Perihelion’ is out now on all major streaming platforms.