About Bernard Tan
"As a scientist, I’m trying to break new ground. As a composer, I want to express myself.” Both an esteemed professor in Physics and composer of classical music, this is the fundamental outlook that he maintains to keep these two disciplines distinct.
A self-taught composer with no formal training, Tan's encounters with music were very close to home - his first piano teacher was his uncle, and he often heard music (such as getai) being performed in the streets. Tan also sang in his church choir and attended many concerts, during which he became fascinated with orchestral textures, and began to create music in his mind. His position as a church choir conductor offered him the opportunity to experiment and hone his compositional technique by writing choral settings for the choir - The Peace of God, a choral work from the early 1970s, was one such early work that demonstrated an adeptness at part-writing and harmony.
This facility came into full light in a choral setting of local poet Lee Tzu Pheng’s politically-charged My Country and My People. Written in 1967, this poem captured the nature of the shifting social and political scene at Singapore’s independence. Tan’s fearlessly angular melodies and complex dissonances powerfully portrays the irony of the text – Tan comments, "It's a difficult piece, and I remember my good friend saying that it's a very good piece, but it's very hard to understand the writing." His piece, in turn, received a less-than-positive reception, coupled with a lukewarm review in a local paper, which described the composition as ‘rather like reading a complex sentence’.
Despite thinking that it was the “best piece of work [he] had ever done”, these circumstances led to a refocusing of his compositional priorities, as Tan wanted to communicate to the audience through music he felt they would understand. As a full-time lecturer then, the amount of time he had to write music gradually decreased, and he developed an inclination to write music in the more approachable idiom that he is known for today: his music is often characterized by a bold and unpretentious simplicity, is unabashedly melodic, and favours a traditional approach to thematic development as well as a directness and clarity in expression. His pieces have memorable tunes, rhythms, and concise themes – one such example is his “Can Do!” Overture, which uplifting fanfares and sweeping melodic lines expresses uninhibited optimism.
Tan is a traditionalist in spirit: he builds his works on established forms such as the sinfonietta and overture – notably, his output includes concerti for violin, piano, guitar and cello. All of these are characterized not just by their immediate and tuneful qualities, but also by their subtle regional flavour – the second movement of his Cello Concerto has the distinct lyrical qualities and phrase structures of getai ballads, and the flourishes in the Piano Concerto flirt with the pentatonic quality that characterizes several different ethnic musics. Later choral works (several also settings of poetry by Lee Tzu Pheng) no longer carry the anger and frustration of My Country and My People, eschewing the abrasive writing of the earlier piece for musical immediacy - Nightpiece is a gentle, quasi-lullaby evocative of the night, while Singing Bowl is a tuneful meditation on the sound of the quintessential Tibetan instrument.
This approach to composition results in music in an idiom that feels familiar and accessible to all –giving himself the appropriate distinction of being, in his word, “the most easy composer to listen to” in Singapore.