About Chen Zhangyi

There is plenty of music being written today that lapses into the arcane and inaccessible in pursuing new possibilities in music. On the flipside, there are also pieces that rely on the tried and tested yet clichéd compositional strategies of the past with no desire to push the envelope. Chen Zhangyi is a rare composer with a distinctive compositional voice that is at once familiar yet undeniably fresh – his music deftly treads the line between the traditional and avant-garde.

Engaged with music from his youth, Chen took violin lessons and participated actively in his school choir. At this formative age, he was privileged to have discovered the work of local composers such as Kelly Tang, Kam Kee Yong and Leong Yoon Pin. In particular, hearing his seniors rehearsing Leong’s Street Calls, a work that conjures up the scene of street hawkers, was particularly meaningful to him – he was struck by how Leong seamlessly weaved the Cantonese dialect into an acapella sound world, giving the work a relatable and distinctive local flavour. Also notable to him was Kam Kee Yong’s Cicada, a solo violin work which evoked the buzzing sounds of the eponymous insect. It wasn’t long before he began to hear melodies in his head and started writing his own.

In the spirit of Leong, several of Chen’s works involve an exploration of Singaporean culture through music. Notable is his Singapore Trilogy, a triptych of chamber operas with distinct local themes. Reflecting the gamut of Singaporean preoccupations, like food (Laksa Cantata) and shopping (Window Shopping) while also being set in familiar backdrops like a kopitiam (Kopi for One), an extra layer of relatability is communicated through the text and music. The libretto, written by Jack Lin, is peppered with local colloquialisms and expressions – this text is set to music in a way that reflects the characteristic inflections of Singaporean speech. His other major dramatic work, Pursuant is a musical set in an imaginary dystopian nation called SingaCorp – through its many references to Singaporean culture, it deals with the dichotomy between aspiration and conformity, a theme relatable to people growing up in Singapore’s pragmatic society. 

Chen’s instrumental works often take inspiration from the beauty of the natural world, these often also relate to the Singaporean landscape. Works like Rain Tree, for orchestra, was inspired by the poem by the late Singaporean poet Ho Poh Fun – in this piece he captures with muted orchestral colours and sinuous melodies the beauty and subtleties not just of Ho’s text, but also of the ubiquitous rain tree in Singapore. The more recent Vanda is a violin concerto inspired by the ‘Garden City’ tagline, juxtaposing music that reflects the greenery of Singapore against music that captures the bustle of city life. His ability to employ ideas that are familiar to the Singaporean listener lend his music an extra layer of relatability, inviting the listener to encounter his enchanting and unique compositional soundworld.