Bernard TAN: My Country and My People, for SATB choir and piano (text by Lee Tzu Pheng) (1977)
page 1 of score
The work of composer Bernard Tan is known for its simplicity, optimism and directness in expression. My Country and My People is an anomaly - written in 1977 for the Singapore University Madrigal Singers, the harmonies in the music are noticeably dissonant, the melodies angular and pointed in capturing the irony and mildly sardonic flavour of the text. The composer states that he “changed [his] style after My Country and My People as no one understood [his] music then.”
HOH Chung Shih: i’mpulses, for keyboard (2017-18)
page 1 of score
The exploratory, questioning spirit embodied in all of Hoh Chung Shih’s music is very much evident in this peculiar work for keyboard. A companion piece to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, the performer at several points follows “portals” emblazoned onto Stockhausen’s score – these leading directly into the differentiated sound world of Hoh’s i’mpulses. In his words, “Why would I do something so seemingly daft?” The end result, while likely disorienting, encourages a re-evaluation of the sonic attributes present in the Stockhausen, while drawing attention to its features and details through contrast. While Tierkreis deals with the pitch and rhythm of musical materials, i’mpulses deals directly with the physicality and mechanism of musical performance, as evident from the score shown.
Joyce KOH: TAI, for orchestra (1998, rev. 2002)
page 15 of score
A manifestation of Joyce Koh’s interest in calligraphy, TAI is the painting of an “aural calligraphy with the sound palette of the orchestra”: various features of the music, from the structure of the piece to the shaping of musical figurations, are influenced by this art form. Shown is a page of music where the usual 5 groups of string players are divided into several smaller sections, each of these responsible for their own tiny detail of sound: sonically, this is likely analogous to the various intricacies and textures present in a work of calligraphy. Commissioned in 1998 by the National Arts Council for the Singapore Festival of Arts in 1998, TAI has gone on to be performed by other orchestras: most notably the eminent BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Kelly TANG: Symphonic Suite on a set of Local Tunes, for orchestra (2004)
page 8 of score
Kelly Tang’s Symphonic Suite is likely one of the most performed local orchestral works written in recent years. Not merely a collection of four local tunes (Home, Chan Mali Chan, Bunga Sayang, Singapore Heartbeat), it aims to “unlock the boundless creative potential that lies latent within our songs”. Tang transcends these original melodies by exploiting the symphonic potential innate in them: along with fistfuls of charm and wit, the end result is a piece much greater than the sum of its parts. The page of music shows a rich, Hollywood-esque interpretation of the popular tune Home.
TAN Chan Boon: 3 Concert Etudes for Solo Violin, op. 36 (2000)
page 1 of score
Tan Chan Boon’s fearsome-looking Concert Etudesfor Solo Violin demonstrate a deep understanding and love for the instrument and its history: the winding figurations and wild flourishes of the first etude conjure the spirits of Paganini and Ysaÿe, composers known for their fiendish music for violin. That is not to suggest that the music is merely virtuoso fluff: the second piece is a coquettish dance, full of elegant charm and understated wit. Perhaps most expressive is the music from the last etude, titled “Adagio – Mahler Remembering” (not shown) – a slow, simple melody full of romantic excess that in the course of its unfolding quotes fragments of music from the great symphonist Mahler.
TSAO Chieh: Singapore, Symphonic Suite for Large Orchestra: V. Finale: The Republic (1984-85)
page 12 of score
Clocking in at more than forty minutes, Tsao Chieh’s Singapore is possibly one of the most substantial local orchestral works ever performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Inspired by C.M. Turnbull’s “A History of Singapore 1819-1975”, it is a collection of five orchestral “scenes”, each depicting a different period in the nation’s development. Tsao was a gifted melodist: the excerpt above shows what Tsao referred to as the “theme of peace and harmony” being played by the horn – upon hearing this melody during a performance of the Suite, Minister Teo Chee Hean suggested that the beautiful melody be used for a national song. This led to the national song, My Dream, posthumously set to lyrics by Linda Fang.
LEONG Yoon Pin: Sunset, for SATB choir (text by Leong Yoon Pin/William Blake) (2005)
page 2 of score
Composer Leong Yoon Pin often drew from local experiences in writing his music, this ranging from the calls of street hawkers to the cacophony of a Chinese wedding. Sunset conjures up the scene of “multi-racial workers [bidding] each other a pleasant evening” at the end of a work day. In evoking this in music, Leong brings together an eclectic variety of texts and musical resources, juxtaposing a tri-lingual text that he penned himself with an adaptation of a poem by English poet William Blake (shown above) while also assimilating the characteristic sounds of ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian music into the piece.
Emily KOH: jia[k] (2014)
page 34 of score
Composer Emily Koh loves hawker food – jia[k], commissioned by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, reflects this fondness. Fiery brass figurations and wafting lyrical fragments are judiciously layered, these dominating the discourse of this piece of music: the end result is a dense but controlled cacophony, comparable to the sensory excess that one would associate with a local hawker centre. Preceding the coda of the work is an elaborate double bass feature (shown above), a somewhat audacious inclusion in an orchestral piece – Koh’s deft handling of the writing here both reflects an affinity with the instrument and her upbringing as a bass player.
Alicia DE SILVA: Fire (2017)
page 2 of score
Not just a composer of contemporary music in a Western Classical tradition, Alicia de Silva’s interest in various forms of traditional music has led to several contributions to the repertoire for Anklung Kulintang ensemble. A conductor of several in various local primary and secondary schools, Fire was written for the ensemble in CHIJ St. Joseph’s Convent, which she directs. Through her work for young musicians, De Silva aims to create music that broadens their musical horizons and encourage imagination and creativity; in the above page, the use of aleatoric compositional techniques offers these young performers an element of freedom in musical interpretation and direction.
CHEN Zhangyi: Laksa Cantata (text by Jack Lin) (2012, rev. 2018)
page 34 of score
The first of the ‘Singapore Trilogy’, a trio of chamber operas based on Singaporean themes, Laksa Cantata pays homage to J.S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata with a similarly food-centred dramatic narrative. The plot explores the relationship between the two protagonists as they debate the catering options for their upcoming wedding reception. The above page shows Stephen, the male lead, waxing lyrical about the alluring qualities of a bowl of laksa – like in much of the opera, the vocal writing here noticeably reflects the characteristic inflections of the Singaporean vernacular.
Diana SOH: A is for Aiyah, for soprano and orchestra (text by James R. Currie) (2017)
page 6 of score
Born of philosophical musings on the function of language and words in society, A is for Aiyah has a solo soprano work through a fragmented garble of words and letters in search for order and meaning – the abstraction of language in this regard heightens the spontaneously musical and violently expressive aspects of these seemingly-incoherent sounds. Notable in several of Diana Soh’s pieces is an appreciation of the spectacle of live performance: she believes that “concert music is to be watched as well as listened to.” This is evident in the soloist’s part, which is peppered with theatrical directions like “freeze!” or, in the final measures of the music, “push conductor off the podium” (not pictured above).