About Zechariah Goh
Composers of contemporary Classical music today are often fixated on breaking new ground and creating new sounds – for better or worse, there is a veritable clutter of musical ideas for composers to get lost in. The music of Zechariah Goh sidesteps this fog – he eschews a blind chase of the novel for a heightened focus on tradition in all its forms, from the contrapuntal mastery of the greats of the classical music canon to the cultural traditions that provide the basis for his identity as a Singaporean.
Goh’s early experiences with music were varied: as a primary school student, he attended recorder lessons, played the trumpet in his school band, and sang in his Church choir. An affinity with music led to the pursuit of piano studies in both the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Kansas. Composition, however was always something that he wanted to pursue in greater depth. These formative experiences as a pianist provided him with the experience required to write his own music, and before long Goh had switched disciplines, fulfilling commissions for choir and going on to obtain his DMA in Composition.
Having also been drawn to classical Chinese, Malay and Indian musics at a young age due to the ready availability of traditional music programmes in the past, the employment of ideas derived from music of these traditions have become an intuitive part of his compositional process. A notable example in this regard is Sang Nila, a work for large wind orchestra and chorus that juxtaposes the exotic sounds of Gamelan instruments with an ensemble of Western instruments, recontextualizing the beauty of these traditional instruments and highlighting their distinctiveness. Other works in this spirit include his Reminiscences of Hainan, an arrangement of a Hainanese folk song that recalls the calm and simplicity of a Hainanese peasant village in reflecting his Hainanese background.
Goh remarks, "It becomes very helpful for me to think about music that is related to my roots and my tradition." To him, folk music is a means of reconnecting with one’s heritage, especially as a citizen of a young country with a short history – he encourages students to work with folk music for this very purpose. However, folk music is but a starting point for this process. In several works, Goh goes beyond this by engaging with the tradition of Chinese literature: choral pieces like Peng and The Happiness of Fish are built on stories and philosophical ideas derived from these explorations, the latter piece being a telling of Zhuangzi’s well-known whimsical story.
While Goh feels a deep affiliation with traditional Eastern musics and cultures, it of course does not exclude a similar connection to that of traditional Western music – after all, his experiences as an accomplished pianist, along with earlier counterpoint studies with composer Leong Yoon Pin, have led to a long-held admiration for the masterful music of Bach. Sometimes, this manifests in subtle ways – in his Interfusion, for two pianos, a theme that incorporates Bach’s musical cipher (with the notes B-A-C-H) is transformed through elaborate quasi-canonic processes. Other times Goh is more explicit, like in Homage, for saxophone quartet – the work is a reimagining of a Bach-ian invention for saxophone quartet, with the traditional form being filtered through his more chromatic musical language. Other instrumental compositions like Blossoms and Iridescence, both orchestral compositions that do not draw from folk material, go on to demonstrate an adeptness for controlling sprawling polyphonic musical textures.
Goh’s oeuvre is evidence of the timelessness of traditional ideas both Eastern and Western, and their ability to spur a highly individual and deeply personal output of music.