By Shahril Salleh
(1,000 words, 6-minute read)
New music is the epitome of unfamiliar territory. Even as someone who read music at university, often I find myself unprepared (and even dreading) to watch new music concerts. Part of my own anxieties comes from a need to know and be familiar with what is being performed. Another part of the anxiety is the possibility of my own preferences in style and harmony being challenged. Yet at the same time, attending and appreciating new music performances should be encouraged. I feel strongly that such concerts should be regarded as opportunities for our own musical and personal growth. Going to concerts should not only be about listening to what we like (That’s what YouTube and Spotify is for – yay for fibre broadband and the internet!). As a musician, I go to learn how performers and composers embody and challenge the medium of performance, and how the boundaries of music technique and the musical imagination are redefined. Dialogues And Reflections is one such new music concert.
A collaborative effort between the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) and the Asian Composers League-Korea (ACL-Korea), this concert features the works of three Singaporean and four South Korean composers. These works were written for three distinct instrumental mediums – double piano, viola with the occasional percussion, and solo bass clarinet. Prior to the performance of each piece, the respective composers shared their thought processes and reflections of the piece and its performance, which I found invaluable. These descriptions primed the audience with context with which to better appreciate each performance.
The concert opened with The Temple Bells for two pianos written by Yu Do-won, and was expertly performed by the B-L Piano Duo consisting of Bertram Wee and Lynnette Yeo. This work evoked the nostalgic aural memories of the composer’s visits to the Buddhist temples of his childhood. Sonorous wide intervals were interspersed throughout the piece, left ringing by a generous application of the sostenuto pedal. In the background, the trailing decay mixed with the sympatico reverberation of the sound allowed audiences to almost hear the pealing of the temple bells and experience the quietude of temple life.
The next piece was Darren Sng’s Hickory Dickory Dock for bass clarinet solo and was performed by Daniel Yiau. This whimsical work musically painted the childhood nursery rhyme of the same title and demonstrated both technical mastery as well as the vivid imagination of the composer and performer, expressed through the use of percussive fingering, vocalisation, glottalised attacks and flexible embouchure. On this note, I was mildly amused that my pet peeve of being able to hear the overzealous clacking of woodwind keys was transformed into a form of musical expression.
The next three pieces, Paik Young-eun’s Back To Dust, Chen Zhangyi’s Four Reflections, and Chung Saehoon’s Nebenwege featured Christoven Tan on solo viola. I must admit that these three pieces were my favourite part of the concert. Each featured the imaginative use of the viola’s expressive performance techniques. Back To Dust employed the use of harmonic overtones, percussion instruments, and wide vibratos that is reminiscent of Korean pansori singing, as a means to represent the bildungsroman journey of a person’s life. Four Reflections truly captured its namesake as a contemplative piece, with delicately performed harmonic overtones and pizzicato arpeggios bringing the audience into a meditative state. In contrast, the last viola performance, Nebenwege, was initially a hard piece to listen. As the music unravelled with the scratching of the strings and heavy bowing, I experienced a sense of macabre anticipation. But my appreciation for the piece grew as the performance progressed, and my mind drifted through images of long car rides in canopy covered roads at night. Whilst all the performers performed brilliantly, I must single out the technical brilliance of Christoven, whose performance in all three pieces kept me engaged (and for the last piece, on edge) throughout.
The next work brought Daniel Yiau and the bass clarinet back on stage. Chung Seung Jae’s Dialogues is a brilliant depiction of what I imagine to be a very awkward conversation between an introvert and an extrovert – misplaced enthusiasm and energy, repeated words and phrases (because someone didn’t respond the first two times the other spoke) and the quiet and sometimes monosyllabic response. Here, Daniel displayed a finesse in performing out this conversation with overblowing, percussive breaths and flawlessly executing the large leaps as he shifted characters. What I appreciated about this particular performance was how at ease Daniel was in this piece, clearly showing that he was having fun in performing the work. It was a candid performance, and in many ways, intimate and entertaining.
The programme for Dialogues And Reflections ended with Ho Ching Shih’s Rub Dub for two pianos, with the B-L Piano Duo performing. Rub Dub for me was a performance art piece – a beautiful visual and aural presentation. Bertram and Lynette made an impressive performance with large, empathetic gestures that initially mirrored one another, and then later phased out of synchronicity. The presentation of clusters and arpeggiation as well as the in-phase and out-of-phase exchanges between the two pianists made clear the intent of the composer to allow listeners to experience a diffraction to the flow of time. The B-L Piano Duo has remarkable ensemble and admirable showmanship, and this piece really allowed them to demonstrate it.
In retrospect, I found the programming for Dialogues And Reflections to be quite exquisite, and the duration of the concert (about an hour of performances) sufficiently short and enjoyable. Hence I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of audience members. I should point out however that the poster and programme booklet for Dialogues And Reflections had a homely DIY feel to it. This by itself is not a bad thing per se, but in this age of digital ocular-centricity, marketing and packaging is king. I look forward to the next installation of CSS’ performance, and perhaps next time they could work their newly minted insta and fb accounts with swankier collaterals. I would also like to encourage more people to come and watch concerts such as this. The only thing you need is your imagination and a sense of wonder.
Dialogues And Reflections took place on 20 August 2019 at the Esplanade Recital Studio, Singapore. It was organised by Composers Society of Singapore, in collaboration with Asian Composers League-Korea (ACL-Korea).
Shahril Salleh is currently a PhD Candidate (ABD) of Sociology from the School of Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University. His research examines the relationships between arts practitioners and the State. Part of his research involves going to concerts and performances and having long and deep conversations with arts practitioners from different disciplines over tea and cake (and sometimes biscuits). In his spare time, he directs a local non-auditioned community choir and volunteers as a mentor to his peers as well as to underserved communities.