Jamie Chan

UNHEARD: Hearing Singapore women composers loud and clear

In the notoriously male-dominated classical music sphere, seven Singaporean women composers take centre-stage.

“When do women get to be heard for who we are?” That was the question raised by Rachel Lim, a Singaporean soprano and UNHEARD’s founder at the start of the concert. Lim started the UNHEARD concert series back in 2019 in Boston in order to highlight music created by women, and this edition, its fourth, spotlights the music of seven superb Singaporean female composers. UNHEARD: Celebrating Singaporean Female Composers heralds a first for Singapore, the nine pieces of the night representing a tangential shift towards women-centric music compositions in a field where male compositions feature heavily. Despite the rainy weather, there was an air of anticipation amongst the audience that had gathered in the intimate Chamber of The Arts House to witness the musical prowess of Singaporean female composers and chamber music collective L’arietta Productions. 

The concert opened with veteran composer Emily Koh’s chronoma, a combination of the Greek roots chroma (colour) and chronos (time). Influenced by Koh’s time studying Balinese gamelan in Indonesia, combinations of multiple melodies and rhythmic patterns underscored bursts of saxophone melodies accentuated by gong-like sounds and the tapping of individual piano keys. Interestingly, the music’s exploratory quality spurred me to focus on micro-fragments of music, such as the eerily high saxophone register and delicate percussive textures towards the music’s ending, reminiscent of a bird escaping from threat with urgency.  

Next up was composer Sandra Lim’s Morning Memories performed by violinist Brenda Koh and pianist Pauline Lee. Inspired by Lim’s contemplations about the beginning of each new day, gently played arpeggiated octaves evoked the first rays of morning sunlight. This tranquil introduction gradually transitioned to uplifting sounds of the warm violin timbre, accompanied by the piano’s unshrinking approach before returning to a more wistful echo of its opening theme.  

The audience was then treated to the premiere of Koh Cheng Jin’s animated composition The Fungus, inspired by Douglas Stewart’s spirited poem of the same name. The piece was presented as a video recording as singer Akiko Otao was down with COVID, but this didn’t affect its artistry – with soprano lines beautifully exaggerated by Otao accompanied by Lee’s dynamic piano playing effectively portraying the unpredictable fungus of the original text. In Koh’s second composition, inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Time and Again, tenor Jonathan Charles Tay and pianist Lee delivered a meditative yet unrestrained performance, reflecting the melancholy that comes with remembering one’s loved ones at a graveyard.

Violinist Koh and pianist Lee took the stage again to perform composer Wynne Fung’s In a Quiet Grey. Fung, who had been inspired by the night scenery visible from an airplane window, conjured a smooth plane ride through the clear sound created by the violin harmonics at the end of the piece. What struck me was the consistent use of energetic legato piano lines, that further evoke the wonderment of traversing across the skies.  

Rachel Lim and Jonathan Shin performing the Chinatown pieces by Tan Yuting. Photo: Jamie Chan

The concert continued with two songs composed by Tan Yuting based on poems by Singaporean poet Tan Chee Lay. Confidently performed by soprano Lim and pianist Jonathan Shin, 车水美食街  (Chinatown: Food Street) and 车水后巷理发 (Chinatown: Back Alley Barber) prominently emphasised the thrill that comes with the arrival of the Chinese New Year festivities. These two songs were particularly memorable as I was instinctively reminded of my favourite pastime – frequenting Chinatown for its diverse local fare.   

Fantasia of Home, composed by Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin and masterfully performed by pianist Shin, was the concert’s penultimate work. Premiering at UNHEARD, the work showcased riveting contrasts between the piano’s quiet entrance and combinations of chromatic harmonies. Composed in 2015 with Singapore’s 50th Anniversary in mind, the music encapsulates the composer’s musings of home and her experience as a witness to Singapore’s rapid progress over the years. 

The concert also marked the culmination of UNHEARD’s inaugural mentorship programme, which was not only for young female composers, but for female producers as well. In a pre-recorded speech, Otao, who was a producer mentor to UNHEARD’s founder Rachel Lim, was inspiring as she voiced her hope for female arts practitioners to lead the way and share resources – echoing Lim’s earlier call for female voices to be prominently heard.

Thereafter, Lee Jia Yi, who had been mentored by Emily Koh, debuted her mysterious piece emanate, which in her words, “explores the movement of sounds emerging from the inside of the piano.” An incredible feat of musical coordination, the intriguing and fleeting sonic soundscape created by the piano, percussion and electronics had audience members leaning forward to catch a glimpse of familiar objects – think styrofoam bowl and Milo tin – used to create fragments of the sounds heard. As a concert closer, the piece showcases the inventive and stimulating musical journeys undertaken, leaving the audience wanting more.

On reflection, UNHEARD was a feast for the ears and I found myself looking forward to the next curated concert featuring music made by Singaporean women. It is encouraging to see the emergence of mentorships and platforms for local female composers. But surely the work is not done. I hope the resounding answer to Lim’s question “when do women get to be heard for who we are?” will be: now.

UNHEARD: Celebrating Singaporean Female Composers took place on Sunday, 27 February 2022 at The Arts House Chamber. 

About the author(s)

Nicole Toh has been a keen chorister for the past 10 years. Previously a choir chairperson and section leader, she is currently a member of The Vocal Consort and pursuing studies in English at the Nanyang Technological University.

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