Mixing milk and curry

Singaporean composer Tze Toh began writing music at age 10 to escape the drudgery of the scores a piano teacher assigned to him.
Singaporean composer Tze Toh began writing music at age 10 to escape the drudgery of the scores a piano teacher assigned to him. ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

Composer Tze Toh brings together classical Indian violin, saxophone and Western strings in experimental concerts

For years, classical Indian violinist Lazar Thurakkal Sebastine thought working with musicians from other genres was "like mixing milk and curry" and to be avoided.

Then he met composer Tze Toh and was hooked by the Singaporean's fusion style. Since 2007, the violinist has been part of the composer's "rojak" group of musicians, formerly known as Tze n Looking Glass and renamed the TO Ensemble in October last year.

At concerts such as the upcoming Land With No Sun II: Dance Of The Earth, on Feb 27 at the Esplanade Recital Studio, Sebastine, 49, plays with musicians such as pop-andjazz saxophonist Teo Boon Chye (formerly of Singapore band Jive Talking) and string players from the Western classical music tradition.

The concerts also present narratives worthy of opera. Through vocals, instrumental music and multimedia, they will continue the story of last year's audio film, Land With No Sun, and piano concert Land With No Sun: Promemoria. Both describe a post-apocalyptic society where the Earth is uninhabitable and humans live in "Sky-cities".

Toh's concerts are multi-disciplinary, experimental and impossible to describe, says The Straits Times' freelance classical music reviewer Chang Tou Liang.

"I enjoy his work because he is spontaneous and free-spirited, not bound by convention or dogma, and often changes the rules as he goes," Dr Chang adds .

Toh - whose full name is Toh Tze Chin - is mostly self-taught. Now 37, he began writing music at age 10 to escape the drudgery of the scores a piano teacher assigned to him and his younger sister. He also has a younger brother, a computer graphic motion designer who helps with the multimedia for his concerts.

He developed his own musical notation in his pre-teen years as well as a fondness for "jamming", or improvisation, over being noteperfect for every score.

"The main difference between people who play Western classical music and jazz or Indian classical music is the flow of music," he says. "People who play Western classical music control the music. But it's important to know that it's all right to be imperfect, to just let go."

Toh did his bachelor's in computer engineering at the National University of Singapore, followed by a diploma in jazz performance at the then Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts. He makes a living as a composer and has written music for the animated film Sing To The Dawn (2008) and Royston Tan's 2013 film Popiah, as well as sound cues for Discovery Channel Asia's series, Man Made Marvels.

"That was fun, the short 'dun-dun-dun' crisis cue," he says, drumming on the table to illustrate.

He also wrote the music for Snails & Ketchup, actor Ramesh Meyyappan's production for the London Cultural Olympiad in 2012, held alongside the Olympic Games.

His work can be challenging to play and difficult to fund. The TO Ensemble plans two major concerts a year. Ticket sales and the National Arts Council's $8,000 presentation grant account for only part of the $20,000 production costs of a concert. All involved take a pay cut to help, though Toh declines to say how much.

"I always tell musicians: 'Don't play with us to be paid. Play with us if you like the music,'" he adds.

Saxophonist Teo, 48, fell for the music after meeting Toh eight years ago at a provision shop the composer's parents run. For him, the fun is in coming up with saxophone riffs that work with the Indian violin and classical Indian raagas (traditional arrangements of notes).

"The scales used in raagas are so tough. They're different from Western scales, which I'm attuned to. After all these years, they are still a challenge," he says.

Violinist Sebastine calls Toh's work "real fusion music".

"You can play Rasa Sayang with tabla," he says, referring to the Indian drums. "But that is not real fusion. Tze always tries to create something new. This is real fusion created with two or three genres coming together."

Initially sceptical about the collaboration, he was won over at their first meeting when he played the classical raaga Amrithavarshini, rumoured to be able to bring the rain.

"Without me telling him anything, Tze said, 'It sounds very cool,'" Sebastine recalls. "It just shows how, regardless of race, musical notes can convey meaning to anyone."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Mixing milk and curry'. Print Edition | Subscribe