Traditional music, modern sounds

PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The classical sounds of Chinese orchestra instruments join electronic dance music in Nen's upcoming show

The clear sound of the erhu soars above a driving techno beat. Elsewhere, the yangqin produces a rollicking rhythm akin to Japanese rock, while the guzheng goes toe to toe with an electric guitar.

Compositions such as these have earned Chinese instrumental group Nen much flak from conservatives in the music community, who feel it is losing sight of its roots. But the group's erhu player Darrel Xin, guzheng player Johnny Chia and yangqin player Patrick Ngo want new frontiers for the music they love.

"Right now, the community compartmentalises music into high- brow versus low-brow," says Xin, 34. "But we want to make this music accessible to more people. We don't want to alienate anyone."

Nen, which takes its name from the Japanese word for thought or speech, is holding its first ticketed concert, Past.Present.Future, at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Nov 11.

The programme will take audience members through the history of Chinese music, from Tang Dynasty piece Three Variations Of The Yangguan Pass, to the original piece, Eternal Wings, which fuses traditional sound with a techno thump.

Why electronic dance music?

We want to change people's mentality. An instrument is not a boundary - it is a channel for the music inside us. It is people who set the boundaries. But if you take those away, the sky is the limit.

YANGQIN PLAYER PATRICK NGO on why the group, Nen, mixes traditional sounds from Chinese orchestra instruments with modern ones such as techno. With him are his fellow Nen members, guzheng player Johnny Chia (centre) and erhu player Darrel Xin

"Because we're ah bengs," quips Xin blithely, referring to the local colloquialism for brash or uncouth Chinese youth.

Chia, 36, says more seriously: "We want to break concepts."

Ngo, also 36, adds: "We want to change people's mentality. An instrument is not a boundary - it is a channel for the music inside us. It is people who set the boundaries. But if you take those away, the sky is the limit."

Their arrangements reflect the diversity of their musical influences.

Xin, for instance, listens to the American blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Ngo is fascinated with Celtic music, and he and Chia love the upbeat tunes of Japanese anime.

Although they formed Nen only three years ago, the trio have known one another for close to 20 years.

  • BOOK IT /PAST.PRESENT.FUTURE

    WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Nov 11, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $28; $15 for students, full-time national servicemen and senior citizens; from the Esplanade Box Office or Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg). No children below six years old

    INFO: www.facebook.com/musicwithnen

Xin and Ngo met in the Chinese orchestra of Temasek Polytechnic and they instantly took a dislike to each other. "He thought I was snobbish and I thought he was an ah beng," says Xin.

But over late-night dinners after rehearsals, they bonded over their shared love of music.

At the time, Xin treated his erhu like a diary. "I would sit in a dark room playing for hours," he says. "I would tell my erhu things I have never told anybody else."

Ngo, meanwhile, was coming to terms with his love-hate relationship with the yangqin, one of the heaviest instruments in a Chinese orchestra.

Even today, he struggles to lug it to gigs. An old wrist injury he sustained during national service compounds his frustration.

"But the moment I play it, the sound makes my heart go soft and I'm like, okay, I forgive you."

Chia met the others a few years later. The other two realised quickly that he was the missing element to Ngo's rhythm and Xin's technique. "He is an expert in colour," says Xin of Chia. "With a glissando, he changes the whole colour of our sound."

All three teach Chinese orchestra music full-time in schools, but they longed to take the stage again and so they formed Nen, making time on their days off to rehearse.

They are its core players, with guest musicians coming in from time to time to play instruments such as the mandolin or Irish flute.

It has not been an easy road. They sunk more than $10,000 of their own money into the venture and went without pay at their gigs to cover costs and pay guest players.

Their lucky break came when they found a sponsor for their first album in logistics company Poh Tiong Choon. Nen released 800 copies in March.

"For us, learning music has been like learning life," says Ngo. "It has taught us to take hardship."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2016, with the headline 'Traditional music, modern sounds'. Print Edition | Subscribe