The Life Interview with Toh Tze Chin: Composing to improvise

Toh Tze Chin,who fuses jazz with classical music, writes the beginning and ending of scores and allows musicians to improvise in the middle

A grand piano, electronic keyboard, laptop table and shelves of reference books and Star Wars model kits leave composer performer Tze Toh only a small corner to fold himself into.

He waves a photographer and a journalist into the cramped space in his parents’ Choa Chu Kang HDB flat.

“At one time, I had seven musicians in here,” he says, pointing to a tiny unoccupied square near the window. “The violinist was there.”

This is where Toh, whose full name is Toh Tze Chin, quietly creates some of Singapore’s most unique, genre-bending music.

The composer, who turns 38 tomorrow, works with filmmakers, dance and theatre troupes while also composing for his nine year- old To Ensemble, formerly named Tze N Looking Glass.

You shift a note or quaver and the world changes. That’s the art and craft of composition.As a composer, I see where the notes should go but as an improviser, I can change my mind.

TOH TZE CHIN,on why his compositions allow himself and other musicians large spaces to improvise

The ensemble is a cult favourite here for its fusion style and animation-enhanced concerts, which appeal to lovers of classical music and anime soundtracks alike.

Earlier this month, dancers Eng Kai Er and Faye Lim squeezed into that work space to put together music for their month-end dance project, She Ain’t Heavy, She’s Reaching Into Space, presented by well-known arts troupe Theatre- Works.

He has also composed for T.H.E Dance company, for director Royston Tan’s award-winning 2013 short film Popiah and for Singapore’s first animated feature, Sing To The Dawn(2008).

In 2012, Toh received a Life Theatre Awards nomination for best sound design for Snails & Ketchup, a solo work by actor Ramesh Meyyappan.

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Straits Times reviewer Adeline Chia wrote of the music: “The live piano music provided by Toh Tze Chin had a painterly effect and fleshed out the characters. The sweet whimsical theme that accompanies the protagonist will be playing in your mind for days.”

Toh lost to Philip Tan & Tiramisu for Desire At The Melancholic String Concert, but Snails & Ketchup went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was presented in a massive culture festival alongside the London Olympics.

Straits Times classical music reviewer Chang Tou Liang says of Toh: “I think he is unique, a true crossover artist who is not afraid to experiment with different new ideas and mixing classical, jazz, new age and traditional Asian music genres.”

The appeal goes beyond sound. A fan of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, he has created his own anime-like concert series, Land With No Sun. Here, music is complemented by animated films – made by his younger brother Yixue – about a post-apocalyptic society where humans live in “Sky-cities”.

The score includes soprano solos in Italian, an ensemble playing with a set score and also improvisation between classical Indian violinist Lazar Thurakkal Sebastine and pop-and-jazz saxophonist Teo Boon Chye, formerly of Singapore band Jive Talking.

“I write beginnings and endings for them, not the middle,” Toh says.

Many are bowled over by his rare ability to unite the free-wheeling nature of jazz and Indian tradition with the rigorous techniques of Western classical music.

Take, for example, noted young violinist Loh Jun Hong, who has played with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and is in growing demand as a soloist.

The 26-year-old attended To Ensemble’s Land With No Sun II: Dance Of The Earth concert in February and stayed back for the post-show discussion to find out how Toh put the music together.

“I was really impressed,” Loh says. “Improvising is fine, but improvising with an ensemble with a set score is something else.” Equally impressed by the animation, he is asking Toh for tips on “packaging” his own concerts.

He adds: “Everything was so nice. Even the programme booklet is something you want to keep.” The programme art is done by Toh, who has stacks of Moleskine notebooks filled with detailed drawings.

Toh thinks his musical style is only natural. “It’s a large part of having grown up here, thinking that so many different cultures can come together and create something. In many parts of the world, you don’t have that – so many cultures comfortable with one another.”

Long a cult favourite, To Ensemble has been gaining greater recognition and more gigs. It will be featured later this year in the second edition of the Singapore International Music Festival, organised by Opera Viva and The Arts House, and curated by Loh, with well-known conductor and Grammy nominee Darrell Ang.

Toh sheepishly reveals that Ang several years ago asked if he could play Toh’s music with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, back when the conductor was musical director of that ensemble. Toh refused because he had written the works with members of his group in mind and so felt that only those musicians should play the work.

He says: “Thinking back, it could have sounded quite arrogant. But Darrell forgave me, which I’m grateful for.”

He is very particular about his projects, friends and collaborators. This means he will refuse work he does not feel an emotional connection to and will never sugarcoat his words.

Award-winning Malaysian photographer Stefen Chow, 36, has known Toh since their days staying in the same hall of residence at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Toh composes music for Chow’s commercial and personal projects, including Equivalence, a look at poverty through purchasing power.

Chow says: “Tze Chin is very honest and not one to sugarcoat things if he thinks that something is not right. Not everyone can work with him, but those who have worked with him over the years find that he’s one of the most genuine artists out there.”

He got to know Toh because he wanted to buy an electronic keyboard for his then-girlfriend and knew Toh could help. He recalls that Toh took him from shop to shop until they found a keyboard that was worth the expense.

Chow says: “It was a good investment because that girlfriend is now my wife. We still have that keyboard at home.”

Toh is mostly self-taught. His heroes include film soundtrack guru Hans Zimmer, who avoided piano lessons as a child.

Sent for piano lessons with his younger sister, Toh began composing his own tunes at age 10 because the practice scores were too boring.

Today, rather than scribbling on paper, he composes by hooking a keyboard to his laptop and using LogicPro software to transform that into music.

“I could never have been a composer if I had lived in Mozart’s time,”he says, laughing.

His methods are unusual, says his assistant and girlfriend Pearl Yim, 25, a music teacher and part-time composer who sometimes plays with To Ensemble and helps organise its concerts.

She hums and tries out melodies when composing.

“He can hear the sound in his mind, but he can’t write it out so he describes it to the musicians. We try it out until he says, ‘Yes, that’s what I want,’” says Ms Yim.

Toh did not know that he wanted to be a full-time musician until he was in his 20s. However, he was always artistic, says his brother Yixue, a 29-year-old animator who works in advertising.

Yixue adds: “Do you remember when we used to have tickets on buses? When my brother was in secondary school, he folded bus tickets into triangles, took the individual triangles and packed them together to form a model of a dragon the size of a microwave oven. It was quite impressive. It took a lot of bus tickets.”

Toh’s younger sister, Meixuan, 35, is a full-time mother. His father, Mr Toh Ser Chong, 67, used to run a supermarket near their flat and is now retired. His mother, Madam Margaret Chua Chwee Hoon, 60, works in childcare.

Both his parents support his career in different ways. Mr Toh used to drive his son to concerts and rehearsals before he retired and gave up his car. Madam Chua helped found To Ensemble a decade ago.

At the family shop, she had met jazz guitarist Teo and insisted the former member of Jive Talking meet her musician son.

Toh studied in Rulang Primary School, River Valley Secondary School and Jurong Junior College before doing his bachelor’s degree in computing at NUS. It was there that he joined the NUS Piano Ensemble and began performing in public for the first time.

He entered songwriting competitions as well and was spotted by members of Eusoff Hall. The hall of residence was making a film based on the Madam White Snake legend, and director Lin Wei insisted Toh move into the hall to compose the music.

Recalls Lin: “When he’s inspired, he’s super-fast. After I told him the story, he started to whip out soundbites.” The 38-year-old is the founder of United Design Practice, an award-winning Beijing-based studio that works in multiple disciplines, including design, architecture and branding.

Toh composes for the studio and Lin is also a fan of the Land With No Sun series.

Toh credits Lin and their film, Snake, for getting him started on his current life as a composer.

“I loved programming Java, but when I started writing for productions, I was so inspired. I realised this was something I could do for the rest of my life.”

Yixue says Toh’s decision to pursue music full-time changed him for the better. “He used to be quite an introvert. He didn’t like to talk to people. After he decided to step into the unknown and pursue music, I noticed he became really open and receptive.”

After graduating from NUS, Toh did a diploma in music (jazz performance) at Lasalle College of the Arts and worked for a while at German music studio Schtung Music before it closed down.

Then he went freelance, doing musical arrangements and compositions for schools and societies.

Around this time, he met Teo and also began jamming with Indian violinist Sebastine, 49, who was initially sceptical about the younger man’s enthusiastic desire to collaborate.

He thought “it would be like mixing milk and curry”.

When he finally did give Toh a chance, he played the classical raaga Amrithavarshini, rumoured to be able to bring rain. Toh immediately described the sound as “cooling” and reminiscent of the rain.

Sebastine says: “I realised that regardless of race, musical notes can convey meaning to anyone.”

In 2011, Toh put Sebastine and Teo together for An Indian Folk Song Meets Jazz. The song won first prize in the instrumental category at well-known contest, the UK Songwriting Contest, organised by the trust behind the Brit Awards.

This year, Toh’s calendar is full, with performances and projects, including a month-long series at the National Gallery in September.

About five concerts are planned and the ensemble will play original music inspired by artwork in the gallery.

“It’s only recently that I have started getting these offers every other day. It takes a long time for people to start coming to you because they like your work,” the composer says.

Next month, To Ensemble will present Alternate Worlds II at the Esplanade Recital Studio, a programme of jazz, Carnatic music, film scores and popular Korean drama soundtracks.

Toh describes the theme with the glee of a magician unveiling a trick: “You take conventions and you twist them around. You see a string quartet and expect classical music, but instead, they play jazzy blues.”

One might imagine that these sorts of experiments are a recipe for disaster, but in nine years of playing, To Ensemble has yet to receive a negative review.

This is because of the music’s “rojak” nature, Toh says, and the quality of his collaborators such as Sebastine and Teo.

“When one person doesn’t have a good day, somebody else will come in and do better. So there are days we start out badly, but never days we end badly,” says Toh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Composing to improvise'. Print Edition | Subscribe