Malay, Chinese and Indian instruments and music take centre stage in upcoming concert

Artistic director and conductor Wong Kah Chun (above) formed Asian Contemporary Ensemble because of his passion for Asian cultures and heritage. The group includes pianist Abigail Sin, accordionist Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin, tabla player Govin Tan an
Artistic director and conductor Wong Kah Chun (above) formed Asian Contemporary Ensemble because of his passion for Asian cultures and heritage. The group includes pianist Abigail Sin, accordionist Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin, tabla player Govin Tan and dizi player Joyce Poh. -- PHOTO: ROZA ZAH
Artistic director and conductor Wong Kah Chunformed Asian Contemporary Ensemble because of his passion for Asian cultures and heritage. The group includes pianist Abigail Sin, accordionist Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin (above), tabla player Govin Tan and
Artistic director and conductor Wong Kah Chunformed Asian Contemporary Ensemble because of his passion for Asian cultures and heritage. The group includes pianist Abigail Sin, accordionist Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin (above), tabla player Govin Tan and dizi player Joyce Poh. -- PHOTO: SYAFIQAH ‘ADHA SALLEHIN

Malay, Chinese and Indian instruments and music take centrestage

The Asian Contemporary Ensemble is truly Singaporean, drawing on influences from a grab bag of different cultures for their upcoming concert, A Malay Rhythms Extravaganza.

The show will open at The Arts House this week, featuring an assortment of instruments including the Indian tabla drum, an accordion and the Chinese dizi (bamboo flute) playing compositions inspired by the rhythms of five types of Malay dance.

Artistic director and conductor of the group Wong Kah Chun, 28, says that the five-man group is a "collective of musicians passionate about connecting local and Asian heritage and traditions with stimulating, original new works by living composers".

The core members are Wong, pianist Abigail Sin, accordionist Syafiqah 'Adha Sallehin, tabla player Govin Tan and dizi player Joyce Poh.

The group was set up by Wong in 2010, while he was a composition student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. This year, the group received a $50,000 seed grant from the National Arts Council.

Their upcoming concert, A Malay Rhythms Extravaganza, has at its heart the rhythms of five types of Malay dance: asli, joget, inang, masri and zapin. Wong, who first heard the different patterns during his O Level music studies, was fascinated by how "relaxing and unique" each of them sounded.

He says that he also chose to incorporate these dance styles as the ensemble has a "specific goal of focusing on the traditional artforms and craftsmanship that can be found in Singapore, especially ones that are dying out, as a means of archiving them in our performances".

The group will be playing the rhythms, followed by five original works, each by a different local composer, who selected one of the dance rhythms as their source of inspiration.

The five composers are group member Syafiqah, Tan Wen-Bin, Wang Chenwei, Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli and Jeremiah Li.

Wong says that he highlights local compositions, as he himself is familiar with the process of bringing a work from score to stage.

"I understand how difficult it is for local or regional young composers, of which there is a surprising number of talents, to get their works performed," he says.

During the performance, the group will also be interacting with the audience. Wong says: "Conventional classical music performances follow a ritual that has existed for hundreds of years. Audience sits, performers enter, audience claps, performers tune their instruments and then start to perform music."

However, at the Asian Contemporary Ensemble's show, Wong and his fellow musicians hope to share more about their practice with the audience.

"How will the sound of the toy piano combine with tabla? What were the composers thinking about when they had to have the dizi play a duet with the accordion," asks Wong.

"In our concert, we want to talk about this in between the musical works... to enhance the experience of the audience."

One of the composers whose works will be performed at the concert is Li, 34, adjunct lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. His work is titled Chinese Raga On An Inang Tala - in classical Indian music, raga refers to melody, while tala means rhythm.

His work follows the form of classical Indian music, with an introduction which introduces all the notes of the melody, followed by a middle section "where the tabla comes in, and there's a more stable rhythm". Finally, it will end with all of the instruments playing in heterophony - the same melody at the same time - a trait which Li says is reminiscent of East Asian music.

Li says: "So my idea was to combine all of these cultures because the ensemble is made up of Malay, Chinese and Indian instruments and instrumentalists."

lting@sph.com.sg

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