Esplanade Recital Studio
Nanyang Collective was formed last year by players of Western and traditional Asian instruments, with the vision of presenting new works by local composers which united aesthetes of diverse cultures.
Fusion and crossover are much-bandied-about terms, but this ensemble appears much more than that.
Life, its latest production, was a multi-faceted musical installation rather than mere composition.
The instrumental set-up, with three separate layers – grand/toy piano in front, strings, flutes, gamelan and pipa just behind, and suona, euphonium and percussion on risers – gave the myriad sonorities ample space and scope to resonate.
Led by young conductor Dedric Wong De Li, the slightly over 40-minute concert comprising three works merged as one was an eye- and ear-opener.
When does life begin and where does it go? Is it a cycle of renewal and regeneration, or a constant series of limited terms?
The reverberance of a vibrating tam tam (gong) in near total darkness, raw and raucous, from percussionist Eugene Toh seemed symbolic for the birth of time.
That was how Creation by John Sharpley, Texas-born but long-time resident in Singapore, began.
An eruption of sound from all nine instrumentalists, including Abigail Sin striking the piano’s innards with a mallet, greeted the procession of one hunched in pain and agony.
Enter the cloaked figure of actor Ora, ambling across the players before collapsing in a heap.
Was this the passage of infirmity and old age or a prelude to rebirth? After a flash of light (and short silence), there emerged a newborn’s cries, and the simple melody of a Bartok rondo played on toy piano.
Life then took on a more theatrical turn with protagonist Ora acting out the growing pangs of a child.
Where Sharpley’s Life segued into Jon Lin Chua Sisyphus’s Dilemma, the second work, was not clearly demarcated, but that did not matter given the performance’s seamless flow.
When does infancy end and childhood begin, or when does adulthood follow adolescence? Does anybody really care?
The soundscapes had thus far been mostly atonal, but Life also afforded stretches of melody and harmony, such as jazzy riffs of ostinatos led by piano and percussion or the sheer aural beauty of Niranjan Pandian’s bansuri (Indian flute) partnered with Brian Lim’s suling (Balinese flute).
These alternating episodes seemed to represent cycles of frenetic activity and temporary respite, as if one’s existence looped in endless and ever-repetitive cycles.
A third element of Life was the inclusion of San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic), recited ad nauseum by children in Chinese-medium primary schools, as well as Ora herself.
Malaysian composer Chong Kee Yong’s Destiny, the trilogy’s final part, played on that almost inescapable fact of life. One is born innocent, but eventually corrupted by merely existing.
Overall, this was a thought-provoking experiment in sound and drama, with the very versatile ensemble supported by a team including stage director Lim Chin Huat, dramaturg Neo Hai Bin, lighting designer Dorothy Png and others.
One can only hope for more equally challenging projects to come from Nanyang Collective.