Classical music inspired by baby talk

Singaporean composer Diana Soh drew inspiration for A Is For Aiyah from her daughter.
Singaporean composer Diana Soh drew inspiration for A Is For Aiyah from her daughter.PHOTO: DANIEL CAMPBELL

Baby talk and the percussive, lip-smacking sounds of a toddler starting to vocalise inspired Singaporean composer Diana Soh to create a different sort of music for soprano and orchestra.

A Is For Aiyah, the first movement of her work-in-progress, will be played by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on Friday at the Victoria Concert Hall.

French soprano Elise Chauvin sings under the baton of associate conductor Jason Lai.

The evening also includes Mahler's Ruckert-Lieder, based on the poems of Friedrich Ruckert, and Ligeti's Mysteries Of The Macabre.

Unlike the romantic lieder composed by Mahler, A Is For Aiyah is not your typical work for high voice. Soh, 33, composed the 10-minute movement to question the traditional repertoire of the soprano voice.

Text by her collaborator James Currie is almost gibberish. "I wanted the piece to be percussive and full of consonants, a harder type of music than normal," she says.

"The orchestra sells this myth about how a soprano should sing," she adds. "The soprano has a particular place in the musical canon. It can't be replaced by a bass or tenor because it's a specifically gendered instrument. This piece is asking a question: 'What's your place in the world?'"

  • BOOK IT / SSO SUBSCRIPTION CONCERT: A IS FOR AIYAH

  • WHERE: Victoria Concert Hall, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: Friday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $18 to $72 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

A Is For Aiyah was inspired in several ways by Soh's daughter, Emma, three. "The minute she was born, everything changed. My world view changed," says the composer, who is married to French composer David Hudry.

Apart from replicating Emma's early attempts at communication through gibberish sounds, Soh began to think about the role of language. "The society we live in shapes our use of language. We are taught how to feel and how to think based on the language given to us by our society," she says.

From questioning gendered ways of speaking, it was a natural leap to questioning the role of the female voice and the soloist in Western classical music.

The voice is Soh's favourite instrument to work with. She became interested in music through singing in school choirs. The only child of a driving instructor and a secretary, she sang in choral ensembles in Anglican High School and Temasek Junior College before doing her bachelor's degree in music at National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. She also trained at the University of Buffalo, New York, and with the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam) in Paris.

"I love the voice," she says. "Every time I hear an ensemble, music and voice, it's the voice that stands out.

"It's a human thing. The first thing a child hears is a mother's voice. She doesn't even have to say anything, just 'mm' and the child knows whether she's angry or not. It's an irreplaceable instrument."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'Classical music inspired by baby talk'. Print Edition | Subscribe