Concert with an edge



Southeastern Ensemble for

Today's and Tomorrow's Sounds

The Chamber, The Arts House

Last Sunday

Simply put, Southeastern Ensemble for Today's and Tomorrow's Sounds (Setts) is the most avant-garde of Singapore's new music groups.

Its latest presentation was not so much a concert as a session in a creator's workshop and laboratory, with the visitors half-expecting something to blow up.

Tables and the floor were littered with metres of cables and wires, a veritable tangle of spaghetti connected to computers, cameras, microphones, electronica and various paraphernalia.

There were possibly more composers, performers, collaborators and support staff in attendance than actual audience, but nobody was counting.

The two-hour programme, performed without a break, opened with Wang Chen Wei's Waves, possessing the polystylism that described Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's works.

A string quartet (violinists Christina Zhou and Nanako Takata, violist Janice Tsai and cellist Lin Juan), playing a Bach-like chorale, was peppered by electronic sounds supplied by guest artists UFO Project, and soon they were completely submerged.

A dancer dressed as an alien in pink polka dots then commanded the floor, spinning a globe attached to a slowly rotating electric drill.

The quartet soon returned, closing in a serene C major chord, perhaps symbolising that peace and strife on earth comes in waves and cycles.

The longest work was Chow Jun Yan's Childhood Rhapsody, from which four of six numbers were performed by pianist Shane Thio, alongside the real-time painting of four canvasses by visual artist Frank Lee Foo Koon.

Using combinations of brushes, rollers and Pollockian drip technique, these were more than mere scribbles. Possibly representing suppressed memories of past trauma, the sometimes violent music was achieved by scraping and striking the innards of the grand piano.

The chamber was then plunged into total darkness for Malaysian Goh Lee Kwang's The Air (Singapore). Snatches of clarinet (Colin Tan), flute (Roberto Alvarez) and oboe (Joost Flach) tones punctuating the stillness as a projected electronic stop watch counted the time elapsed. Resembling forest sounds at night and John Cage's Ryoanji, the work concluded just past the 10-minute mark.

Wang's Cosmic Echoes employed Alan Kartik's French horn skills, transformed by Kittiphan Janbuala's manipulations into time- phased distant tones. These had an unearthly ethereal feel, as if heard from some faraway galaxy with digitally transformed images from the Hubble telescope.

In a similar vein, transformations were applied to Christoph Wichert's bassoon and vocalisations in Ding Jian Han's Hanged, using Eric Tan Wei Fang's poetry read by dramaturge Natalie Hennedige.

The final work, E-lab-oration, was a joint effort by Hennedige, Thai composer Anothai Nitibhon and Singaporean Hoh Chung Shih. Its title provides certain clues, as this was derived from a Facebook chat-cum-discussion, with protagonists played by French horn, bassoon, piano and Iskandar Rashid on percussion.

Whether solo, in conversation, or engaging in debate and gentle disagreement, here was a forum of ideas tossed up, discussed, accepted or rejected.

Buy wait, who did the fourth instrument represent? One guesses that to be the audience, without which created music and performances such as these would cease to exist.

The stars of Setts #4 strike back on Sept 26 at the Esplanade Recital Studio, so be sure to return.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Concert with an edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe