In search of minimalism in music



New Music Ensemble/Chen Zhangyi (Conductor)

Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

Spectrum, the Esplanade's new music series, launched its current season last month with the London Sinfonietta and Steve Reich playing to a capacity audience in the concert hall. Normal service was resumed this month with a local ensemble performing in the more intimate surroundings of the Recital Studio.

There was one innovation, however. Making his official debut as conductor of the New Music Ensemble, Chen Zhangyi showed himself to be a particularly perceptive interpreter of this repertory, keeping it all unobtrusively yet firmly under control, allowing his players ample space to evolve their identities in music which often placed daunting demands on them.

He was also a most genial host, covering the manpower-heavy stage changes with interesting and perceptive commentaries which did much to unlock the music's mysteries to the uninitiated among the audience.

The theme for this season's Spectrum concerts is Minimalism and we had a wonderful example from the Chicago-born composer Evan Ziporyn. A string quartet comprising Jirajet Jesadachet, Huang Yu-ting, Hsiao Chia-chien and Chen Pin-jyun produced a glittering, almost ecstatic account of Eel's Bone, an ingenious transcription in Western notation of a traditional Balinese gamelan.

As a prelude to Ziporyn's piece, I Wayan D. Rachman and Loh Hsiao Shan performed the original on the Balinese Gender Wayang, adding a vivid touch of the exotic.

Elsewhere, the concept of minimalism, certainly in its original guise as an antidote to the complexities and intellectualisation of new music, was largely thrown out the window. Chen Fang-chi's Dawn II might have had some minimalist intentions, but this was largely clouded by the over-used effect of wind-players blowing air noiselessly into their instruments (an effect itself undermined by the Esplanade's air-conditioning system blowing air, not so noiselessly, through the vents of the Recital Studio).

Certainly neither Lisa Lim's unnecessarily challenging The Heart's Ear nor Jonathan Harvey's confusing Vajra, in which various members of the ensemble abandoned their instruments and strolled over to do nasty things to a Yamaha piano, seemed to have been included in the programme for any reason other than to conform to this particular concert's theme of viewing Eastern culture through the musical eyes of the West.

It was left to the Japanese Jo Kondo to come up with the most compelling take on minimalism and the most original music of the evening, in his short piece, Words.

This recreated the effect of consonants and vowels converted into pointillist musical utterances kept tightly within a strict metrical framework.

It is a testament to Chen's mastery of the score that, avoiding an oppressively pervasive sense of beat, he succeeded in creating a most coherent and compelling performance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'In search of minimalism in music'. Subscribe