Pottery used as musical instruments

Songs Of The Dragon Kiln will feature ceramic instruments fired up by one of Singapore's last traditional brick kilns

(From far left) Mr Ng Hsien Han, 30, with the dizi; Mr Soh Swee Kiat, 24, with the sheng; Ms Eevian Loi, 25, with the liuqin; Ms Yvonne Tay, 25, with the guzheng; Mr Goh Ek Jun, 26, with the percussion; and Mr Fred Chan, 28, with the erhu.
(From far left) Mr Ng Hsien Han, 30, with the dizi; Mr Soh Swee Kiat, 24, with the sheng; Ms Eevian Loi, 25, with the liuqin; Ms Yvonne Tay, 25, with the guzheng; Mr Goh Ek Jun, 26, with the percussion; and Mr Fred Chan, 28, with the erhu.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Musicians from Ding Yi Music Company tap and turn three dozen ceramic jars, bowls and containers, testing the sound quality.

Even more pottery is being fired up in one of Singapore's last dragon kilns - traditional brick kilns for wood-firing pieces - for the Chinese chamber ensemble's concert next month.

Songs Of The Dragon Kiln, performed at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Dec 3 at 5 and 7.45pm, is organised in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

Originally, a single show was planned at 5pm, but another show was added as the first is close to selling out.

The concert led by Ding Yi Music Company's principal guest conductor Quek Ling Kiong will feature new music from well-known composer Zechariah Goh Toh Chai, scored for Chinese musical instruments as well as pots from the oldest surviving dragon kiln here, the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle in Jurong West.

The pottery will be used for percussion since the potters at the kiln were not confident of replicating other instruments, such as the traditional flute-like ocarina.

Dr Goh, 47, says it has been an interesting experience, writing music for instruments still to be made. "We are not able to try out the pitches and see how they sound, but it's not too far from hitting a bowl. I can imagine what it sounds like."


  • WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Dec 3, 5 and 7.45pm

    ADMISSION: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Songs Of The Dragon Kiln is part of Ding Yi Music Company's Of Music And Art series of multidisciplinary performances meant to reignite interest in different art forms.

Last year, Of Music And Art: The Legend Retold - Sisters' Islands featured sand art and Javanese dance with the sounds of the Chinese chamber music ensemble.

This year, the concert includes a documentary on dragon kilns, directed by veteran film-maker David Yap. During the concert, members of the audience will also be invited to improvise percussion pieces on the ceramics.

Dr Goh's music leaves space for the recorded sounds of the kiln firing up and pottery cooling down. The musicians hope to re-create the intimate, kampung-like atmosphere of the past when entire families were employed at these kilns.

"A dragon feeds a village," goes the line to a song composed for the concert. At the same time, the composer adds: "I tried not to put in too much sadness. This is a celebration of the kiln."

Conductor Quek, 50, has long wanted to do a concert involving pottery. He used to teach at the Nanyang Technological University and often passed Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle without going in. Last year, he and musicians from Ding Yi Music Company visited the traditional brick kiln, one of only two left in Singapore. The other is the nearby Jalan Bahar Clay Studios.

The potters at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle suggested the idea of making music with their ceramics. Some musicians were hesitant at first, considering the beauty of the glazes and colours.

But the chance to improvise was liberating, says liuqin player Eevian Loi. "It's exciting. You can experiment," adds the 25-year-old.

Percussionist Goh Ek Jun finds the sound from pottery appealing and unusual compared with Chinese or Western drums. The 26-year-old says: "Pottery is more diverse. Each piece has a unique sound texture. You don't hear the same sounds from different pieces."

Dragon kilns have dwindled because of demand for land area and also as they were replaced by faster electric kilns.

Quek finds a bittersweet link between this traditional pottery kiln and Chinese music.

"When you think about it, a lot of youth also don't find traditional Chinese music appealing.

"With this concert, we're using one dying art form to help another," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'Playing for a dragon kiln'. Subscribe