Unusual experience of minimalist music



Asian Contemporary Ensemble

University Cultural Centre Dance Studio / Last Friday

The Asian Contemporary Ensemble, founded in 2014 by young conductor Wong Kah Chun, surprised audiences once again and in ways one least anticipated.

Its latest concert paired Beethoven's evergreen Fifth Symphony with the Singapore premiere of American minimalist composer Terry Riley's seminal score In C, and the performance confounded common expectations of the masterpieces.

The Dance Studio at the University Cultural Centre is a very small space, which meant that the audience, numbering about 100, was seated within the orchestra's ranks. This closeness must have been unnerving at first for performer and listener, but within the friendly milieu, both parties soon got used to it.

Conductor Wong, informally attired in a polo shirt and denim jeans, began by introducing the various instrumental groups to the audience. He also spoke briefly about Beethoven's orchestration between the movements of the Fifth Symphony. Then, without further fanfare, the ensemble struck up the familiar "da-da- da-dum" motif of the symphony.

Because the ensemble comprised just four of each of the first and second violins, three violas, two cellos, two basses and the minimum complement of winds, brass and percussion, it could not produce a rich, fulsome sound. But shorn of bombast, Beethoven's ideas for the symphony were laid bare and one soon discerned how he brought the disparate parts together, in consonance and dissonance.

The unusual seating arrangement meant that the aural balance for each listener was uneven. The trade-off, however, was an organic experience of an overplayed masterpiece with the power of raw emotions set into music.

This pair of ears happened to be in the direct trajectory of the trio of trombones that announced themselves wholeheartedly in the finale, along with the shrill blast of the piccolo.

The surround-sound effect worked better in Riley's 1964 classic, which started an inexorable trend in musical minimalism. Its idea is both simple and primitive - a rhythmic pattern of the C note is repeated, with various musical phrases played by combinations of instruments grafted onto the unwavering linear music structure.

His work was in essence the basis of music itself, the very foundation for the sounds of African drumming and Javanese gamelan. Western music forms such as the canon, passacaglia, theme and variations, and the more sophisticated fugue can also be derived from this basic pulse and momentum.

For the performance of In C, the ensemble was pared down and led by percussionist Ramu Thiruyanam on the MalletKat Pro (an electronic xylophone) and drum, with significant contributions from cello and keyboard. Traditional instruments such as guzheng, tabla, guitar and bamboo flute were added and the audience, each given a single-page score, was encouraged to sing any of the 53 notated phrases whenever they deemed it appropriate.

The result was a heady and serendipitous melange of sounds, dizzying and strangely hypnotic.

In performance, the musical phrases of In C may be repeated an arbitrary number of times and it has no set duration. The ensemble's version, which lasted a good 37 minutes, became a thrilling encounter with music at its most rudimentary. Little wonder then that the many children in the audience sat quietly transfixed, clearly awed by the experience.

That is exactly how good music should move people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Unusual experience of minimalist music'. Print Edition | Subscribe