When Earth becomes an illusion of paradise



TO Ensemble

Esplanade Recital Studio

Last Saturday

TO Ensemble is the new name of Tze n Looking Glass Orchestra (TLGO), a cross-over fusion group led by jazz pianist Tze Toh. Despite the name change, this latest concert carried on with the environmental concerns raised in previous instalments of his Land With No Sun cycle.

To recap: In the near future, a post-apocalyptic Earth now occupies cities in the sky and its inhabitants wonder what it was like living on the old planet that had been ravaged by war. A young girl sees a holograph of a whale and makes a hazardous trip down to what is now terra incognito.

The Prologue titled Oscurita/ Darkness was sung in Italian by soprano Yap Shin Min, simply because creator-composer Tze preferred the romanticism of the language. Its operatic quality recalled the film scores of Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, and a concertante element was also provided by Christina Zhou's violin.

Moving into Chapter 1: Lullaby Of The Machines, a world constricted by conformity, rules and regulations dictated the tone of the music. Tze's piano shifted within limited chordal sequences, minimalist in a Satiesque way, while Wong Wei Lung provided a mechanical rhythmic drumbeat. Etude-like piano passages and Wendy Phua's bass guitar figurations further contributed to this toccata of repetition.

Augmented by looped film footage, this chapter reminded one of installation art, those abstract scenarios that populate modern art museums the world over. A breakthrough was provided by Teo Boon Chye's tenor saxophone, whose marvellous role of improvising seemed to turn the music on its head.

Chapter 2: March Of Man thus became a watershed, with humans taking the initiative. Thus Lazar T. Sebastine's carnatic violin in The Surface/Desert was a breath of fresh air, his ragas finally getting the music into a more independent groove.

This also heralded woodwinds to engage in a droll dance of their own in Mountains/Thilafushi (with visuals displaying heaps of rubbish), led by Yukari Blest's flute and more saxy improvs from Teo.

In The Submerged City, piano and alto sax sultrily dallied in E minor, which to these ears cleverly merged a Chopinesque nocturne with a Bachian prelude.

Yap's wordless melismata simulated children's laughter in The Ruins/City Dawn, while violin accompanied by Miyata Masato's acoustic bass accounted for the melancholy of The Secret Forest.

Chapter 3: Dance Of The Earth saw further collaborations be- tween soloists. In Protector/ Vishnu, Sebastine was the protagonist, with the raga giving way to Teo's sax. Both did not play from notated scores, instead making up the music as they went. River was the confluence of both violin traditions, Western and Indian, the result being a mellifluous mix.

If there were an apotheosis, Organic Forest represented by an expanse of green forests was a glorification of the G major chord. All the soloists, strings and offstage woodwinds came together for one long love-in, a celebration of what Gaia used to be.

The Wind, a short music-less scene with Nadia Wheaton's quivering voice-over, later revealed that every good moment and feeling that transpired had been a dream, an illusion of paradise.

The Epilogue: Seed/Whale In The Sky gave the audience pause for hope and thought.

We have the world in our hands, so how are we now going to treat it?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'When Earth becomes an illusion of paradise'. Print Edition | Subscribe