Composers were supposed to write symphonies, sonatas and atonal works that eschewed melodies in order to be taken seriously. Young Singaporean composer Tze Toh has been content to break that stereotypical mould, beginning as a jazz pianist and assimilating disparate influences of modern classical music, world music and popular idioms into his original compositions.
Land With No Sun (Terra Senza Sole) is an original audio-film, which he explained to mean absolute music accompanied by short films and visual images, performed in front of a live audience. Like in Debussy's piano preludes, where the titles were added after the fact, Tze's music takes on a programmatic slant, as if written to tell a story.
The scenario of the 70-minute-long concert, presented at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Thursday, is set in a dystopian future, when Earth is ravaged by war, over-population and over-building, with sky-cities and pollution that permanently block out the sun's rays. As extinction looms, collective memories are digitised and sent back in time as a cautionary messages. The 10 movements, each documenting a different year of degeneration, served as aural and visual snapshots of mankind's folly. Performing were Tze's ensemble - the Looking Glass Orchestra - of 10 musicians, all excellent soloists in their own right.
The Prologue was just film and recorded sound, playing in a loop as the audience entered the hall. The first movement proper, The Moment, saw soprano Felicia Teo singing the opening lines La Morta E Un Canto Ricordato Del Tempo (Death Is A Song Time Remembers) accompanied by Tze's piano. Italian was chosen for its operatic qualities instead of the more prosaic English, and the film music style of Ennio Morricone was relived.
Io Sono L'Aria (I Am The Air) was a ruminative plaint on Christina Zhou's violin, with the protagonist viewing a wilderness of concrete that replaces clouds in the sky. Much more pulsating and jazzy was Metropolis which brought together saxophonist Teo Boon Chye, who was the evening's busiest soloist, with Wong Wei Lung's drums, Luke Chng's cello and Masato Miyata's bass. This kinetically charged number had the backdrop of a faceless urban landscape viewed from a moving train.
Indian Carnatic violinist Lazar T. Sebastine brought his improvisatory raga skills to Ray / Water, a movement of grace and fluidity portraying a manta ray wandering freely for the last time. Bassoonist Christoph Wichert functioned on more classical lines; placidity in the bleak wintry clime of Snowman was contrasted with violently lurching ostinatos in Factory Dance, an indictment on rapid industrialisation. Violist Tomoko Kakegawa blended prettily with Zhou in Flower, a sad and nostalgic look at Nature, which was symbolically shattered like glass petals on film.
Tze as a composer is resourceful and possessed with an original voice, yet he was unafraid to invoke the skills of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok in Desert, where a quasi-Middle Eastern dance is hammered out with raw and primal vigour. The penultimate movement Time Travel provided a grand gesture for nine instrumentalists working together for the first time. Brimming with energy and vitality, was this a signal of a new hope for man, or merely the mirage of history repeating itself in futile cycles?
The very short finale Oscurita / The Moment II - which brought back soprano Teo as The Weeping Goddess, accompanied by just three string players - provided the clue. It served as a requiem for our lost civilisation, an abrupt full-stop which we can only hope to prevent. Despite the small audience, Land With No Sun was accorded a standing ovation, a sure sign that right and timely messages will not fall on deaf ears.