In Refracting Rituals, the intrepid group of local composers and performers called Quinnuance attempted to redefine the way people perceive of musical performances in its concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Wednesday. Viewing through its distorting mirror and prism, a concert was no longer just an aural experience but one involving elements of performance art, theatre, acts of randomness and audience interaction.
The music of four composers was showcased, beginning with serial atonalist Bernard Lee Kah Hong's The Unfathomable Being Of Vengeance Spiral In The Existential Light Of Nucleus. This was an unusual setting of Sylvia Plath's poem A Lesson In Vengeance, read by a kebaya-clad Natalie Ng with Clarence Tan scraping a double-bass centrestage. They were joined by violinist Nanako Takata, violist Jeremy Chiew and trumpeter Christopher Yong Lin, who played from the wings and then proceeded to parade onstage as a gesture of discord, symbolic of mankind's propensity for vengeful violence. Lee's dodecaphonic music continues to provoke and challenge listeners, including trying to remember the titles of his works.
Terrence Wong was represented by two works for brass. Pentasy, compacting the words "pentatonal" and "fantasy", for bass trombone and piano, was a conventional concert piece that stretched trombonist Jasper Tan's technique to the fullest. Accompanied by pianist Gabriel Hoe, the unremittingly tonal music hinted of the Orient, coursing through pensive moments and emotional highs before a sedate close.
The more theatrical Choices for solo trumpet saw a return of Yong, this time donning the feathered headdress of a Native American Indian and moving between stations on stage. One technique he employed was polyphonics, that was producing two different sets of notes, from the trumpet as well as gutteral vocalising. This dichotomy represented metaphorically the paths of good and evil. Putting it more simply like in those cowboy Westerns of old, were the Injuns good guys or baddies?
In between was Alicia De Silva's In Our Last for flute, soprano and piano, a contemplation of death through the Roman Catholic requiem mass. The first part, In This Darkened Valley, soprano Evelyn Ang's sprechgesang (hovering between speech and singing) was in tormented conflict with Paul Huang's flute, which represented a soothing, even seductive prospect of death. The final acceptance of death came in the second part, Eternal Song, where both flute and voice played in unison and chanted the words, "May eternal rest and perpetual light shine upon them."
Completely visual was American Mark Applebaum's Tlon for three conductors which comprised six and half minutes of virtual silence. Conductors Tan, Wong and De Silva, with the aid of click tracks and ear pieces connected to a laptop, crafted an elaborate act of choreography, that of directing three imaginary orchestras before taking their bows in front of an imaginary audience.
Those in the bemused but well-behaved audience had a chance to join the the finale, which was Lu Heng's Laughter Propaganda. Here nine performers including conductor Tan were engaged in synchronised laughing, which was eventually extended to the audience. This exercise begged the question about laughter: is laughing a truly spontaneous act? Or are we programmed in our minds to laugh only at certain jokes, words or acts, and only when it is deemed appropriate?
Between plotting retribution and unapologetic bellyaching, Quinnuance has turned the traditional concept of the concert upon its head. That is what the experience of new music is all about.