Local classical composer collective stage concerts out of their own pockets

Quinnuance’s composers are (from left) Natalie Ng, Bernard Lee Kah Hong, Clarence Tan, Terrence Wong, Alicia Joyce De Silva and Lu Heng. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Quinnuance’s composers are (from left) Natalie Ng, Bernard Lee Kah Hong, Clarence Tan, Terrence Wong, Alicia Joyce De Silva and Lu Heng. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Despite his hectic job as a freelance clinical research nurse, Bernard Lee Kah Hong still manages to find time for his passion - composing music.

The 36-year-old composes in the little time he has at home or finds time at work to jot down ideas that are set to music later. He has a diploma in nursing from Nanyang Polytechnic and a degree in music from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in affiliation with the University of Wales.

He formed Quinnuance in 2012 with other young composers who had studied at Nafa. The group have six members, including Lu Heng, Alicia Joyce De Silva, Natalie Ng, Terrence Wong and Clarence Tan.

They will hold their fourth concertat the Esplanade Recital Studio on May 27. The hour-long concert will see six original pieces performed by eight to 10 professional musicians hired by the group.

De Silva, 28, a music lecturer at Nafa, says: "A lot of the time, classical composers are viewed as distant or even dead figures.

"Because we are neither of those things, we want to promote the emphasis on local composers and change the notion people have about classical composers."

Among the other members, Ng, 28, is an arts administrator; Tan, 39, is a band and orchestra conductor; Lu, 26, works as an administrator; and Wong, 26, is a band instructor.

The name of the group, Quinnuance, is a combination of two words, "quintet" and "nuance". This combination reflects the original number of members in the group - five, when they started - as well as their individual "shades of sound".

What distinguishes them from other music groups is that they do not perform the pieces they write, but hire professional musicians to do it instead. This is because the group members want to concentrate on composing music.

Lee says: "If we perform the songs we write, our music will be restricted because we can make only music that we play. Composers should know how to work with an instrument, even if they don't know how to play it."

The group's composing gig may only be part-time, but their passion is so great that they continue to stage concerts even if ticket sales cannot cover operating costs.

The cost of renting the venue, hiring professional musicians and other miscellaneous expenditure can come up to $9,000 to $10,000 for each concert. Paying the musicians alone takes up nearly half of the cost.

Most of the time, the group barely break even, despite the help of grants from the National Arts Council or the Arts Fund. But they consider it worth it to showcase their art.

Says Lee: "As composers, there is no other platform to show our music. In the long term, the profit can come from audience appreciation and the improvements we make with experience."

Quinnuance consider the music that they write "Western, but with a Singaporean root to it". Their previous concerts have been reviewed in Life! by freelance music critic Chang Tou Liang, who has described their music as an "interesting mix of diverse and sophisticated musical minds".

Each of the six composers has a different style. For example, Lee's music has less tonality and focuses on pure sound, while Tan's music is harmonious, with a minimalist feel to it.

The title of their fourth concert, Refracting Rituals, reflects their aim to challenge the rituals or traditions of how music is formed, as well as the notion of concert-going.

The dynamic of the group is very democratic, with members coming together on a regular basis to decide on the number of pieces and arrangements for the performance.

However, Lee says that members often do not get to hear one another's works until the concert itself.

He says: "Composers are touchy and sensitive people. We may be friends and peers, but we don't want to be in a place to critique others, since we're all equals."

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