Young Singapore composers striking a chord at home and overseas

Singapore composers aged 20 to 30 are winning commissions from local and overseas music groups

Syafiqah ’Adha Mohamed Sallehin, the first Malay student to do a bachelor of music degree at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, hopes to blend traditional Malay music with Western techniques. -- PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Composer Lu Heng (above) arranges works of others for ensembles such as Singapore Wind Symphony’s Jeremy Monteiro concert on July 20. The Singapore Chinese Orchestra will play one of Phang Kok Jun’s works at its June 28 concert. -- PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Composer Lu Heng arranges works of others for ensembles such as Singapore Wind Symphony’s Jeremy Monteiro concert on July 20. The Singapore Chinese Orchestra will play one of Phang Kok Jun’s (above) works at its June 28 concert. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF PHANG KOK JUN
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has commissioned a new work from 25-year-old Terrence Wong, who just completed his bachelor’s degree in music, for its upcoming 2014/2015 season. -- PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Young composers from Singapore are striking a chord at home and overseas.

Aged 20 to 30, they are winning commissions from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Singapore Symphony Orchestra and have their works played by ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

On June 28, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's mega-concert at the new National Stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub features a percussion piece, Power Singapura, written by music student Phang Kok Jun, 24, who is completing his bachelor's in music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), meanwhile, has scheduled for its upcoming 2014/2015 season a work from conservatory alumnus Chen Zhangyi, 30, and commissions from Emily Koh, 28, as well as Terrence Wong, 25, who has just completed his bachelor's degree in music under the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' joint programme with London's Royal College of Music.

"It's a great feeling to have the national orchestra play your work," says Wong, who also joined a February workshop for young composers organised by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra played works from eight composers, including Phang's, at a workshop, followed by a free concert at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. SSO general manager Anthony Brice, 38, says a similar event will be held next year.

Phang, who is on an exchange programme with the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and is also composer-in- residence of the local Chinese music ensemble Ding Yi Music Company, says: "There is a rising trend among ensembles in Singapore to offer opportunities for composers in terms of readings, performances and commissions."

Other works of his to be performed this year include Pelog Fantasy for a quintet led by harpist Katryna Tan, next month in Sydney, and a concerto for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in November.

Yet he and composers such as Koh, a Yong Siew Toh alumnus who is finishing a doctorate at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, say it is still tough to make a living out of writing music full-time.

Rates posted on the website of the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (Compass) suggest composer fees ranging between $180 for works for solo instruments, and less than $1,200 for orchestral works featuring vocalists. Koh says she has been paid "a five-figure sum" for her biggest commission in the United States. Separately, her contemporary Diana Soh says Singaporean commissions pay "10 times less" than those from Europe.

Two big hurdles in Singapore are the small market and the centuries of Western classical music repertoire, which leave a limited audience for contemporary music.

In contrast, Koh has this year written music for several American ensembles focusing on contemporary music including Chicago's Ensemble Dal Niente, the New York New Music Ensemble and the New York-based Talea Ensemble.

Attitudes in Singapore towards contemporary compositions are changing, but slowly. Pianist Song Ziliang, 30, last year asked Chen to write a Laksa Cantata, a 20-minute mini opera. It premiered at The Arts House last year and is a cheeky riff on Bach's famous Coffee Cantata.

"I find it ironic that though we are born in this part of the world, we mostly play composers in the Western tradition," says Song, who trained at the famous Moscow Conservatory and the Royal College of Music in London.

Heavily grounded in Western repertoire until his 20s, he then found himself increasingly interested in sounds from home. "As someone born in Ang Mo Kio, what do Bach or Beethoven have to do with me?"

Chen, is doing a composition course organised by the Eastman School of Music and the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris. He is also working on a piece for chamber ensemble inspired by a favourite Singapore pastime, window-shopping.

He has had works recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra (Ariadne's Love, 2011, broadcast on BBC Radio 3) and Tokyo Philharmonic (Rain Tree, 2011). His biggest commission at home was last year's musical Pursuant, from the Singapore Lyric Opera. "Even with such big names, it's hard to make a living," he says. "In Singapore, it's hard to hear local compositions."

Composers say local commissions mostly come from the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, community orchestras such as Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and smaller ensembles such as the T'ang Quartet, the Singapore Wind Symphony and The Philharmonic Winds.

Musicians from these ensembles do not just support local composers as a duty, but they also commend the quality of the works. Dr Leonard Tan, music director of The Philharmonic Winds, has played music by Chen, Terrence Wong and composer-conductor Wong Kah Chun. "They display great technique and a clear musical voice and are special in the eclectic mix of Singaporean flavours," says the 35-year-old.

Conductor Adrian Tan, 37, of the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Wind Symphony, says: "Often we notice that Singaporean artists gain recognition at home only when they receive international attention."

Earlier this year, he asked Terrence Wong to write a trombone concerto for noted American musician Joseph Alessi. Alessi played the 20-minute piece on Feb 23 at the Esplanade Concert Hall and told Life! he hoped his performance would "define the piece as something everybody will want to play".

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's music director Tsung Yeh, 63, says his budget allows him to commission up to 30 new works a year. "This is part of our strategic plan to develop a repertoire for the Chinese orchestra," he adds, pointing out that Chinese orchestras have only about 60 years of repertoire to rely on. The first modern Chinese orchestra was established in Beijing in the 1950s.

He says: "We must be relevant to where we are. It does not mean we narrow our repertoire, but when we go out, we must play compositions we own."

The orchestra's China tour last month featured works from local composers Eric Watson, Kelly Tang, Ho Chee Kong and Jeremy Monteiro, among others, and he says the pieces "wowed the audience" in the arts hub of Shanghai.

The Chinese orchestra organised a composers' workshop last year and has held two composition contests in 2006 and 2011. Entries can be submitted until Oct 1 for another contest next November, which offers a Singapore Composer Award and Young Singapore Composer Award of $8,000 and $4,000.

This is good news for composers such as Lu Heng, 26, who did his diploma in music performance at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. He mostly arranges other composers' works for ensembles such as the Singapore Wind Symphony's Monteiro concert on July 20, while trying to interest local ensembles in his original work.

He and four other young composers in 2012 co-founded a group, Quinnuance, to promote and perform their work. Their most recent concert was on May 30 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. "It's given us the motivation and a tangible reason to keep composing," he says. "The onus is on us to push for outreach and nurture understanding of our music ourselves."


Who: Syafiqah 'Adha Mohamed Sallehin

Age: 24

The first Malay student to do a bachelor of music degree at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University of Singapore hopes to develop traditional Malay music with Western techniques.

Apart from composing award-winning music and arranging other composers' works for the T'ang Quartet and Singapore Wind Symphony, Syafiqah 'Adha Mohamed Sallehin is artistic director of Malay music ensemble Gendang Akustika.

It has been featured since 2011 in the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay's annual Malay music festival Pesta Raya, and also performs at weddings and community events to pay the bills.

Syafiqah, 24, arranges music into scores for younger musicians who rely on written notation rather than follow the traditional method of learning through hearing.

"I like being in a place where I can develop a traditional Malay art and also develop classical music," she says, explaining why she has not sought a career overseas.

The third of four children, two girls and two boys, born to a technical officer and a housewife, Syafiqah was trained in the piano but mostly plays the accordion on stage.

Her appearances range from Singapore Press Holdings' charity concert ChildAid in 2012, with critically acclaimed ensemble the Orchestra Of The Music Makers, to well-known string ensemble the T'ang Quartet's Christmas concert last year.

She has arranged music for the quartet, including Borodin's Polovtsian Dances and folk melody Burung Kakak Tua. The Singapore Wind Symphony's concert on July 20 celebrating jazz musician Jeremy Monteiro also features some of her arrangements.

She is a striking composer in her own right: her eight-minute melody for percussionists, Dance Of The Merlions, won second prize in a contest at the Asian Composer's League festival and conference last year.

The festival is a key event for young composers in the Asia-Pacific region to develop their resumes. Past participants include award-winning young composer Emily Koh and rising conductor Wong Kah Chun.

Wong's Asian Contemporary Ensemble, founded under the auspices of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, has premiered Syafiqah's works in the past and another concert is in the works.

Developments like this are what make her certain that staying in Singapore has been the right choice.

"I want to see what can happen here. Right now, maybe people see me more in terms of the music I arrange, but I'm going to change that," she says.


Who: Diana Soh

Age: 30

Paris-based Singaporean composer Diana Soh, 30, says leaving home led to a full career.

"What happens in Europe is that you realise composition is a lifestyle," says Soh, who moved to Paris in 2012.

She was composer-in-residence until last year at the Conservatoire D'ivry sur Seine, ending with a concert in May at music festival La Muse en Circuit. Most recently, she has been doing projects with the well-known Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam) in Paris, including showcasing a piece for piccolo and electronics at the Ircam Asian Forum in Seoul in April.

During the next half of this year, she has new works premiering in Portugal, Sweden and Belgium. A chamber opera, Out At Sea, co-written last year with five other composers under the Peter Eotvos Contemporary Music Foundation, will be performed in Paris next month. Another of her works for chamber ensemble, Incantare, commissioned by the Goethe Institute of South Korea, was performed during a music festival in Tongyeong in March. Last month, Copenhagen's Athelas Sinfonietta ensemble played her work for 15 musicians, un_deux_trois_quatre_cinq, at the Klang music festival in Denmark.

Closer to home, the Singapore Youth Choir Ensemble Singers sang her piece Vak at the group's 40th anniversary concert in April at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Soh has a special fondness for the group, since its artistic director Jennifer Tham first suggested she might have a talent for composition.

The only child of a driving instructor and secretary, Soh sang in choirs in Anglican High School and Temasek Junior College and then did her bachelor's in music at the National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

She did further studies, finishing a doctorate at the University of Buffalo, New York. She is married to French composer David Hudry, 36. They have no children.

"I already wanted to leave Singapore when I was 16," she says. She feels that she could not make a living writing music full-time in Singapore, offering comparisons of commissioning rates in France (works start at €$1,000 or S$1,700) with those in Singapore (suggested rates by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore start at $180 for solo instruments).

"That's why my parents don't blame me for living overseas. If you put your energy full-time into writing music, you get a good product," she says.

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