LIVING WITH... Young Composers / Review

The Arts House Living Room / Monday (2 May 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 May 2011 with the title "Young composers were hit and miss".

Fact: there are more composers in Singapore now than any other time in history. Who are they and what do they compose? The Arts House’s “Living With…” series provided some of the clues.

The setting was informal, and like poetry reading sessions, a means of expressing themselves and eliciting some reaction from an audience. But first, tribute was paid when one of the young composers, Jun Zubillaga-Pow performed on piano the Prelude Orientale by late doyen of Singaporean composers Leong Yoon Pin.

Its pentatonic melody and eclectic quasi-American idiom (Ives and Copland come to mind) had discernible form, something which his younger colleagues could take home and learn. Then Bernard Lee Kah Hong’s Seeing Through the Unbondable Links of Hours shot the first atonal salvoes.

About people who come together for a while and then go on their own ways, four musicians – a pianist, percussionist, violinist and oboist – did just that. There were aleatorical (chance) elements and scored sections, but given the diffuse and seemingly random nature of the music, one was hard pressed to guess which was which, and whether the artists were having their listeners on.

Equally unintelligible was Zubillaga-Pow’s A Situational Conversation Happening During the Global Economic Crisis. Quite a mouthful, but the sung work with ruan (plucked Chinese instrument) accompaniment centred on a Bangladeshi immigrant worker and his “boss” with whom he also has a physical relationship. Amid the background hum of piling noises, the singer’s voice traversed too narrow a range, was indeterminate in pitch and undecipherable in content.

Alicia de Silva’s two Songs Of Night were settings of Amy Lowell and Walt Whitman, both good literary sources. Her deft use of clarinet and piano helped provide atmospheric colour for Evelyn Ang’s vocals, which had emotional heft and range – from whisper to yelp - to register a blip on consciousness. Why two of the performers painted their faces to resemble Goths or groupies at a KISS revival remained a mystery.

Finally Luo Enning’s Light And Day was a three-movement flute sonata with thematic interest which could be further developed. The finale saw Clement Lim blow his flute into the innards of Teo Li-Chin’s piano, creating an ethereal effect with harmonics for a placid close. A post-concert forum later provided lively discourse and food for thought. Hit or miss, the young composers are encouraged to continue experimenting and find their own individual voices.