Concerts devoted wholly to Singaporean composers are very rare. What more one that features only string quartet music? That is the gauntlet thrown down by local composer-impresario JUN ZUBILLAGA-POW, who curates Music Space 2011, a platform for Singaporean music centred around the Substation. The Singaporean String Quartet promises to be a most interesting and intriguing event, taking place on Friday 2 September 2011, 8 pm at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Seven composers are represented, including Zubillaga-Pow who has kindly granted this interview with Pianomania. For the record, the works performed are:

The Singaporean String Quartet

Friday 2 September 2011, 8pm

Esplanade Recital Studio

Artsylum Quartet and Oxley Quartet with

Sanche Jagatheesan, Jun Zubillaga-Pow and Daniel Chiang

LEE YUK CHUAN Lingzhi Capriccio (1973)

KELLY TANG String Quartet (1990)

PHOON YEW TIEN String Quartet (1980)

JUN ZUBILLAGA-POW Weird Witches (2011)

JEREMIAH LI KAI HAN Three Korean Scenes (2006)

BENJAMIN LIM YI Porcelain Harlequin / Through the Glass / Threshold (2007-10)

LEONG YOON PIN – Largo and Vivace (1982)

The Singaporean String Quartet sounds like a most interesting concert. Are there actually that many string quartets written by Singaporean composers?

Yes. The genre of the string quartet is in fact a very versatile vehicle for composers to display both their dexterity and craftsmanship in handling a traditional art form. Most of the composers after the first Viennese school, that is from Brahms to Birtwistle, have written at least one string quartet in their careers. The string quartet is almost always the first entry point, not only for the composer to attain a level of artistic maturity, but also for the audiences to grasp the aesthetic style of the composer. Indeed, I can hereby say there are as many Singaporean string quartets as there are established Singaporean composers amongst us today. It is unfortunate we were unable to perform all the pieces.

Leong Yoon Pin, Phoon Yew Tien & Kelly Tang

Tell us about the Singaporean composers whose string quartets are being played at the concert.

There is a distinct criterion in my programming of composers from the English-educated and the Chinese-educated domains of Singaporean society across three generations, with composers born from the 1930s to the 1980s. If one were to compare the works of Lee Yuk Chuan and Leong Yoon Pin, one can hear the clear Eastern-Western divide in their compositional treatment, as is the case between the creative aesthetics of Phoon Yew Tien and his counterpart Kelly Tang. These are composers born before the self-governance of Singapore and thereby had aligned themselves with a certain musical tradition.

On the other hand, the music of Jeremiah Li, Benjamin Lim and myself can be considered as representations of the citizen-composer's interaction with the travel, filmic and electronic aspects of contemporary cultural life in the age of globalisation. I am sure listeners will be able to detect the stylistic shifts from one piece to the next, as well as how the structure of the two-movement form in Leong and Phoon gradually gives way to the more tentative ternary divisions of the younger Lim and Li. These observations are symbolic of the changing character traits of Singaporeans over the past 50 years, of which composers are but one of the many constituents.

Jun Zubillaga-Pow, Jeremiah Li Kai Han, Benjamin Lim Yi

Why have these works not been heard - until now?

Actually, most of the quartet works in the programme have been premiered in Singapore, but were spread across a spectrum of time and space. Some were performed only once in college recitals or as an accompaniment to staged or filmic productions. This concert is special in the sense that it is both a revival of local music and also presents a historical trajectory of how the string quartet has evolved in the hands of Singaporeans: from generic to programmatic to electronic.

Given the many concerts and hectic business of the general public, I'm not surprise these wonderful works have not been played or heard enough. Yet, there remain factors such as unwilling performers and insufficient funding. We are hereby grateful that the National Arts Council and the Zubillaga family from Argentina is able to sponsor this performance.

All of us know the T'ang Quartet, but who are the Artsylum and Oxley Quartets (below)?

The members of the Artsylum Quartet are Ng Wei Ping, Chia Jit Min, Christoven Tan and Elizabeth Tan, while the Oxley Quartet is made up of Seah Huan Yuh, Lu-Min Chew, Matthias Oestringer and Peter Alsop. They are possibly the most diverse string players one can find living in Singapore. They are also well-trained in performing chamber and contemporary music.

Are you seeing a wider appreciation of Singaporean music over the years, and how can we help more local composers to be heard?

I think 'appreciation' is not the right imperative at this point in time. There continues to be a lack of knowledge and exposure of good Singaporean music. I find it odd that even with the increase in the number of Singaporean performers and performances locally and overseas, Singaporean music has hitherto failed to garner popularity both on concert platforms and public broadcasts.

This criticism does not pertain to classical music per se, but there lies some serious soul-searching within the 2.1 million Singaporeans who had voted in May and August this year. Kudos to S. Rajaratnam and Ong Teng Cheong whose visions had allowed Singaporean music to be heard. Vote wiser next time, AND COME TO THE CONCERT!