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08 Feb 2021

CSS Composer of the Month for Feb 2021: Joyce KOH

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month!

The second CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Dr Joyce KOH! Dr Joyce KOH, a famous composer in Singapore, currently works as Senior Lecturer and Vice Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).

Joyce KOH

Interviewer: GU Wei

How did you start your musical journey and what made you decide to pursue composition?

It began with an early morning walk into the woods with my composition teacher at King’s College, David LUMSDAINE. On this walk, I experienced for the first time, one of nature’s most breath-taking phenomenon, the dawn chorus. Imagine being physically encircled by a cacophony of melodic fragments with complex rhythmic patterns, playing out in full timbral magnificence! This aural and physical sensation probably hit me hard. I don’t know why and how, but there is something powerful in this experience, as I decided to pursue composition! In retrospect, it was some form of awakening. I understood that nature can inform and teach me about the systems of the world if I listen intently and think deeply enough. Composing has become my way of connecting with life and making sense of the world I live in.

Tell us about your interest in architecture, as well as working with interdisciplinary mediums such as dance, theatre and sound installations. A lot of these seem to have a close connection with the physical space. How have these influenced your compositional process, and your thoughts on music in general?

Music is liquid architecture;
Architecture is frozen music.
– Goethe

Architecture and Music have many shared elements at a meta-level. In the early stage of my compositional journey, I was obsessed with the idea of a sonic canvas and how the ink of the Chinese calligraphy might sound when it ‘touches’ the canvas. A notable example of this idea is my orchestral work, Tai (1998). (Project IDIOM has a page of the score for Tai.) Several years later, a couple of artistic enlightenment led me to think about the stage as a sonic volume with its internal structures. I then expanded the concept of sonic canvas into a schema of ‘theatre of music’ (On the String, multimedia, 2010) where acoustic and physical attributes of the space become key considerations.

On the String – a performance about String Theory,
a speculative theory of space, matter, energy and time,
based on tiny one‐dimensional vibrating entities.

You spent a great deal of time studying and working in Europe before returning to Singapore. How was your experience overseas, and what do you hope for Singapore’s new music scene in the years to come?

Why then the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.
– Shakespeare

I sat in cafés pontificating about music, arts, and life. I survived a multitude of questions about musical identity, the role of the arts, and the meaning of life. I encountered artists who were totally singular in their vision as they strove for spiritual fulfilment through their work, though, sometimes involuntarily, at the expense of their personal relationships. I observed, experienced, empathized, and lived.

The new music scene in Singapore is pretty vibrant, in my opinion. Take a look at the membership number of the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS). It is one of the highest in years and bustling with young composers. Wonderful! Good things take time to build. I reckon that when art policymakers, the audience, and the musicians care about and for the creative process enough, possibly as much as the composers themselves do, the wealth and health of society will flourish.

What advice do you have for aspiring young composers in Singapore?

  • Get your hands dirty.
  • Be courageous.
  • Keep asking questions about music and sound.
  • There are too many distractions; stay focused.