Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 4th CSS Composer of the Month for 2022 is Kenneth TAY! Kenneth is a choral music practitioner, and divides his time between composing, conducting, singing, teaching, research, music production and recording. He received his MMus with Distinction at the University of Aberdeen, specialising in composition and choral music.
Tell us about your musical background – how you began learning music, and what you do now.
My musical journey has not been linear, but full of twists and turns! I first started learning the piano at 6 years old, but something about the process of solitude in a practice room never really clicked for me. The irony is that I do sit alone with a piano and a computer to write music these days!
I think I became a lot more passionate about music-making in my teenage years. I attended Victoria School (VS), and later Victoria Junior College (VJC), and the choirs there are led by Mr. Nelson Kwei. The choir cultures were very supportive, and senior members of the choir would guide, and pass on knowledge about singing to younger members. I was very fortunate to become a section leader by the time I was 14 years old, in Secondary 2. I was not only in charge of teaching the notes of a line, but also given the opportunity to ‘mold’ the sound: to help amalgamate the sound of 20 singers in my section with different voices into a collective, unified whole.
Throughout the six years singing in both VS and VJC choirs, Nelson would, with the support of the school teachers, organise yearly choir tours. These tours would be in the form of an international competition or festival. We travelled to many places – the World Children’s Choir Festival in Hong Kong, Festa Musicale in the Czech Republic, and the Venezia in Musica competition in Italy. The opportunity to see the world at a young age, and soak in music from all over the world was truly transformational, and definitely played a part in shaping my desire to become a musician.
I was also the only student in my VS cohort that offered Higher Music as a subject at O-level. The programme really helped me organise my musical ideas, and opened my ears to orchestral music for the first time. I also owe much of my early musical education to my other teachers – Jacqueline Anne Lee, Lee Shi Mei, and Monica Tay. It was later on throughout my undergraduate years, that I had the fortune of meeting Dr. Nirmali Fenn and Dr. Zechariah Goh, who gave me the much-needed encouragement to begin my forays into composition. After reading my first degree in Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I read my master’s degree in music at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
I moved to Scotland without actually knowing anyone beforehand! Yet, I am blessed to meet many wonderful people, from the students who would be happily singing anywhere in the music building, to my wonderful teachers: Dr. Phillip Cooke, Prof Paul Mealor, and Dr. John Frederick Hudson. They have offered invaluable advice and perspectives to music, art, and life at large, and also provided me with opportunities to grow and learn. I’ve since moved back to Singapore, where I divide my time between composing, conducting, singing, teaching, research, music production and recording. I still am learning new things in my work as a musician. I also look forward to being back in school in the near future
What attracted you to writing for choral music and what are some of your main influences?
The voice is something deeply personal to each of us, but it is in an ensemble that if all the elements line up, the most intricate and powerful tapestry of sound is created. I recall the first time I listened to the setting of O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen in 2007 by a local choir. It was truly transformational for me, and I was in tears after hearing the performance of the work. Since then, I have been immensely moved numerous times listening to many other choral works, whether as a choral singer, conductor, or a member of the audience.
When I was younger, I would have listened to plenty of Mandopop from the early and mid-2000s. The choral music of Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, and Toru Takemitsu accompanied me on many of my long bus rides. Of late, my Spotify playlist is where I reconnect to music I’ve listened to, and discover some new gems. I can think of several contemporary choir works that are important, which provide new discoveries whenever I study the scores: Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine (Eric Whitacre), Miserere (James Macmillan), Northern Lights (Ēriks Ešenvalds), Kasar mie la gaji (Alberto Grau), Pamugun (Francisco Feliciano)… there’s simply too many to list! But I think the most impactful choral pieces have been the ones that have a particular poetic quality, or deep dramaturgy.
I am at this stage, still very much a young composer, and finding my way around telling stories and expressing meaning. As a choral composer, finding the right text perhaps takes the longest time – text that not only provides suitable stimuli but also has the right ingredients that resonate with what I am feeling at a point in time.
You seem to wear many hats as a musician – how do you balance these roles?
I have had years of practice! Sometimes I do wonder how I even manage it all. As a student at NUS, it was common for political science majors to have upwards of 200 pages of weekly reading that required synthesis, and plenty of essays to write. I was not only singing in two choirs then, but also held leadership roles!
Music-making has had a very different meaning to me in the last 5 years or so. It used to be a “serious hobby”, but now that I make a living out of it by wearing the many hats of a musician, I try to measure each activity in terms of manhours I have to dedicate to produce a certain output. Google Calendar is my best friend for keeping track of my deadlines, whether it be preparing worksheets for my classroom, audio editing, or to be silent in my thoughts while writing a new piece.
Could you briefly share with us about the project “Composing Monumentality”? How was your journey studying the works of Mr Phoon Yew Tien and what are some of the takeaways from this project?
“Composing Monumentality” was an exciting project that we wrapped up in March 2022. I had the joy of taking a closer look at Mr. Phoon Yew Tien’s Confucius: A Secular Cantata (2001). I found three key areas that made the work monumental – the sheer number of performers required at its premiere, the high level of direct support by the state, and that at 2 hours and 27 minutes, is possibly the longest work written by any Singaporean composer for the concert music medium to date.
I think the highlight of the project was for me, to meet the composer to discuss his musical ideas, and the journey of composing the 10-movement work. What better way to learn about the music than to ask the composer himself!
What left a strong impression on me, was his honest desire to fuse Western-style harmony with his Singaporean Chinese identity. He also described the pains of hand-engraving all 490 pages of the full orchestra score, and how composing the extended work actually gave him the impetus to use computers for notation. To me, it highlighted his spirit of perseverance, and desire to keep learning.
Check out Kenneth’s presentation on Mr. Phoon Yew Tien’s music below:
What are some of your upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
After three world premieres in March 2022, my creative energies are now spent preparing for the release of some choral music for the Holy Week period this year with the Basement Bunch. You might also catch me singing at some choral music events across Singapore this year, as live performances move towards the new normal. Some choral music accompanied by piano is in the works.
My website is kenntay.com. Stay tuned!