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11 Jan 2022

Composer of the Month for Jan 2022: Joan TAN

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 1st CSS Composer of the Month for 2022 is Joan TAN! Joan is a Singaporean composer who is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Joan TAN

Interviewer: GU Wei

Tell us a bit about yourself! How did you start learning music and composition?

Hello! I’m Joan, I’m currently a 3rd-year student studying a Bachelors of Music (Composition) at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST), National University of Singapore (NUS), under the tutelage of Associate Professor Peter Ivan Edwards.

I started learning music through the piano. My neighbour used to play the piano, and the 8-year-old me was fascinated by the sounds that arose from it; I wanted to learn to do the same. His mum was really kind, she volunteered to teach me the basics before I went on to take formal lessons a year later. Prior to this, I always enjoyed writing songs. They were just melodies with typical chord progressions, but I think that was my first foray into composition (well, technically songwriting). I began writing instrumental music and using music notation software when I was in secondary school, through the Music Elective Programme (MEP). Composition at this stage was very much based on instincts and trial and error; I didn’t have much formal composition lessons. Though I think it was through this process of experimentation that I came to love composing. I saw it as a means of self-expression and I was also extremely fascinated by the process, how it was as if I were conjuring something out of nothing, something that was my own. It was, and is still, somewhat magical to me. I went on to do H2 and H3 Music at Eunoia Junior College, and it was through this that I was exposed to various contemporary music — Debussy, Stravinsky, Cage, Crumb, Ligeti etc. to name a few. I began learning contemporary compositional techniques through music books available in our school library, as well as lessons with my music teacher, Mr Xie Zhizhong (I would just like to take this opportunity to thank him. He would take hours off his schedule to provide me feedback on my pieces, even when they had nothing to do with the curriculum. His unwavering support to his students’ musical endeavours really encouraged and enabled me to pursue my passion.)

How would you describe your music, and what are some of your biggest influences?

That’s actually quite a hard question to answer, because I’m still at a stage in my compositional journey where I’m figuring out what interests and fascinates me. So there isn’t really one way to describe the music I write. Often times, each piece is based off a musical or extra-musical idea that I’m curious about — my most recent interests were towards systems and indeterminacy, as well as dreams.

I am generally fascinated by psychological phenomena, as well as perceived dichotomies and their co-existence, both in sound and people. I am captivated by the existence of dichotomies within the same piece or person (regardless of whether these dichotomies are conspicuous or not), and how one negotiates and navigates them. Dichotomies often form the basis of my works, and are sonically present in majority of my pieces.

Musical influences wise, I enjoy unconventional timbres, so prepared instruments, extended techniques and electronic processing of sounds particularly intrigue me. Currently, I’ve been listening to works by Clara Iannotta, Fausto Romitelli and Chaya Czernowin.

How is your experience studying composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and what advice do you have for prospective students who are considering studying there?

Words can’t begin to describe what an amazing experience it has been so far for me. I see myself growing exponentially as a composer, going deeper into my ideas, honing the skills needed to express these ideas into sound, and writing pieces I would never have been able to a few years ago. YST has also provided me with various opportunities to have my music performed and heard, thereby gaining valuable experience as well as feedback from others. Some of these include performances held in YST, masterclasses by visiting composers or opportunities to collaborate with student and professional musicians and ensembles. Beyond that, the support from YST has also enabled me to pursue external opportunities to connect and exchange ideas with other individuals abroad, build my portfolio and gain various perspectives, both towards my music as well as towards other aspects of music and life. Overall, I’ve been exposed to repertoire and ideas that I otherwise would have never known, and my perspective towards music, and my future, has changed a lot in these short 2.5 years. It’s been lovely!

I would encourage prospective students to look into what each of the departments in YST has to offer in terms of its curriculum. After all, different schools will place emphasis on different areas of music, so finding a department that aligns with one’s interests is important. This could be through researching online, talking to students who are/were in that department, or participating in short courses offered by these departments should opportunities arise (the Composition Department for one, offers the annual Young Composers Academy, which I participated in. The course gave me a greater insight into YST’s composition faculty and focus, which was one of the deciding factors for me when choosing to study at YST.) Other than that, I would just encourage them to keep an open mind and stay curious!

Tell us more about your recently featured piece Chroma in the CSS Score Follower Videos. I am especially fascinated by the textures you created. Could you tell us more about your compositional process and inspirations behind this piece?

Chroma was written in 2020, and it develops upon the ideas presented in my earlier work, Colouresque. This was a series of three short studies — Red, Grey and Blue — which were inspired by my perspective of the relationship between colour and emotions, and how characteristics of these relationships are re-imagined sonically to form three unique dispositions.

When writing Chroma, I was focused on creating a journey through distinctive states, ones which are in itself shifting and moving, yet ultimately does not arrive at an end destination. Through the piece, each of these states is characterised by their own sense of time and intensity, a sonic reflection of how I perceive colours and emotions. The result is a journey through a constellation of disparate, static spaces; going somewhere with nowhere in mind.

Check out ‘Chroma’ here on CSS’s YouTube Channel:

Share with us what you are working on now, and any upcoming projects you’re looking forward to.

Currently, I’m on an exchange programme at Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki. I am hoping to delve more into Sonic Arts and Music Concrète through Sibelius Academy’s Music Technology department. In the coming weeks, I will be involved in a virtual exchange programme between YST and the Gustav Mahler Private University (GMPU) in Klagenfurt, Austria. The YST Conservatory Orchestra will also be reading my new orchestra piece, In Attempts to Wake in January, while my duo for cello and electronics, Wanderlost, will be premiered by cellist Martin Jaggi and my friend, Chua Zi Tao, in February.