The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) kickstarts 2020 with a new monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month!
The fifth composer to be featured is CHUA Jon Lin, a Singaporean composer and educator! She is also the current treasurer for CSS!
Interviewer: Emily KOH
You played erhu in Chinese orchestra, then studied philosophy at NUS before pursuing your undergraduate degree in Composition at Eastman. When did you decide that you wanted to be a musician, and how has your philosophy studies and early exposure to music in the Chinese Orchestra setting shape you to be the composer you are today?
Before I came into contact with the Chinese orchestra, I had started off on the piano and violin at a young age, so I already had some musical background. But it was the erhu that really ignited my passion in music when I first came into contact with it at the age of 9, even before entering a Chinese orchestra. Somehow I was really intrigued with the “living tones” of the erhu, to borrow a term from Korean composer Isang Yun, referring to the dynamic and complex nature of such a tone that is rich in timbral nuances and ever-morphing. Therefore, I feel that being an erhu player made me more naturally inclined towards exploring timbre in general, because thinking about timbre seems to be so embedded within erhu playing.
I would say that becoming a professional musician was not really among any of my childhood ambitions, so I often look back in surprise at my eventual chosen path. Playing the erhu and studying philosophy have only been two elements in my multifarious experiences, as I was the sort of child to be interested in just about anything, from sports to literature and other pursuits, and I also had the opportunities to delve deeper into some of those pursuits. I think this sort of background made me a sort of jack-of-all-trades, and the bad thing about it was that I went on for a long time without being clear about my own direction in life. But I think these variegated experiences gleaned from being exposed to different fields and disciplines have all helped in shaping me to be a somewhat eclectic composer, similarly with a wide range of musical interests and influences. The work featured here, life is an illusion, for instance, was inspired by traditional Chinese nanyin music, drawing from my experience of learning to sing nanyin during a particular period of time.
Your work Life is an Illusion is inspired by Mr. Teng Mah Seng’s (1916-1992) original nanyin composition,《感怀》 (Ruminations). What did you draw from the poem in your piece? (I know it is partly in the program notes, but the audience will not see it.)
I mainly engaged with the text of Mr. Teng’s piece (written by lyricist Mr. Zhuo Sheng Xiang) as well as other more general features of nanyin music itself. A large part of this piece is structured around electronically-altered utterances of the first four words of the lyrics, “人生如幻” (“life is an illusion”), making these words barely recognizable. While barely any trace of Teng’s original tune remains within this work, the work abstracts and exemplifies various characteristics of traditional nanyin music, such as its introspective nature, the breathing and phrasing, the focus on various phases of articulation, as well as its heterophonic texture. The music also seeks to engage with the sonic qualities of the words as spoken in authentic quanzhou dialect (泉州话, considered closest to ancient Chinese), as opposed to the meaning of the text itself. The quanzhou dialect is unique in that it retains various phonemic intricacies, such as the beginning and ending consonants of words, and also uses complex diphthongs. This makes the enunciation of words a hugely important part of learning nanyin singing. I have also attempted to highlight this aspect of the practice of nanyin music through my own piece. The full text only reveals itself right at the end.
How do the electronics function in this work, and how did you prepare the work for the entrance of text toward the end of the work?
The electronic component in this work consists solely of pre-recorded sounds and electronic alterations of these sounds. These sounds are directly derived from the recitation of the text in full, a brief excerpt playing the nanyin pipa, and also playing the xiangzhan, a small handheld metallic gong used in traditional nanyin music. They are all performed by Mr. Lin Shao Ling, Artistic Director of Siong Leng Music Association, a Singaporean nanyin group founded by Mr. Teng Mah Seng. These pre-recorded and altered sounds represent the concrete aspect of the original nanyin song. In contrast, my writing for the acoustic instruments were based upon abstracted principles of nanyin music and the phonemic intricacies of the text, as mentioned above.
The entire work is split into five major sections,. Each of the first four sections are ushered in by an electronically-altered recording of the syllable of the words “人”, “生”, “如”, and “幻” respectively as spoken in the quanzhou dialect. The first word “人” is barely recognizable as a spoken syllable, after being electronically stretched out with some frequency partials removed or enhanced. Over this resultant sound, I have also inserted the original accelerando figure of the nanyin pipa recorded by Mr. Lin, as this figure is a typical gesture that opens most nanyin vocal pieces. As the music progresses, each altered syllable becomes clearer and clearer, culminating in the final section that features the recitation of the text in its entirety. Such a structure loosely follows the structure of a traditional nanyin vocal piece, which starts off loose and slow, with long-drawn melismatic syllables that slowly gain momentum and become increasingly heard in full phrases. The dramatic pace of the instrumental writing also follows this structural principal.
This work was performed at SoundBridge 2019 in Malaysia. Could you tell us what your experiences were at that festival?
Yes, indeed, this work was actually commissioned by the 4th SoundBridge Contemporary Music Festival helmed by Malaysian composer Dr. Chong Kee Yong. The festival featured a stellar lineup of world-class performers and composers, and so it was an honor to be among such distinguished company. I really enjoyed working with the musicians of the Studio C Ensemble who performed my piece, as they approached it with utmost professionalism and seriousness. Though we ran into some technical glitches with the audio playback when we first started rehearsing, those challenges were eventually solved, thanks to the hard work of those present. It was wonderful getting to meet so many immensely talented artists who are passionate about new music.
What are you working on next?
I am working on two commissions. The first is a large-scale Chinese orchestral piece commissioned by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, slated to be premiered this August by the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Quek Ling Kiong. The title of this piece is Lingering Resonances of the Street Opera Gongs, a piece that likewise heavily features the traditional element of traditional Hokkien opera as well as various contemporary compositional techniques, but done in a very different way from life is an illusion. As far as Chinese orchestral repertoire is concerned, I think it is a rather experimental piece, so I am quite excited to see how it turns out when it is finally performed.
The other piece is a pipa and accordion duet commissioned by pipa virtuoso Qi Jie and accordion virtuoso José Valente titled Duality. This piece, originally to be premiered this June, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 situation. The title Duality refers to the Taoist concept of liangyi as discussed in the Daodejing, and also alludes to this very interesting duo which provides a contrast on so many levels. This instrumental combination holds so many exciting possibilities, and so I’m also relishing this opportunity to be able to write for this duo, especially for such accomplished performers.
Bonus: CHUA Jon Lin will be featured in Unboxing New Music with LIEN Boon Hua on 27 May 2020 (W) 10 PM SGT! She will be talking about her two other works! More info on this CSS article.