The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) kickstarts 2020 with a new monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month!
The next composer to be featured is CHEW Jun An, a Singaporean composer! Jun An is currently doing his D.M.A. in composition at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD, USA), under the guidance of Oscar BETTISON.
Interviewer: Emily KOH
You started writing music when you were quite young (younger that most of us that started in JC at least). How did you first get started with composing, and what is your musical background?
I started as a Yangqin and percussion player in my primary school’s Chinese orchestra and took some piano lessons around the same time. However, I never really liked performing and never liked being on stage. At that time, I found performing a written score rather limiting to the manner in which I want to express myself. I lack the temperament to practice so I started re-writing some music and dabbled in writing simple piano pieces. When I was 14, I met and started having composition lessons with Mr. LAW Wai Lun. That was when I started to learn technical knowledge on aspects such as form, harmony, notation etc.
Between 2007-2008, my first commission and premiere came in the most unexpected way. I barely completed a formal piece of music when I suggested writing for the Xi’an Conservatory’s Oriental Symphony Orchestra (an experimental ensemble which consisted of a mixture of Western and modified Chinese instruments) for their series of three concerts in Singapore. The organizers obliged and that began a steep learning curve having to learn how to write for orchestra in a relatively short time. That experience, I believe, was a catalyst to set me down a path to continue exploring ways to express my music sensibilities through music composition.
You’ve done all (if I’m not wrong) of your composition studies at Peabody so far. What is your experience like as a composer at Peabody, and especially one that has seen the school transform and diversify its offerings in the past few years?
Attending Peabody at a time of transformation was greatly beneficial for me. I got a very wide range of ideas from a faculty which has grown bigger and more diverse. During my time at Peabody, I studied with 7 different teachers (some for longer periods than others) and each teacher provided new perspectives, broadening the way in which I think about my own music. The diversity is also seen throughout the student body. Engaging in conversation with colleagues provides a kaleidoscopic view of how music is thought about and expressed. I also believe the diversity is a direct result of the freedoms we are accorded to explore our own voice in music composition in any way we wanted, and the faculty is always supportive of our endeavors. Outside the composition department, every new faculty member added to a department adds more avenues to explore music related topics and it accumulates to a very holistic experience for me.
Describe your artistic outlook. What does music mean to you, and how do you want others to listen to your work?
I personally like the idea of ‘open-endedness’ in the music I write. Not particularly in the sense of improvisation or aleatoric music (although I do apply these techniques), but more so to be keenly aware of what I control within the piece of music and where in my music I can leave room for exploration. When performers and listeners can freely apply their own influences to my music, it amplifies my affectual objective for people to form reactions to my music as individuals. I think it is more powerful for the performer or listener to understand my music in their own domain compared to the limitations of what my hand in composition can dictate. To me, music is always a two-way street between the composer and the consumer (either the performer or the listener) where an equal importance is placed on how musical affect and meaning is induced and transduced.
I feel music is never what it ‘should be’ but more about what it ‘can’ and ‘wants to be’. We all have our unique backgrounds, tastes, and preferences but I think it is important to listen to any piece of music without placing a value judgement on the work. Instead, experience the work as a form of visceral expression and the result of a synergy between the composer and performer(s). For then we open up ourselves to endless possibilities!
Your work, the Madman’s Diary, is an adaptation of the work of the same name by Lu Xun. Why did you choose to retell this story as an opera? What is your experience working with Peabody Opera? What did you learn from writing a dramatic stage work that you think has influenced the way you write non-vocal music?
I was looking for a story that can be told without the need for an extensive exposition and a flexible chronology in which the narrative unfolds. That might be rather counterintuitive because the original form of the short story by Luxun is written as diary entries which is strictly chronological. However, the staged work allowed me to take a surrealistic approach and I blurred the lines between the portrayal of events in the diary , parts of the diary which were recounted by the older brother and the younger brother’s imagination as he became increasingly delusional. On stage, different chronologies and realities have become concurrent, or intertwined in the work. This approach emphasised the state of confusion of the younger brother character where reality and delusion becomes seemingly indistinguishable.
The narrative is also very intriguing to me as the idea of social indoctrination is expressed through many different perspectives throughout the story. Luxun left many unanswered questions which open avenues for many different ways the nuances of the narrative can be understood. Also, the narrative I believe is relevant to the times we are living in. Luxun’s story emphasizes how the social indoctrination of archaic ideas derails a society from improving and evolving in the wake of realization and the need for rapid change.
Working with the Peabody Opera was great! The professionalism and dedication of the department can be felt from everyone, from the directors to the singers and musicians. There were many things in the work that were deemed impossible for the short time we had but no one gave up and in the end everyone came-through brilliantly!
The experience made me think about my non-vocal music in a more dramatic way. I will sometimes consider how dramaturgical ideas can help me in aspects of my music like form and pacing. Also, I began to think about how music can be visual. For example, if I were writing a string quartet, instead of only being concerned about pitch, form and harmony, I will also think about the physicality of string instruments and how visually distinct different techniques are, with the intent to add an additional layer of interest and meaning to the music.
What are some upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
I am currently working with percussionist Ross Karre on a solo percussion piece. I am also working with pianist Valentino Huang on a piano and electronics piece in collaboration with the chamber music department at Peabody. I am also looking for the right opportunities to premiere several pieces which were cancelled earlier this year.