The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has a monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month.
This month, we have something special: we will be featuring CSS Member of the Month for Jun 2020, Dr. LIEN Boon Hua! Boon Hua is a conductor, and now leads OpusNovus, the new music ensemble at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music! He is also our CSS Associate Member.
Interviewer: Emily KOH
How did you get into music, and what attracts you to new music as a conductor?
As I did not grow in a musical household, my first musical memory came only when I was in primary school. There was an old piano at the edges of the tuckshop, and although I never learnt the piano growing up, I loved hearing the other kids who could plonk notes on it and secretly wished I could make some beautiful sounds too. There was eventually a recruitment drive to join the school brass band. I signed up for that, got handed a trombone, and was hooked on music all my life!
The first and foremost reason why new music is so attractive to me is that I am in awe of composers, especially living ones! The ability to pick sounds out of thin air, to organize them in new and meaningful ways, and to set these ideas down to paper is endlessly fascinating to me. The wildly diverse styles of contemporary music today also means that one is constantly faced with new and exciting challenges.
How does your trombone/bass trombone playing, and knowledge of the wind and orchestral conducting help you with rehearsing new music?
The most valuable part of playing the trombone was my experience in chamber music, performing in brass quintets as well as trombone ensemble. It taught me important skills about working together with other colleagues, learning how to rehearse, and problem-solve in a respectful manner.
My wind and orchestral conducting experience taught me about understanding the tendencies of various instruments, and learning how to lead in an empathetic way. I also learnt how to combine a more organized approach towards my planning and rehearsal process together with artistic flair, taking more poetic and musical risks to inspire and evoke images that are not apparent from the ink.
How did you decide to start “Unboxing New Music” series and what do you hope to achieve with it?
I decided to start this the “Unboxing New Music” series because I was very interested in contemporary music of our region, and my lack of knowledge about composers both within and outside Singapore spurred me on to find out more. The best part about living composers is that we can ask them directly about their music, so I thought why not start a video podcast and use this platform to introduce our very own composers and their music to a much wider audience.
My objectives for “Unboxing New Music” is to promote and develop a better appreciation of contemporary music and Singaporean/SEA composers, expose the audience to the rich diversity of artistic musical life in our region and eventually to perform and record these musical works, and establishing a truly unique repertoire of the region.
What are a few pieces on your conducting ‘bucket list’?
On first thought, there are lot of dream pieces I love to do such as orchestral works or operas by Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Bruckner, and so on; but after pondering again on the idea of ‘bucket list’, I would say without a doubt it is to premiere and perform the many symphonies of our local composer TAN Chan Boon.
What advice would you give young conductors who might be interested in new music?
Enjoy the process of studying the piece and go more deeply beyond the notes. Do not be shy to communicate with the composers and ask about what their intent is. Be inventive and have fun finding solutions to practical problems. And lastly, searching for those special moments in the music that makes all the work worth it!
Bonus: This interview also appears in episode 11 of Unboxing New Music with Boon Hua! Please watch if you have not!
Bonus 2: Boon Hua’s Unboxing New Music continues this July, featuring an exciting lineup of new music practitioners in the region! View the lineup here!