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15th Anniversary Interview: Past, Present, Future

The Composers Society of Singapore proudly presents this collated interview of our three founding figures: Prof. Ho Chee Kong, Dr Joyce Beetuan Koh, and Dr. Hoh Chung Shih.

Can you give some brief context on how and why CSS was formed?

Prof. Ho Chee Kong: Prior to the forming of CSS, there were other earlier music groups in Singapore, like the Metro Philharmonic Society, the Heralds Choral Society, the Singapore Composers’ Circle (later known as Association of Composers), and others which catered to varied groups of musicians and composers.

The idea of a contemporary music society for composers initially came up in the conversations I had with Jennifer Tham, Albert Yeo, and later with Prof Bernard Tan. Through conversations with Mr Leong Yoon Pin, Mr Phoon Yew Tien and Mr Ken Chang, I came to know about the Asian Composers League (ACL) which is a coalition of composer-societies from many countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

After reaching out to ACL to find out more about being a country member, I got to know composers like Isao Matsushita, Jack Body, Doming Lam, among others, who were members of the contemporary music society in their own countries. They were very supportive that Singapore should have one too and apply to be a country member of ACL.

With a group of like-minded friends, we gathered materials to present each year at the annual ACL conferences from 2003 to 2007 on contemporary music-making by Singaporean composers, demonstrating that the new music scene was flourishing well. This included organizing the 29th International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) in 2003, and the Singapore-Japan International Exchange Concerts in 2005 and 2006.

In 2007, CSS was finally formed where I served as the founding President. After Singapore became a country member of ACL, our country then hosted the 31st ACL Festival and Conference at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in 2013.

What were some key trends or major decisions made in CSS over the years?

Dr. Joyce Koh: Perhaps the most obvious trend – a positive one – is that the Composers Society of Singapore has grown from a small body of 12 composers to a good sizeable community of about 55 members annually over the last 15 years. It is a remarkable feat from past to present, given that Singapore is a young city in terms of contemporary music practice.

This 15-year gradual proliferation of activities and the increasing visibility of Singapore composers are testimonies to both Singapore's music education system, and also how steadfast the Composers Society of Singapore is in promoting local composers and believing in their compositional endeavours.

Prof. Ho Chee Kong: Another key change I can think of, is that in the past, there were questions on why Singapore only became a country member of ACL instead of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) – or even both?

At that time, there were 2 considerations in deciding this issue. Firstly, the annual membership fee for ACL is more affordable than ISCM. Secondly and more importantly, country members’ composers have a greater chance of their works being selected for performance in ACL than ISCM. This worked out very well for us, and I believe that is still true today.

Dr Joyce Koh: During the period when I was President of the CSS (2014 – 2016), we actively participated in the ACL 33rd Asian Composers League Festival and Conference in Philippines and organised a Young Composers Forum . Both events were milestones in establishing the status of the Composers Society in our local context of Singapore, and also among participating Asia-Pacific countries. This greatly fosters the comradeship between Singaporean composers and the wider international community of composers in the ACL.

What do you think of the future for CSS?

Dr Joyce Koh: With great assurance, the Composers' society is where it is today, under the leadership of Dr. Hoh and his excellent team; a hub where the musical spirit is valued and celebrated.

Prof. Ho Chee Kong: Also, now that there are even more budding and emerging composers in Singapore than 15 years ago, it may be timely for CSS to explore other organizations to be a member of and to take further opportunities to showcase Singapore music to the world. Considering the strengths that CSS has today, the future of CSS is indeed bright and promising. Happy 15th Anniversary, CSS!

Now that we have an insightful overview of CSS’ origins and development over the years, let us turn to our current president Dr. Hoh Chung Shih on his thoughts about the future role of CSS in Singapore’s music landscape.

Dr Hoh, what are your thoughts on the future of Singapore’s composition landscape?

Dr Hoh Chung Shih: When I took over the leadership, the direction of CSS has moved beyond a local community interest group where composers come together to exchange ideas. We have brought local music to international attention, also engaging local musicians and audiences in new music from abroad. Then with the equally successful Young Composers Forum under the leadership of Dr Koh, we have realised our mission of educating the young in the practice and art of music composition. Indeed many of the young composers and composition students who participated in these 2 landmark events have now grown up to hold active and leadership positions in the music scene both locally and internationally.

With these 2 initiatives as foundation, our future is to strengthen our capacity in management, fundraising, and communications, to be able to continue the fulfilment of our mission to support and promote local new music making better.

How do you think CSS can continue to foster the creation of new music?

Dr Hoh Chung Shih: Our focus is in the three areas of education, advocacy, and documentation.

Through education, we want to engage the public and the younger generation in the skills and art of making new music. We have plans to organize a biannual music festival featuring various aspects of new music making, not just through concerts but also including talks, discussions, workshops, etc. In preparation for this, we have been organizing discussion seminars such as ‘Say Say Borak’, where we bring practitioners in new music to come share and exchange ideas with the public. We have also routinely invited members to review new music concerts and publishing them on our website so offering the public insights into the workings and concerns of new music making, through the eyes of practitioners themselves; an insider’s perspective.

Through advocacy, we want to bring attention to local productions of new music, to grow the interest and quality of audienceship, and to create exciting and meaningful opportunities for new music making. We have been engaging local arts institutions in creating opportunities for the creation of new local music. For example, working alongside the National Gallery and the Asian Civilisations Museum, we have co-curated several commissions and concerts.

Through documentation, we want to preserve this very exciting period of new music production in Singapore as part of our nation’s history. As we have in our membership significant and active new music creators, our current documentation of their works will produce a valuable time capsule accounting for this period of rapid growth in the arts of our nation. Indeed, our work in documentation through our website and social media has gotten some notable attention by the Library of Congress (USA) and our own National Library requesting to archive our content online.

Lastly, what do you hope to see in 10 years time, even after your tenure as president?

Dr Hoh Chung Shih: I think CSS has a major role to play in the artistic lives of musicians working here, as well as to the public and community. With an increasing number of professionally trained composers and musicians working locally, we have come of age now with a critical mass to really foster a local culture and practice that can be significant and independent within the global scene, yet actively interacting internationally shaping our local identity.

The future is in the hands of the youths now, to move and steer the Society in its role and purpose to foster this growth and change in the Singapore arts scene.

I am excited by glimpses of the future I see in the younger generation, and am honoured to be part of this process of change now, while performing my small role as a steward serving this growing creative community in the meantime.



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