Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The Composer of the Month is Tiag Yi TAN. He is a composer and violinist who read music at the University of Oxford, and is a member of Duo Tarenna!
Interviewer: Ng Yu Hng
Tell us about your musical training/education background!
I started learning the violin at quite a young age, as my parents firmly believed in giving me some form of musical exposure as part of my upbringing. A while later I began learning the piano as well, although I must say that it has remained very much a second instrument for me, which is a shame. My first experiences in composition came much later on as part of the Music Elective Programme in my school, where I studied composition under the guidance of Dr. Hoh Chung Shih and later, Mr. Derek Lim. Being part of the Programme was a formative experience for me, not just as a composer, as I began to see the interconnectedness of different areas of music, which is still extremely important to how I experience and think about music today. After completing my A levels, I furthered my studies in music at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, where I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Music. My composition tutor was Professor Martyn Harry while my violin teacher was Caroline Balding. Other important teachers in my musical journey thus far have been Dr. Zechariah Goh (composition), Manuel Martinez Burgos (composition), Eugene Birman (composition) and Lillian Wang and Dr. Tan Wee-Hsin (violin, viola).
In 2020 you were part of Duo Tarenna. Has your work as a performer influenced your compositional journey (or compositional process)?
I am still part of the Duo, as far as I can tell! One piece of composition advice that I received from a composer I met at a masterclass that has remained with me till today is to ‘play whatever instrument as well as you can, for as long as you can’. I think continuing to pursue studies on my instrument even after I began to focus on composition has had a profound impact on my work as a composer. Most directly, performing has allowed me to discover repertoire and explore it from the inside. As a violinist, I have had the opportunity to play in widely-varying ensembles, from large orchestras to intimate chamber groups. This has given me a chance to learn not just about writing for my instrument, but also about orchestration and texture. While I don't necessarily restrict myself to writing music I can play myself, my work as a performer has made me more aware of how my music may appear to other performers and how I can communicate my musical intentions more clearly. As part of the Duo, I have had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with four young Singaporean composers (with more upcoming hopefully), and these experiences of trying out ideas with them, refining interpretations and so on have allowed me to gain a better glimpse of their creative processes. There is only so much that one can tell about how a piece was written based on a finished score, so it was eye-opening to see how other composers work first-hand.
Would you like to share about your current work with the Vox Camerata? What is it like to be a composer who just entered the 'workplace'?
My transition from studying to working after I completed my undergraduate degree in 2021 was definitely a steep learning curve for me. As someone with numerous interests both musical and non-musical, I did feel a bit lost when deciding how to start my career. There were still COVID-19 restrictions in place in Singapore at the time, which added to the uncertainty. Thankfully, the opportunity arose for me to work part-time with Vox Camerata, which worked well and allowed me to pursue freelance work as an educator, performer, and composer. At Vox, I work as a Programmes Manager, meaning that I am responsible for planning and coordinating the numerous activities that Vox’s choirs undertake, including workshops, rehearsals, and performances. This role has definitely helped me hone some non-artistic skills that are nonetheless crucial to artists, such as project management, communication, and fundraising. The wide-ranging nature of my work at Vox is challenging, but I have learnt a great deal and appreciate the flexibility it provides. One unexpected but happy outcome of my work with Vox is that I have begun to sing! I am now a bass in the Vox Camerata Community Choir. Singing in a choir has added a new dimension to musicianship for me, and I find my own practice as a performer unconsciously influenced by this new experience. In a way, learning to sing has provided me with new vocabulary for thinking about shaping and inflection as a performer. I also feel much better placed to write vocal music now, and I look forward to writing some choral music in the future.
What music are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on an interdisciplinary staging of my song cycle Between Ground and Sky, which will receive its world premiere at the end of this month (29 and 30 April) at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Recital Studio! Although the music for this production was completed a while ago, I am assisting with the development of the staging as the project’s co-curator, alongside co-curator and producer Wu Chin Ying, movement artists Ranice Tay and Ang Gey Pin, soprano Wong Yong En and pianist Koh Kai Jie. This project centres on the poetic world of renowned Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim, especially in its cultural in-betweenness. Apart from this, I am a Fellow in the New Sights Fellowship Programme organised by The Straits Ensemble, which aims to promote intercultural composition. My piece for The Straits Ensemble be performed in August later this year. This is my first time working with an ensemble of such diverse instrumentation, so I am excited to see how it turns out!
As a violinist, I will be performing alongside violinist Farah Wu and pianist Xing Tong
in a family-friendly contemporary music concert in May titled Musical Movements. Later in the year, Duo Tarenna will be presenting concerts in London and Singapore, focusing on using poetry to illuminate instrumental music. So, lots of music for me to learn and compose in the coming months!