Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 12th CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is DING Jian Han! Jian Han is a Singaporean composer who is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Composition at the Robert Schumann Hochschule Düsseldorf, Germany.
DING Jian Han
Interviewer: GU Wei
Tell us about yourself! How did you start learning music, and what got you into composition?
Hello! I started learning the violin at around primary two, as part of the string ensemble CCA in my school. I was average at the violin and did not have a huge interest in music yet. In secondary one however, I was asked by my violin teacher to join a community orchestra, which he created for the purpose of a concert. We played a variety of pieces but I remembered being particularly drawn to the music from Tchaikovsky’s Ballet Suites (like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake & Sleeping Beauty). This was certainly the pivotal point in my life, when I started to develop a love for music and more specifically composition. I would spend hours reading up about different composers (starting off with Tchaikovsky naturally, and his Symphony No. 6 is until today one of my favourite pieces ever) of different musical periods and listening to some of their representative works. I then applied for my school’s Music Elective Programme (MEP) in secondary two and worked very hard to catch up to my peers. At around secondary four, I wrote my first ‘full piece’ and ventured a little into pop music writing and took classes for it. It was finally in junior college, where I continued to study music as a subject, when I decided I wanted to be a composer.
How is your experience studying and living in Germany, and how does it compare to your experience studying in Singapore?
I have really enjoyed studying and living in Germany thus far. It has allowed me to see and experience many new things, both musically and non-musically. One thing I really love about Germany is its nature. I am fascinated by the large and vast forested areas, which I had only seen in books up until I arrived in Germany. The image of Beethoven walking in nature with his manuscript instinctively came to me when I walked in a forest in Germany for the first time. I actually first lived in Germany in 2018, as part of an exchange programme to Hannover. Over there, I was mesmerised by gardens, be it of a more modern style or baroque gardens. In particularly, the Herrenhäuser Gärten or Herrenhausen Gardens was a big source of inspiration for me then. I wrote a piece titled ‘Questioning Nature’ and actually did my sketches in the main garden itself. In Düsseldorf, where I am currently pursuing my Master’s Degree, I would go to a very beautiful forest near my apartment to jog, and this served as the main inspiration for an audiovisual piece titled ‘Motion Picture’, where I filmed myself jogging through this forest and juxtaposed it with footage of me jogging through urban landscapes in Singapore.
Musically, I was able to attend many wonderful concerts by world-class ensembles and orchestras. I also got to watch the concerts of many ensembles specialising in performing new music. This was especially valuable and inspiring for me. Witnessing first-hand (through their workshops and rehearsals) how much passion and energy they put into performing contemporary music and working with composers was also particularly eye-opening. I would have loved to attend more new music festivals here but now with the global pandemic, we will have to see how things go in this department.
I would say my experience studying in Germany is slightly different than that in Singapore, due to the higher level of academic freedom in the former. My studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music was great in the sense that it was well organised and structured, and we knew what performance opportunities of our music we were going to get. As a result, I would often feel ‘satisfied’ and comfortable with the structures put in place for me. In Germany, there are also such performance opportunities given to us in the form of visiting ensembles and artists, just like in Singapore. However, due to the free-er academic structure in German music universities, we are encouraged (and honestly, have more time) to work with people outside the set structure and take the initiative to look for performance opportunities, be it through collaboration with peers or working with people from other disciplines. However, I would like to say that this is purely my own personal experience studying in Germany, and it will certainly vary from student to student.
How would you describe your music, and what sources do you tend to draw your influences from?
This is a tough question to answer as I am still figuring out what truly characterises my music. Previously I would draw influences from various non-musical things which I was interested in at that point of time, from marbles to human’s perception of memories, to running, to film techniques of the Jason Bourne action film series… You get the idea. However, one thing I tend to gravitate to musically is the detailed construction of textures and working with time. For the latter, I like to compose many free and open passages in my music to allow the musical material to flow and exist by themselves, but I also like the extreme fast, where things can occur in a split second. Recently, I have been working quite a bit with video as well, and have experimented with creating my own videos for my audiovisual pieces.
Congratulations on being selected as a finalist for Ding Yi Music Company’s Composium 2021! Could you tell us a bit about your piece? What are your experiences writing for traditional Chinese instruments and what are some of the challenges you faced while working on this piece?
Thank you! My piece 阴(光) or Lu(nox) is about how seemingly grim things and dark situations appear bad from one point of view, but may also show a completely different side if viewed from another perspective. The title Lu(nox) is the combination of the Latin word for ‘light’, Lux, and that of ‘night’, Nox. From the beginning of the piece we are bombarded with rather complex and harsh textures, with a strong emphasis on noise. Underneath this discordance lies however, a fixed thread of pitches. This thread gets cycled through three times, which forms the entire structure of the piece. Each cycle, a larger fragment of melody, which is the representation of light, emerges from underneath the texture. The musical material is consistent, yet we experience a disparate facet of it by the end of the piece.
Writing for traditional Chinese instruments was certainly not easy for me as I lacked the raw experience and knowledge. I had worked on a few pieces for Chinese ensemble before this but was not very successful. For this Composium, I read up more extensively about the instruments I was writing for and listened to Chinese ensemble/solo pieces which were similar to what I wanted to achieve with the instruments. I must say I really enjoyed this process and learnt a lot from it.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was creating a sustained or continuous sound in the ensemble. Traditional chinese instruments have really unique and beautiful sound colours, but the sustained sound of the individual instruments is not as strong and stable as western instruments. Knowing this fact, rather than trying to force the instruments to be something they are not, I tried to embrace this quality of them. There are many spots in the piece where the conductor is instructed to hold a general pause and let the natural resonances of the instruments ring and decay before continuing the music. I ended up really liking this, as the mix of resonances from their already very unique sound colours resulted in nice effects.
What are some of your upcoming projects we can look forward to?
I am actually going to start work soon on a piece with both Chinese and western instruments, which I am very excited for. Currently I am working on a piece for a student string ensemble, as well as composing a large ensemble piece (western instruments) with live electronics for my graduation portrait recital in June next year. Hopefully I can get a nice video recording of the concert and share it with you all. Do check out the wonderful line-up of events for the Ding Yi Music Company’s Composium 2021, which will feature an open rehearsal, talks/symposiums, as well as two concerts, one which will feature my piece Lu(nox). Huge shout-out to CSS for giving us composers such a fantastic platform to showcase our artistic endeavours!