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Composer of the Month for Feb 2022: Yan Ee TOH

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 2nd CSS Composer of the Month for 2022 is Yan Ee TOH! Yan Ee is a Singaporean composer currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. She is also serving as the Secretary of CSS.

Yan Ee TOH

Interviewer: GU Wei

How did you start learning music and composition?

Hello! I started learning music around the age of 6 – I took lessons from my aunt, a wonderful pianist and teacher who helped me build my musical foundations, and continues to support me till this day.

I joined the Music Elective Programme (MEP) at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and subsequently Anglo-Chinese Junior College, where we were initially exposed to music writing through small composition assignments. I was also a member of the choir during my secondary school and junior college days – With the encouragement of my teachers and peers, I had the opportunity to arrange not only for my CCA, but also other performing arts groups within my school. I’ve always enjoyed arranging for various genres and instrumentations as it allows me to give a new spin to existing works.

My first formal experience with composition was the Forum for Young Composers organised by CSS in 2016, recommended to me by my music teacher. It was a truly unique and enjoyable experience attending live demonstrations and reading sessions with the ensemble, receiving feedback from the musicians and composer mentor Dr. Robert Casteels, and having the rare opportunity to compose for a fusion ensemble. It was an honour to have my music performed by professional musicians, and the nurturing environment in this Forum motivated me to pursue further studies in composition.

What are some of your biggest musical influences?

Bartók has been one of my favourite composers since my junior college days. While I was first exposed to his folk pieces such as Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm, Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík and later his orchestral works, I’ve recently been fascinated by his string quartets, particularly the harmonies in the 3rd movement of String Quartet No. 4.

At the moment, I’m listening also to the music of György Kurtág, Oscar Bianchi and Dai Fujikura.

How is your experience studying composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and what advice do you have for prospective students who are considering studying there?

Studying at YST has been such a lovely experience thus far! I’ve gained so much under the guidance of my composition teachers, Ms Adeline Wong and Assoc Prof Ho Chee Kong. The school has provided us with various opportunities to work on our music with peers (through self-initiated and inter-department collaborations), professional musicians (including YST faculty and visiting ensembles), as well as guest composers (through masterclasses and seminars).

One of my most memorable classes in YST has been Compositional Discourse led by Mr Martin Jaggi. Beyond building our awareness and critical evaluation of different aesthetic approaches, I learnt a lot about myself in terms of my musical preferences and interests, and gained more confidence in expressing my opinions as a young composer.

I am also immensely grateful for the well-rounded education here, with opportunities for professional development within and beyond the Conservatory such as student internships and participation in summer programmes.

On a more general level, I would encourage students interested in pursuing composition at the tertiary level to research on areas important to them (such as curriculum, department opportunities or student life), so as to find the right fit for them. As previously mentioned by Joan, attending department events open to the public, as well as speaking to students and faculty would also provide better insights into whether the school/department would align with your interests and goals. Ultimately, (university) life is what we make out of it!

Tell us more about your recently featured piece iridescent shadows in the CSS Score Follower Videos. How was your creative process like, and what were some of the challenges you faced while writing this piece?

iridescent shadows was composed in the summer of 2020, for the International Composition Institute of Thailand. The title implies the idea of an old, lingering memory (‘shadow’) in which our feelings towards it evolve over time, like the changing of colours when viewed from a different angle (‘iridescence’).

The piece develops through a series of episodes, where the flute and bass clarinet undergo phases of convergence (existing as one voice) and divergence (separate entities).

Check out 'iridescent shadows' here on CSS's YouTube Channel:

Share with us what you are working on now, and any upcoming projects you’re looking forward to.

This semester, I will be working on a string quartet and a sinfonietta piece! Having written some solo pieces over the past two years, I’m excited to be taking on larger instrumentations and exploring the various timbral and textural possibilities. I’m also delighted to be working with musicians from abroad – My brass quintet flux will be premiered at the Hot Air Music Festival (San Francisco) in March, while iridescent shadows will be played once again this Fall in Arizona. Thank you once again to CSS for this platform to share about our musical journey and endeavours 😊



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