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 for May 2023 is KOH Cheng Jin. She is a Singaporean composer, violinist and Yangqin performer based in New York, and is currently a MacCracken PhD Fellow and Teaching Assistant at New York University. Previously she pursued her musical studies at The Juilliard School, supported by Singapore's Loke Cheng Kim Foundation.
Interviewer: Ng Yu Hng
Would you like to share a piece of music that you believe represents the current stage of your compositional journey? From this piece, could you share how you understand the craft and process of composition?
Throughout my compositional journey I have learned to adapt my musical language to various needs and interests of performing groups involved, but my interdisciplinary commission this past March by the Cleveland-based Verona Quartet and Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, Mountain of Echoing Halls, is currently my most representative work so far. The multi-movement work, inspired by the historical Xiangtangshan caves in Hebei, China, is created for yangqin, string quartet and solo dance.
It is the fruit of a 4-month gestation period, from finding inspiration, to penning the music down, practising the yangqin part, discussing with various artists, readings, intense rehearsing, the eventual premiere, further revisions, and finally a second performance. Rarely do I get to have such protracted time with one work, substantial enough to ponder deeper about everything, reflect on what could be improved and discover interesting, new insights (since it was also performed by the NYC-based Bergamot Quartet later on).
I think this luxury of time, alongside two performances within two months, is one of the biggest blessings I could ever have as a music creator. Aside from that, it is important to also provide an open and collaborative space for others in the entire process— I gave liberty to my choreographer (Hannah Jew) and musicians to interpret my work, and provided feedback only when truly necessary. Finally, it was a very immersive yet reflective process for myself since I was both the composer and yangqin player and had to balance both identities delicately especially during rehearsals. Composing is indeed a multi-dimensional, multi-factorial and multi-sensory activity that goes beyond the double barline or delivery of the "score." It is a deeply introspective, intricate yet also a highly affirmative journey of growth.
Thanks for sharing about your recent achievement at the Smithsonian Museum! Could you tell us a bit about this opportunity and how it has helped you grow in your music-making journey?
This work owes largely to the years of friendship I share with Jonathan Ong, the Verona Quartet's first violinist (and also fellow Singaporean!). Our time at Juilliard overlapped—his Quartet was the graduate resident string quartet there while I was still a freshman. He heard a chamber work of mine at our composers' concert and that kickstarted our friendship and subsequently our desire to collaborate. Since then, we had always been keen to work together and I'm so thankful that the Smithsonian provided this platform.
For their centennial celebration this year, their National Museum of Asian Art invited artists such as the Verona Quartet and commissioned new works through them, and I was so fortunate to be part of it. It was truly a personal and visionary project; not only did I get to write a work directly related to the Museum (they housed collections from the Xiangtangshan caves) and manifest my own creative and performing interests, but also work with highly committed artists like the Verona Quartet and Hannah and build long-lasting relationships.
I have been so inspired by them (and the Bergamot Quartet too!) throughout the rehearsal process and felt even more motivated to break boundaries in my future works after witnessing what they were capable of. Specifically, I have always wanted to write an intimate piece for yangqin and string quartet where both forces are well-balanced, so it was indeed a dream come true on many levels.
From what I understand, your works straddle between traditional Chinese music and contemporary classical music. How do you understand the intersection between these two rich musical traditions?
When working with different genres of music, I prefer not to segregate them so clearly into "traditional versus contemporary" camps as that can be accompanied by certain stereotypes and judgements. Some so-called "traditional" music still sounds baffling to me today. The late Chou Wen Chung, for example, had discussed how Chinese and Western music shared similar roots and fundamentals and that composers should approach them as non-mutually exclusive genres.
A handful of composers both past and present, aligned with musicological trends, have created new works incorporating diverse musical traditions through their inherent similarities. On the other hand, some are more interested in evoking cultural and sonic differences rather than a particular homogeneity. The line between these two traditions is more blurred than we think, and it is fascinating to see how creators converge (or diverge) them in creative ways.
4. What music are you working on at the moment?
I am about to start sketching an orchestral work for Singapore Symphony's upcoming season (their closing concert on June 1 2024), and arrange my 2020 chamber ensemble piece, originally for Ding Yi Music Company titled Legend of Badang, for Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra's 20th Anniversary closing concert on December 2 2023 (before they bring the work on tour in East Malaysia). There are other smaller projects going on, but one thing's for sure—I can't wait to write more for orchestra these coming years!