Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 6th CSS Composer of the Month for 2022 is Cheow Cai WONG! Cheow Cai is a Singaporean composer who recently graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
Cheow Cai WONG
Interviewer: GU Wei
Introduce yourself to us! How did you get into music and composition, and what do you do now?
Hello! My name is Cheow Cai and I have just graduated from the composition department at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
My first foray into music was actually through my primary school band, where I learnt the cornet. At the age of 9, naturally all I wanted was to have fun and make friends, and I never imagined that I would be able to pursue music full-time.
My first attempts at composition began with my attempts at arranging popular music. Deconstructing the work and imagining it for different contexts granted me a deeper appreciation of the intricacies and nuances that the casual listener tends to overlook.
I also had a serendipitous encounter with composer Lee Jinjun, when he was hired to tutor my secondary school’s trumpet section. My interaction with him — a “real” composition student at the time — awakened me to the possibility of composition as a path, both for studying and as a future career, allowing me to take my hobby more seriously.
Around this time, in Secondary 4, I began venturing beyond pop music and started dabbling in what some might consider more “serious” composing, with what little knowledge that I had. In that same year, 2017, the Singapore Wind Symphony organised their Young Composers Challenge (YCC). Disclaimer here — I must admit that my initial attempts at composing with no formal guidance was a recipe for disaster in my case. With YCC, I was then given the opportunity to be mentored by Jinjun. This somewhat harrowing — if fulfilling — encounter became one of the definitive in my musical journey, and marked my very first formal encounter with composition and composition training.
This entire process of learning — first independently, and then with formal instruction and in confrontation with the harsh reality of what composition really entailed — sparked within me a greater passion towards music, and it was also then that I considered pursuing music seriously.
While at NAFA, I studied music composition under the tutelage of Dr. Zechariah Goh. I currently waiting to enlist in National Service, but am still actively composing and collaborating with performers and peers to record and perform my works. I am also active as an educator, teaching primary school bands, and am committed to imparting the same passion I have for music to the next generation.
What are some of your biggest musical influences?
As a composer, I have found that many of my musical influences work on me quite subconsciously. As I explore the wide world of music and beyond — including film, literature, and visual art — some of my biggest influences have included Rachmaninoff, Holst, Piazzolla, Crumb and especially Hisaishi! Recently, the works of John Adams have been piqued my interest as well.
In the local scene, my teachers Dr. Zechariah Goh, NAFA Vice-Dean for Interdisciplinary Studies Dr. Joyce Koh, as well as Mr. Americ Goh have all been great influences on me and my musical progress as a composer.
Share with us your experience studying at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). What advice do you have for prospective students who are considering pursuing composition there?
NAFA’s School of Music is truly a wonderful place to be in. The composition faculty, which includes Dr. Zechariah Goh and Mr. Americ Goh, provides a constructive environment for students to explore and develop their unique musical voices.
As composition majors, we are also constantly encouraged to work with fellow instrumentalists to gain a better understanding of the instruments we are writing for. The weekly composition seminars chaired by Dr. Goh are also extremely valuable, as it is a time when all the composers across differing years sit down together to discuss a wide range of topics, as well as to present and workshop our works with one another.
The school also provides opportunities for us to collaborate with external organisations — I was personally given the chance to work with the ArtScience Museum and Siong Leng Musical Association. Composition students are also empowered to organise our own music platforms, inviting guest musicians to collaborate and have our works performed in a formal setting. The support the school provides — for venue, use of instruments, and film and audio recording — is invaluable in allowing us to have our works performed, workshopped, and recorded at a professional level, and gives us a realistic sense of how our music might be performed and received by musicians and audiences in the “real world”.
Having gone through the NAFA program, I would say that the curriculum nurtures students into holistic musicians and allowed me to develop multiple skillsets that I hoped to acquire. Particularly for those who wish to pursue composition, I believe it is important to have a rough idea of what you intend to get out of your education. With that in mind, find out more about any prospective school you are applying to — what the school can offer you, and whether or not it suits your musical interests and composition style.
Tell us about your piece aura, which was featured recently in the CSS Score Follower Videos series. Where did you draw your inspirations from? How was the experience writing for and working with a saxophone quartet?
aura was initially written for a reading of new saxophone works, organized as part of the Singapore Saxophone Symposium 2021. I later revised the work in the latter half of 2021, with the intention of developing on what I felt was untapped potential within the work, as well as to refine certain elements which I felt were sonically too “blockish” and simplistically conceived.
The work was written based on personal experiences throughout my childhood and teenage years. In medical terminology, “aura” are a sensory disturbances — headaches, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound — that occur before the onset of a migraine. aura attempts to capture these distressing episodes through the use of multiple series of multiphonics, microtones and altissimo writing.
Writing an experimental work for saxophone quartet requires a more sophisticated understanding of the sonic possibilities of the instrument, and a more informed perspective on the different characters of each of the four registers of saxophone. I also learnt that even the make of the instrument can cause variations in the kinds of overtones that are created by the use multiphonics. As a relatively young composer, having a saxophone quartet to work with made me more conscious of the acoustic possibilities and limitations that come with working with real instruments and musicians — away from the MIDI sound library —consequently expanding my sonic vocabulary. Collaborating with the players was also a liberating experience as I was able to experiment and get immediate feedback regarding different musical ideas I was experimenting. The overall process of working directly with musicians was thus extremely fruitful and rewarding, and aura remains one of my favourite works today.
Check out Cheow Cai's piece 'aura', featured on CSS Score Follower Videos, here: