Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 3rd CSS Composer of the Month for 2022 is PHOON Yu! PHOON Yu is a Singaporean composer and organist currently pursuing a Doctor of Music Arts Degree in Organ Performance at The Juilliard School in New York City, USA.
Interviewer: GU Wei
Tell us about your musical journey – how did you start learning music, then getting into composition and organ performance?
I started piano at around age 4 and yangqin at age 10. I dabbled in composition while I was studying at National Junior College but training in both the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and the Peabody Institute helped in terms of the mentorship provided by my professors and the opportunities provided by both schools, both of which spurred my early work and helped me engage with the composition scene at large. I started learning organ during my time in National Service but frequent access to practice instruments (as well as weekly performance lessons scheduled within the school timetable) at Peabody really gave me an opportunity to develop my skills at the instrument. Later, opportunities offered by friends, colleagues, and my current teacher Paul Jacobs at The Juilliard School gave me occasions for me to further hone my craft in the fiery forge of constant recitals and performances in and around New York City.
How do you navigate between the roles as a composer and performer? Do they influence each other?
I generally think of registering organ pieces as an orchestrator. When I sit down at a new (or sometimes not-so-new) instrument, I usually experiment with the different stops [knobs or tabs that activate various sounds on the organ] individually and in various combinations, before thinking about the possible effects I could produce based on the timbres and sounds available to me. The wide variance between different instruments means that it is possible to have differing interpretations of any composition (not just contemporary ones) - sometimes even being able to play the same piece twice on the same instrument but with differing aesthetic approaches.
Similarly, when writing for an instrument or group of instruments, I think of the instruments in terms of the timbres and sounds they can offer solo and in combination with one another, just like how an organist might pick stops. While not exactly the same as registering an organ, the variety of timbres offered by even one instrument at different registers or with different effects or techniques can colour a composition just as a varied registration can colour the performance of an organ work.
What are some of your biggest music influences?
For me, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is a big influence, but also the musical aesthetics of Max Reger, Igor Stravinsky, and Olivier Messiaen. The acoustic of Paul Hall at Juilliard has also caused me to favour an aesthetic built around a certain precision, sharpness, and clarity of sound when interpreting music - targeted dotting as opposed to broad strokes.
Tell us more about your upcoming CD. What gave you the idea to record an album with all Singaporean works, and what hopes do you have for Singaporean organ music in the future?
During the first circuit breaker in 2020, I was stuck at home without anywhere to go or any way to practice, so I decided to try my hand at writing some grants (and choral compositions, but that's something else). I really have to credit Zhangyi (whose monumental The Seven Angels will feature in the upcoming CD) for suggesting and pushing me to apply for the [Presentation and Participation - Extended Play/Album] grant and undertake all the liaising involved in order to make it work out. I thought that it was also a good opportunity to bring all these works - most of which I commissioned - to the attention of the wider public both at home and abroad. These pieces showcase another facet of the oeuvre of these Singaporean composers and ought to be played and heard more often by other people.
I hope that the organ can become more known to Singaporeans in terms of them listening and playing organ music. Too often, organ music is known only by stereotypes ('that very loud instrument in big churches') and played by people with little training and practice in the instrument. There has of course been a tremendous amount of support for the instrument in recent years (especially by Victoria Concert Hall and Esplanade - Theatres by the Bay) but certainly more can be done to make the instrument less byzantine and forbidding to Singaporean audiences. The organ has much to offer and it would be nice for it to have a much greater presence in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.
Check out Phoon Yu's upcoming album 'Seven" here on his website.
How is the experience studying and living overseas? What advice do you have for young composers who are considering studying abroad?
Speaking from the perspective of someone who has studied in the United States, I find that since it is a larger country, the opportunities and potential collaborators are correspondingly greater, as well as the chances to get one's work performed (or to perform someone else's work). From an organist's perspective especially, the much larger amount of instruments and spaces to play and premiere new music can be a rich source of education and learning. That being said however, I think that Singaporean schools still have vastly superior food at a lower price than the American ones!
I think that young composers studying abroad should go out and make friends in their respective schools - especially since those friends often ask for compositions, especially if they play an instrument which does not have as developed a repertory of solo pieces as more common ones like the piano or the violin. Composers also have a lot of time (more than instrumentalists in general, who are often obliged to practice and spend time in orchestral or chamber rehearsals) and this should be leveraged into not just composing, but reading, learning, and talking with other people for the purposes of improving one's craft. Faculty (not just composition ones) are also good people to talk with due to their experience and knowledge - and sometimes they also commission pieces from you too.