Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The sixth CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Alicia Joyce DE SILVA! Alicia teaches, conducts, and composes for various Angklung Kulintang Ensembles, and heads the Gamelan Ensembles at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and National Institute of Education. She is also the current Vice-President of CSS.
Alicia Joyce DE SILVA
Interviewer: GU Wei
Tell us about your musical background and how you first started composing. Like most Singaporean kids I started taking music lessons around 5 years old and then did the usual piano exam route, joined band in primary school and really just wanted to do all things music. I would have almost joined the secondary school band had I not stopped myself thinking, “maybe I should expose myself to other types of music, and not just stick to Western music. Learn more about music of other cultures.” So I joined my school’s Angklung ensemble instead. Looking back, and seeing what I've experienced over the years, I believe that was a turning point for me. In fact, I often say that if I had continued playing in the band, I might not have pursued music/composition formally. I am sure I would still enjoy music making, but the experience and exposure would probably be different. For one, I had the liberty to experiment and improvise on the instrument I was assigned -- a melody kulintang (a wooden xylophone-like instrument). We played mostly arrangements of folk songs or popular tunes like Di Tanjong Katong, Bengawan Solo etc., and used simple cipher/letter names lead sheet-like notation. So there was a freedom to do what I wanted/could which provided a thrill in playing/performing, and in some ways, triggered the memory of me enjoying the process of creating -- I remember when I was younger, I would sit at the keyboard, either working out tunes that I heard in church, or playing around with the various sounds and effects that the keyboard had at that time. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t think much of them. I just knew it was something that I enjoyed. I didn't really think much about composition then, or being a composer. That moment when it all clicked for me came when I was in secondary 4. I had randomly created short melodies previously and the instructor thought it would be nice to put it into a little piece for SYF. So during the time when I was working with the rest of my peers to rehearse the piece for SYF, I found myself thinking, "this is something I want to be doing!” At that time the thought was specifically for composition, and not really relating to Angklung ensembles. Around the same time, I was also just having fun composing a programmatic piece based on a book that I read. And I remember being hooked to that process — sitting at the piano and working things out, writing it out on the manuscript etc. It was coincidentally the year Singapore was struck with SARS. Since we didn’t have online learning then, we had a bit of free time, and that was what I spent my time doing. So with those little moments as a motivation, I made the decision to apply to NAFA, and it has led me where I am today.
How do you navigate between the roles of a composer and an educator, and how do these two roles inform each other?
I don’t think I navigate between the roles of a composer and an educator very distinctly. This is mostly because as an educator, or more specifically angklung instructor, I’m working with ensembles that comprise of students with a variety of musical experiences and exposure (some have learnt an instrument, some have not, etc.). So if I am writing for them, I would take into account skills that I may want them to develop, or areas that I want them to explore (e.g. rhythm, meter, textures, structure, soundscapes). Depending on the nature of the piece, I also take time to share with students the process I take in the composition, or the inspiration, so that they are made aware of the impetus, and hopefully become more aware of their learning and playing, rather than just thinking about it as pages of notes etc. In fact, sometimes I use my composition process as a teaching tool. For example, I sometimes teach the students a motif/theme, and slowly unfold the piece, or their respective parts in relation to the motif/theme so that learning something new is not too intimidating, and they understand the music or just how things work. That said, it’s not a formula I use for every piece I write.
Tell us about your involvement with Gamelan and Angklung Kulintang ensembles. Have these influenced your compositional process and the way you think about music?
The Angklung Kulintang ensembles are CCAs in the various schools in Singapore, and my main involvement is to teach/conduct these ensembles (primary - tertiary level). On top of that, I compose for these ensembles that teach since there's no real standard repertoire for this ensemble. As for Gamelan, this was something that was triggered by my interest in exploring the music of other cultures. So when an opportunity came after my O Levels, I jumped on it and began my Gamelan journey. Now, I mostly teach it (at NAFA and NIE), and participate in occasional performances. Of course, with the amount of time I spend with these ensembles, be it in learning, performing or teaching, there’s bound to be some influence on me, both in my compositional process and the way I think about music. It’s like another lens for me to view things or another tool for me to use. But, I won't say it's entirely from my involvement in these ensembles alone - my experiences from working with other artists (dancers/choreographers, film makers) have also informed me in various ways too. An example that I can share at this moment would be in the area of learning and music making (and sometimes, notation). This comes from various places for me -- from the interlocking patterns that are common in Gamelan and Angklung music, and also my interactions with dancers. Compositionally, there's also a whole slew of ways my experiences have informed my practice -- from rather superficial uses of pitches, rhythms and instrumental combinations to create Gamelan-like features, to deeper ways of how I sometimes think of patterns in both micro-macro ways, or even concepts that are prevalent in the musical culture.
What do you think is the role of a composer in Singapore, and what hopes do you have for Singaporean music in the future?
This is a big question! Perhaps I'll start with an idealistic scenario: I think it would be nice for us to reach a stage where local composers are featured in our General Music Programme in schools so that students won’t just be learning the usual composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, or simply see local music as traditional Chinese/Malay/Indian music. They should have all that and more. With that, composers could perhaps think about creating opportunities that engage performers, students and audiences such that there is an overall development of the awareness, interest, understanding and dialogue for local music. I don't just mean intellectual or analytical dialogue - it could be something as basic as an emotional response! This way, it isn't just about creating new works all the time. After all, there’s currently a lot being done to support new compositions from various musicians and ensembles. Hopefully with such engagements, connections can be created, and over time, this would lead to an understanding, and an openness to explore more local works.