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CSS Composer of the Month for May 2021: XIAO Chunyuan

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The fourth CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is XIAO Chunyuan! XIAO Chunyuan (Andrew) is one of the few Singaporean composers dedicated to writing art songs & song cycles. He is the assistant secretariat to Association Of Composers (Singapore), a member of Composers & Authors Society Of Singapore (COMPASS), and a CSS Full Member.

XIAO Chunyuan

Interviewer: GU Wei

Introduce yourself to us! Tell us about your background as a composer and performer, and how these two influenced each other in your creative pursuits.

Well, I come from a diverse artistic background: My father is a renowned fine art artist and my younger brother is a violinist. Since young, my father has been playing Symphony 92.4 and we often attended Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performances. That is how I became interested in classical music. It was in the beginning of my secondary school years that I joined the school choir. Those years for me were quite fulfilling as our choir managed to participate in the SYF Official Opening. After graduation, I joined an amateur choir called Hsinghai Arts Association Choir & after my National Service, I began to learn classical vocal from local soprano Mdm NG Choy Luan. During this period. I also worked as a clerk at a wine distributing company. In the year 2008, with recommendation from Mdm NG, at the age of 24, I went back to school, pursuing a full-time course in vocal studies at Singapore Raffles Music College. In that same year, I also became interested in composition through my younger brother who happened to have Sibelius, a music notation software. I asked him to help me install one & from then on, my composition writing journey began. When I first became both a performer & a composer at the same time, it was such an interesting experience, especially when I sang my own works on stage as well. These helped me to understand my weakness as a composer too, as I taught myself on composition writing.

What sparked your interest in art songs, and what are some of your biggest influences?

As a classical vocalist, I do have to be immersed with art songs & song cycles. Often, I do have to sing art songs by Schubert, Schumann Brahms & even Mahler. I suppose this led me to spark interest in writing art songs & song cycles as well. As art songs & song cycles’ lyrics are based on poems, I became accustomed to reading poems. Also, I believe it is thanks to my reading hobby too. When I was younger, I often read classics such as Macbeth, Hamlet and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Since you frequently write art songs in Chinese, do you approach these differently compared to art songs in other languages?

Hmm… This is an interesting question. Truthfully, besides Chinese, I do write in English, Latin & German as well. Normally before I compose an art song, I will take a good look at the poem and then decide the key, which in turns set the mood of the composition. Also, I will try to incorporate things such as music painting or even programme music into the composition. An example is Umbrella, which is taken from the song cycle, Love’s Umbrella. In the opening of the song, the composer uses the notes F, A flat & B flat, played together in triplets to express the roaring of thunderstorm.

Tell us about your upcoming concert, “Temasek”. How did it conceive, and what can the audience expect?

It all started when I came back from London after completing my studies. During my stay at London, I went to various places, including listening to classical performances and went to national galleries. It was through these heightened arts and cultural activities that I realized Singapore do not have its art songs and song cycles. In European culture, art songs and song cycles portray a national identity. In Singapore, in terms of classical music, composers writing art songs and song cycles are hard to find, thus I decided to specialize myself as an art songs and song cycles composer. As a Singaporean composer, I strongly believe in showcasing Singapore compositions to the world. Using Singaporean poems as a tool, I begin to use and turn them into vocal compositions. I normally select poems that delves into the history and development of Singapore. Through the poems, audiences will get to understand more about Singapore. As a composer specializing in composing art songs & song cycles, I often will search online for poems. Whether they be in English or Chinese, they are on my radar, especially if they are Singaporean poems. It was by chance I found Professor Thumboo’s poems on the net and got to meet him in-person. It was after I brought him to a concert that featured his poem Ulysses by the Merlion, which I composed, that after the performance he told me that he hoped that one day, more of his poems can be staged. It was this small request, that led me to decide to organize Temasek. In the year 2020, I was attending a meeting held by the Association of Composers (Singapore) in which I am holding the post as assistant secretary. In that meeting, the association decided to look for venues to hold performances and also decide what type of performances to do. I asked whether I could hold my recital using the association’s name. The motion was passed and thus my debut recital, Temasek was born.

Temasek – A Vocal Compositions recital by XIAO Chunyuan features 19 vocal compositions, all either in the form of art songs or song cycles. In total 26 songs will be showcased. What is an art song and a song cycle? An art song uses poem as an artistic medium, and performs through the human voice and piano, in which their composition writing ratio is 1:1, which means both human voice and piano are equally important. As for the song cycle, the things are the same, except that song cycle are story-based compositions. In the recital, all the poems are written by Singaporean poets or by Singapore-based poets. There will be a homage to Zubir SAID & Singapore too, when you hear the national anthem Majulah Singapura, played via the piano in the vocal song cycle, Temasek. The ideas used in the compositions are also quite interesting as well. They range from inspirations taken from the bible, classical Greek mythology, nature, arts & culture, history, development. Besides the recital, there will be two pre-concert talks taking place.

  1. In Conversations With Edwin Thumboo is an interview of Professor THUMBOO, on his poetic journey.

  2. Under The Rain Tree In Temasek is a talk by Professor WONG Yoon Wah on his poem, Wayang Kulit. Wayang Kulit is also a song cycle written by XIAO Chunyuan & will be performed in the recital.

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