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CSS Composer of the Month for Sep 2020: WANG Chenwei

The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) kickstarts 2020 with a new monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month! The next composer to be featured is WANG Chenwei (王辰威), a talented Singaporean composer! Chenwei is Head of Research and Education at The TENG Company and adjunct faculty and composition supervisor at the National Institute of Education (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). He is the main co-author of The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra (2019), a 624-page book on instrumentation and orchestration. He is also the Composer-in-Residence of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) from 1 Jul 2020 to 30 Jun 2022.

WANG Chenwei

Interviewer: Emily KOH

Tell us about yourself and your musical background, and the 12 instruments you play.

My first contact with music was tinkling with a toy electronic keyboard that I received as a birthday present at age 6. I started piano lessons at age 10 and composed simple pieces on the piano. At age 13, I started composition lessons with my first teacher, Mr Tan Chan Boon, paving the way for much more presentable works.

I was posted to the Chinese orchestra in secondary school, for which I composed a few pieces and conducted them. I knew early on that I would not become a performing artist, and instead aimed to widen my performing experiences to be able to compose more idiomatically for each instrument. I took an interest in learning new instruments, starting with those lying around in the orchestra room.

In approximate order of proficiency, the instruments I can play are piano, Ruan, Liuqin, Sanxian, Zhongyin-Sheng, Diyin-Sheng, cello, contrabass, Pipa, recorder (not kidding, I composed and performed a solo piece Qi 气), Erhu, flute and Dizi. I have taken lessons in clarinet, violin, viola and trombone too, but I dare not say that I can “play” them…

Why did you choose to study audio engineering in Vienna? How does your knowledge in audio engineering influence your composing?

Besides music, I have also been interested in physics and computing, and sought a course that would combine music and science. In 2009, I embarked on my Tonmeister (audio engineering) studies at the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna under the Media Development Authority’s scholarship. On my second year in Vienna, I auditioned for and enrolled in composition studies too. Pursuing both concurrently, I eventually chose to specialise in and graduate in Composition for Media and Applied Music, which involves a lot of Tonmeister stuff like music production, MIDI sequencing and recording.

Due to my Tonmeister training, I place great care in balancing my orchestration, so that the parts that are supposed to be heard would indeed be audible. For example, an intricate four-part counterpoint could be totally drowned out by a timpani roll, and this is something not obvious from looking at the score.

You had early success as a composer with The Sisters’ Islands, which launched your career when you were just 17. This work is now arranged for a variety of instrumental ensembles. Why do you arrange your works for many different instrumentations? Is there a difference from version to version? What are some challenges you face when rearranging your works for new instrumentations?

The Sisters’ Islands 姐妹岛 (2006) was a significant milestone for me because it was my first award in a composition competition where almost all participants were professional composers. It also turned out to be my most well-known and most rearranged composition.

I make arrangements of my compositions primarily at the request of musical groups, who might want to play a piece of mine but not have the same instrumentation. For example, my symphony orchestra arrangement of The Sister’s Islands was requested by the Orchestra of the Music Makers in 2009. I also arranged a Chinese chamber ensemble version for a multimedia performance by Ding Yi Music Company with sand art and Javanese dance.

Whenever arranging an old composition, I inevitably have to go through all its details again, and in the process, often discover issues that I have previously never noticed. For example, I might reconsider the voicing of a chord or tweak the ornamentation. Having found a more satisfactory way to achieve my aim, I then feel obliged to update the original composition. After numerous arrangements and updates, The Sister’s Islands in its original instrumentation for Chinese orchestra is now at version 17. While the new versions sound alike, the details are more refined. Imagine an old house renovated with better plumbing and tiling. Optimising the notation makes a difference too. Ever since I rewrote a section with demisemiquaver scales at tempo 60 into semiquavers at tempo 120, orchestras have been able to play it much more accurately!

The main challenge in arranging would be to create an equally convincing effect on a group of instruments for which the piece was not originally meant. Often, the parts cannot be transferred verbatim, but rather has to be reworked in a way that sounds idiomatic for the target instrumentation.

You’re a polyglot! What interests you about languages, and how does this relate to your musical works?

My main interest lies in how different scripts express phonetic and semantic meaning. Thus, I am most fascinated by non-alphabetic scripts like Arabic, Devanagari (used for Sanskrit, Hindi and others) and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Languages are gateways into foreign – and often ancient – cultures, and they have directly influenced several of my compositions.

My language of focus changes depending on what I am working on in that year. In 2015-2016, I focused on Sanskrit to compose three Indian-themed pieces. By studying how the language works, I could pick out suitable verses from the ancient texts to be sung or chanted in my compositions.

  • Rama (2016), Pipa concerto, based on the Rāmāyana

  • Arjuna (2016), Pipa solo, based on the Bhagavad Gītā

  • Aksara (2017), for Chinese wind and percussion, based on the metre of Sanskrit poetry

On a deeper level, my interest in languages has led me to appreciate foreign cultures and their ethnic music traditions more. The space between composition and ethnomusicology is under-explored – most composers are not well-versed in ethnic musics, and most ethnomusicologists do not compose. When past Western composers wrote a “Chinese dance” or “Arabian dance”, they usually had neither the resources nor the interest to portray the musical style of the said ethnicity accurately.

Like most conservatory-trained composers, I regard research as an integral component of composing, although my research is dedicated more to ethnic musics than compositional techniques. Foreign musical traditions are often described as “exotic”, a word implying that one is fascinated by the unknown and yet uninterested in seriously studying it. Through conscientious study, unfamiliar ethnic musics – like unfamiliar languages – become familiar, and thus become no longer “exotic”.

My first venture beyond the Chinese, Malay and Indian musical traditions of Singapore was the Arab tradition, culminating in my Sanxian concerto Aleppo, founded upon in-depth research on Arab music, including its microtonal melodic modes and rhythmic modes. In 2019, I was commissioned to compose a piece for the Macao Chinese Orchestra. To present the Portuguese aspect of Macao’s culture authentically, I researched into the fado, a traditional Portuguese musical genre. As a lot of information was only available in Portuguese, I started with guessing the words with my not-too-bad French and limited knowledge of Spanish, and eventually learnt some Portuguese.

You’re now composer-in-residence for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO). What new pieces are you composing for them, and when can the public hear some of these works?

Usually, commissions for new compositions are planned half to one year in advance, and with the current COVID situation, it is hard to plan more than one or two months ahead. Since the start of my term in July 2020, I have mainly been editing earlier works to be performed by chamber ensembles comprising SCO musicians that fulfil safe-distancing requirements. One example is Samsui Women 三水红头巾 (2019), which was played at SCO’s National Day concert on 8 Aug 2020. SCO’s next public performance of my composition will be Winds of Affinity 笛缘 (2016), to be shown in their digital concert on 6 Nov.


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