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Mar 25, 2019

Project IDIOM – A New Music Feast And Promise For The Future

Esplanade Recital Studio
9 March 2019
1:30 PM – 3:30 PM and 7:30 PM  9:30 PM
Contributed by John Sharpley

Performers: The Graduate Singers, Project IDIOM ensemble

(This review concerns the 7:30 PM concert. Read here the review of the 1:30 PM concert, featuring a different programme.)

Project IDIOM (Identity In Our Music), commissioned by The Future of our Pasts festival, gave its marathon performance launch on 9 March 2019 with two completely different concerts, one in the afternoon, the other in the evening. The Esplanade Recital Studio reverberated for nearly four hours with new “classical” (for lack of a better term) music from Singapore. It indeed was a joyful celebration.

Project IDIOM is also supported by a website, www.projectidiomsg.com, and a Facebook page, facebook.com/projectidiomsg/. The website includes separate video interviews with many of the featured composers, and also articulates the following aim:

“Project IDIOM is about composers who write concert music in Singapore – their preoccupations, their motivations, their stories, and of course – their music.

We hope that Project IDIOM will not only bring more attention to the music of our composers, but also function as a “time-capsule”, capturing the stories of some of these practitioners for the future.”

Much kudos goes to the four curators and facilitators behind Project IDIOM; Wilford Goh, Zephany Hoe, Bertram Wee and Lynette Yeo. They must have worked really diligently for an extended period to realise the project finally.

Having attended both concerts, I was enthralled by the overall scope, depth, quality and programming of the performances. The presentation of works by sixteen Singapore composers by many of Singapore’s best performers was definitely a huge milestone in the history of Singapore’s new music community. In my own experiences and observations within the new music community in Singapore over the past 34 years, there has been nothing of this nature nor scope to have happened prior to 9 March 2019. Importantly, Project IDIOM represents a non-partisan, from the ground-up emergence of a genuine new music community spirit. Of course, the past decades have seen a burgeoning of, if not fledgling and uneven, new music activities. The appearance of local music degree courses with composition majors plus returning graduates from overseas compositional studies has certainly added to the line-up of composers and concerts with their music. The National Arts Council (NAC) has also lent its support towards many of these activities. This is all a good thing. And these tend to be driven by either music institutions (such as Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM)), ensembles (such as the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO)) or even the composers themselves (such as me myself). Even though there are other new music activities, these activities may be less effective then Project IDIOM towards forging a genuine non-partisan new music community. Activities do not make a community. Rather, a community would ideally be like an extended family, with composers, performers, audiences and all types of social and main-stream media interconnected and mutually supportive. Too utopian? I believe that it is possible!

Sometimes, new works are commissioned and programmed because they fit a particular agenda such as “Singapore identity”. Self-conscious ideologies do not forge genuine communities. They give birth to what is politically correct (PC). Why cannot music be its own agenda? Music for music’s sake still struggles in Singapore. Furthermore, the mainstream media in Singapore has virtually forsaken new music in and from Singapore altogether (unless there is a non-musical agenda such as Singapore identity)! Coverage of local new music on the radio, TV, newspapers and journals was much more supportive and widespread 30 years ago! Consequently, one continually gets the sense that local new music is relegated by “society” to a hidden ghetto for the “destitute,” or worse, a rubbish bin for the “unmentionables”!

Enter Project IDIOM.

Like a breath of fresh air. Music for music’s sake.

If this project indicates a groundswell towards the appreciation of new music from Singapore, then there is much to be optimistic about and, please, let there be more. Ultimately, a vibrant community is about people who care about each other and are genuinely interested in the music-making of others. External measurement such as number of concerts, audience attendance, funding and media attention are not true indicators of a bona fide community. I’m talking about matters of the heart, …the soul, …love.

The two concerts were well-balanced in programming. The first concert featured the piano quintet, Take 5 on the first half and piano solos and art songs on the second half. The second concert featured The Graduate Singers, conducted by Adyll Hardy and Project IDIOM Ensemble, conducted by Moses Gay. As Jon Lin has reviewed the first concert at 1:30 PM, here are my few brief reflections on the equally diverse second concert.

The Graduate Singers filled the first half and were excellent, singing with great clarity, intensity and expressive range. Before each piece, a different member of the choir introduced the work. Chen Zhangyi’s beautifully sonorous and sometimes playful Three Nansi Songs began the concert. The texts are based on Singaporean poet Pooja Nansi’s poetic collection, Stiletto Scars. Pater Noster (Our Father) by Kelly Tang followed bringing a soothing sense of assurance. It is based on the well-known Christian Lord’s Prayer. My Country and My People by Bernard Tan was based on Lee Tzu Pheng’s rousing poem of the same title. The lyrical and euphonious Tread Softly by Kelly Tang followed and is based on William Butler Yeats’ poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven . Next was Phoon Yew Tien’s colourful and rhythmically driving Ri Weng Du Zan, based on a Tibetan folksong of the same title. Concluding the first half was Zechariah Goh’s engaging and fascinating Irama Belia SG50 (Rhythm of Youth). Disparate influences include Indian raga, Peking opera and Malay interlocking patterns found in kompang (Malay drums) ensembles.

The second half of the concert was performed by the newly formed Project IDIOM Ensemble. This includes Christoven Tan (violin and viola), Chee Jun Sian (cello), Daniel Bonaventure Lim (flute), Daniel Yiau (clarinet), Benjamin Boo (percussion) and Bertram Wee (piano). The first work heard was Autour de Moi I (Around Me) by Diana Soh. A pristine mechanical world is conjured and ritualised. The second work, by Hoh Chung Shih, carries a rather enigmatic title, cs:bw{i’mpulses (ks:capricorn+tauras) frisson}ct for violin and piano. An arresting if not pulverising composition where several works (two by Hoh and “around” two by K. Stockhausen) converge / collide. For cello and prepared piano, Emily Koh’s piquant and colourful smidgen(s) explores five different spices, each in a separate movement. Yummy! Ending the program was Alicia De Silva’s evocative and engaging Stones, Sand and Darkness.

Overall, the concerts were fully professional, the performers played and sang convincingly with panache. Transitions between compositions were seamless. The audiences in both concerts were supportive and enthusiastic. On the other hand, the program notes could have been more complete and consistent. For example, there was no background information on the four curators / facilitators. Some of the notes hardly gave any information about the works. For example, there was no translation of Phoon’s Ri Weng Du Zan. Composers’ bios were strangely absent. In addition, a spoken introduction to the concerts and the project from the curators / facilitators would have been appreciated. A pre-concert talk or a post-concert Q&A might have enhanced the overall experience even more. (Perhaps, we are becoming too digitalised where “everything” is online and both the spoken and printed word on paper are rapidly evaporating into the past.)

Outside of social media, there was very little publicity. Actually, none that I saw. No mention in the Straits Times either before or after the event, not even a listing! Something is amiss! From what I understand, it is not a reflection on potential reviewers’ lack of interest but rather on the mainstream media that has clearly dropped even a pretence of passing interest in Singapore’s new “classical” music. On the surface this seems tragic. Is it because there is virtually no commercial value, according to a materialistic society, in what we actually dedicate our lives towards? Or, not enough facile superficial entertainment value? Is it, perhaps, believed that the “uninitiated” masses are simply not interested and might perceive our activities as elitist, or just worthless? Regardless of the reasons, the mainstream media’s negligence serves further to create the illusion of a ghetto. Let’s face the music, the place of new music in Singapore society on the whole is negligible. Anything that gives occasion for the perceiver / audience to think, to ponder, to expand one’s horizons (…to be enlightened!!) is avoided (feared?). In fact, it has been my experience that some of the best and most stirring performances in Singapore have gone completely under the radar of mainstream attention. Project IDIOM is in good company!

The audience demographics were revealing. Both concerts seemed to attract a majority of young people. This is good. But where were the older audiences? Above all, where were all the “other” composers (even if the concert states free admission with registration)? There was a conspicuous absence of composers. (Not that there are so many.) To my knowledge, most of the composers present also had a work performed. Some even only stayed to hear their own work performed and then left. This is not the telltale sign of a bona fide community.

It is not just that we compose music, perform new music, organise and attend new music concerts that actually makes a community. It is more about WHY we do, what we do, and how we recognise that in each other and share with open hearts. Project IDIOM is a reminder of what is possible.