18 March 2012

Three Singapore Composers

The golden rule for any critic is never get on too friendly terms with those whose work you assess professionally.  If you befriend composers and artists, they (and others) will either dismiss your gushing praise as being driven by personal rather than artistic considerations or, if you say something detrimental about them, they will take it personally and a good friendship will be severed.  Bumping into the conductor Stephen Layton in a bar and finding ourselves getting on famously, he voiced his concern; "Every time I get friendly with a critic, he turns round and trashes my work".  A few weeks later a disc directed by Layton arrived for review and I seriously considered sending it back; it was worthy of great praise (as all his work is) but I had to convince myself that the praise was fired by the performance and not by my knowing he was a fine fellow.  It is difficult in the best of circumstances to avoid such friendships arising – the classical music world is too small for people to avoid each other for long – in Singapore it is just about impossible.

Luckily, though, I am sufficient of a newcomer to have yet to strike up even nodding acquaintances with the growing band of Singaporean composers, and I have been careful to distance myself from those occasions where we might be thrown together in informal social gatherings.  As a result, when I hear music by a living, breathing composer here, I feel I can say what I feel without worrying about being accused of following a hidden agenda.  How much longer such an idyllic state of affairs will continue, I don't know, so it's good to grab the chance while it's there. 

From my student days when, working on my PhD thesis in the university library, I was sandwiched between two postgraduate students pursuing doctorates in composition, I have had a powerful interest in new music.  I understand the problems facing new composers; do they acknowledge their debt to the centuries of tradition behind them or do they go out of their way to avoid it?  The former course leaves them open to accusations of unadventurousness and ultra-conservatism, while the latter alienates them from just about all their potential audience.  A couple of weeks ago at the Monday lunchtime student recitals at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory we heard a student composition which was decidedly original, being scored for cello and timpani, and showed some singularly good ideas.  It gave off the impression of a work in progress, where those ideas were tried out rather than developed, and as such it was well worth hearing in that setting, but had I paid money to hear it performed in a professional concert, I would doubtless have asked for my money back.  Too much new music hits the public before the composer is really ready, and it is that which gives contemporary music a bad name in some circles.

Kevin Field at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra tried to encourage Malaysian composing talent in a series of pretty bleak concerts.  At first, audiences were enthusiastic about the fact that Malaysians were endeavouring to make a voice for themselves on the new music scene, but the concerts soon fell into the formulaic pattern familiar to anyone who goes to student composition recitals; lots of attempts to be different, with everybody ending up sounding the same.  The mantra is, make it inaccessible and people will think you clever because they don't understand.  Very few of those works ever appealed to anyone in the audience except the composers' immediate friends and those who didn't really like conventional western music anyway, and the series disintegrated.  The most valuable critics of new music are those who have to perform it, and very few of the MPO felt that the enormous amount of work they put into learning the new scores was in any way worthwhile.  The problem, so far as I saw it, was that the new music was thrown into a ghetto where the composers were assessed against their peers rather than as part of the totality of the musical experience.  How much better it would have been if these new works could have been integrated into mainstream concerts – but the sad fact was that few, if any, were of sufficient quality to stand alongside even the most dismal offerings from the likes of Grieg, Goldmark or Gounod.

A vocal recital in Singapore over the weekend introduced me to the work of three Singaporean composers within the context of a programme which ranged from Faur√© and Vaughan Williams to Messiaen and Cole Porter, and I have to say they stood up very well indeed.  True, Kelly Tang's (b.1961) setting of Blake's The Tyger seemed to consist of a cut-and-paste selection of mid-20th century devices on the piano above which a disjunct vocal line had been awkwardly juxtaposed, while Zechariah Goh's (b.1970) Flower rather went in one ear and out the other.  But neither was in any way lacking in quality and both stood up very well against many of the other songs in the programme.

It was Tsao Chieh's (1953-1996) Old House at Ang Siang Hill which I thought worked the best and which I really hankered to hear again.  It avoided the "clever" tricks with which new composers try to impress the more academic minded of their audience and if someone were to turn round and accuse it of being derivative or conventional, I would not argue against them.  But despite the obvious borrowings and the fondness for rather syrupy harmonies from the early 20th century, it had enough about it to make it both distinctive and musical satisfying.  Clearly his death at the age of 42 was a major blow to Singapore's musical life, and although I was not around at the time to read the assessments of his work written by locals who would have known him personally, on the evidence of this song, I would make a point of rooting out more of his meagre output. 

It helped, of course, that tenor Adrian Poon delivered the words of Tsao's song with such obvious relish – he showed a very impressive command of diction here – and I would like to say that Shane Thio performed wonders at the piano; but I know him well, so perhaps I cannot consider myself an unbiased observer.

No comments:

Post a Comment