21 September 2015

Seeking Singapore Sounds

In 1965 Malaysia jettisoned Singapore from under its political umbrella, resulting in the difficult progress of building a nation on a tiny island with no natural resources and a population entirely comprising immigrants drawn there by its strategic location as a trading port.  Few could disagree that, half a century on, Singapore has carved a distinctive place for itself on the world map.  Financially, commercially, architecturally, educationally and politically it is a world apart from the corruption, crime, civil disobedience, poverty, squalor, ethnic tensions, financial mismanagement and political deviousness  (not to mention, in its northern states, rabies) of its former political overseer.  A former Singapore government minister mentioned in a speech that Singapore was, after 50 years of independence from Malaysia, beginning to show a real sense of identity; “When you travelled on the train or bus you never knew who was Malaysian and who was Singaporean; now you can tell the difference”.  Musically, however, Singapore has yet to carve out a unique sound on the world stage, and while its Western and Ethnic ensembles are certainly world-class, it is not yet possible to identify any uniquely Singaporean characteristics in the music they perform.  Last night saw the gala inaugural concert of an orchestra created expressly to address that issue.

Its very name – Singapore Sounds - tells us what they are all about, but enveloping within a conventional Western orchestra a small group of instruments from the musical traditions of the three dominant ethnic groups in Singapore – Chinese, Malay and Indian – is nothing new; I have worked with a good half-dozen similarly-constructed orchestra in Malaysia (often playing the same basic melodies).  The difference here is that this is an extraordinarily good orchestra.

Conductor Adrian Chiang had gathered together outstanding players in every section.  It might seem odd that ethnic Indian musicians were largely absent – notably on the Indian ethnic instruments – but that did not matter since the essence of the orchestra was in creating a Singapore Sound rather than celebrating individual ethnicities.  And the fact was that on every instrument there was a real master.  Chiang’s graceful and unflustered direction together with his understanding of the balance issues and the potential conflict between those players imbued with the metrical pulse and rhythmic order of the Western tradition and those at home with the freer, more naturally flowing movement of the Asian traditions, resulted in an exceptionally cohesive and musically coherent sound. When things did occasionally go a little astray Chiang effortlessly brought it all back into line with consummate control.

The basic issue with such “fusion” orchestras is that, designed and intended to do just one musical thing extremely effectively, the so-called “ethnic” instruments (how I hate that term) seem so inflexible beside the Western ones.  There isn’t much, for example, a Tabla can do other than what it does in Indian Classical music, and there is the ever-present danger that the “ethnic” instruments will appear simply as culturally-conscious window-dressing to music which begins and ends with the Western instruments.

Only one of the works really addressed that issue successfully, and Eric Watson’s Constellations was quite revelatory in effectively combining the various instrumental colours.  This was a superb piece which showed a profound understanding of all the individual instruments and celebrated their distinctive musical qualities rather than their differences.  On a purely musical level, it was so absorbing and well constructed that one quickly forgot any sense of novelty in the instrumental line-up and simply relished the music that was being so well played.

Robert Casteels is also masterly in his marrying of ethnic and Western instruments, but perhaps his Travelogue was a little over-orchestrated to be really effective.  It was originally conceived for a much smaller ensemble, and I imagine it worked superbly in that guise.  But with the bigger orchestra often playing for all their worth, it became overwhelming.  Leslie Tay probably had too many words to say too quickly and too loudly for the amplification system to do anything other than distort them, and although many of the local jokes were caught and appreciated by the audience, many more were lost in the blur of sound.  Towards the end of this enormously enjoyable piece, with its many clever and captivating instrumental effects, Tay sang more and more,revealing a tenor voice of remarkable control and clarity.  I look forward to catching him in some Britten – he has exactly the right voice for that repertory.

Leslie Tay also served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening.  Dressed much in the manner of a British Holiday Camp Entertainments Officer of the 1950 and 60s (with the delivery to match, including phrases like “Did we all enjoy that?”, “I’m sure you were all singing along with that”; he never quite got us all to shout out “Hi-di-hi”, but it was a close-run thing) his presence tended to obstruct rather than cover the small stage changes, but he was really on hand to introduce the Minister for Education, Heng Swee Keat.  Elections over, the Minister was not there to speechify to a captive audience but to present violinist Lynnette Seah with a specially made “SG50 bow”.  Luckily bow-maker Paul Goh was on hand to extricate the bow from its presentation box, and Seah then made use of it in a virtuoso display arrangement of Home by Phoon Yu.  But whether it was the arrangement, Ms Seah or the bow itself, despite its routine pyrotechnics, the music never really felt anything more than lots of movement for movement’s sake.

Another Phoon Yu arrangement – of Munnaeru Vaaliba – had begun the concert and had immediately highlighted the basic problem facing Singapore Sounds.  While the sound they make is superficially indicative of the ethnic mix in Singapore, there is little (if anything) which is distinctly Singaporean in the music itself.  Many of the pieces arranged for the programme might have resonance for Singaporeans because of the words usually associated with them, but shorn of those words and presented as purely instrumental pieces of music, the melodies have absolutely nothing Singaporean about them at all.  Indeed most are trite and musically shallow and cannot support the inflated level of arrangement to which many of them had been subjected.  Phang Kok Jun’s Xinyao Medley and Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli’s Singai Naadu fell into that trap, and Syafiqh ‘Adha was probably wise to confine her Singapura Medley to a style which did little to deviate from the sort of sound made by any Malay ensemble. 

It was left to Lee Jinjun to produce the two most distinctive arrangements of the evening.  His sour Fantasia on Rasa Sayang was notable for a fugue which took the ethnic instruments so far out of their comfort zone that it was quite spell-binding, while his Chan Mali Chan Variations featured a simply breath-taking virtuoso performance from Euphonium player Kang Chun Meng.  In an “Orchestra of Generals” (to mis-quote Burney) he was by far and away the most impressive, turning out a performance of  masterly technical command and musical authority; the possible problems in integrating inflexible Ethnic instruments with Western ones dominated by that most fluidly flexible of brass instruments, the euphonium, were neatly side-stepped by not having any in the ensemble in the first place.

The fact remains that, while Singapore Sounds is an excellent orchestra - certainly the best of the fusion orchestras I’ve ever heard - and its conductor is particularly sensitive to the challenges of legitimising music performed by such an ensemble, the sound they create is in no way distinctly Singaporean.  On top of that, the music they play takes us no further along the path to establishing a distinct and unique Singaporean musical sound.  That’s something Singapore needs to work at over the next 50 years.


  1. Thanks Dr Marc for a brilliantly perceptive post. As usual you combine immense knowledge, humor and erudition to give us something really thought provoking. Why aren't you writing for Straits Times anymore? Are they frightened that you might make comfortable Singaporeans feel uncomfortable?

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