02 April 2018

Away With Home

I missed it when they sung it here in 2015, but I did catch quite a bit of the subsequent internet chatter complaining about it.  Of course, many Singaporeans would complain about having to breathe air, provided they could do so under the cloak of anonymity on the internet, but having now heard it, I can understand the controversy it caused in some quarters, and I even have a certain sympathy with those who complained.

I should have smelt a rat at Saturday’s concert when Andrew Nethsingha spoke to the audience at the end of the St John’s College Cambridge Chapel Choir concert.  He pointed out that on their last visit to Singapore in 2015 they had sung an arrangement of the song “Home” and that they were going to sing it again as an encore.  Alarm bells should have been set ringing when this announcement was not immediately met by the kind of extreme ecstasy which is more normally reserved to the home side’s winning goal in the match determining who is going to play at the World Cup final.  After all, the mere mention of the song sends many Singaporeans into the kind of rapture citizens of other nations experience only after taking illegal substances. 

It may be that the presence of the Prime Minister at the concert induced a level of communal restraint, or it may have been that the audience included a very large number of British expats and visitors whose ideas on concert etiquette differ widely from those of Singaporean concert-goers.  But even the Singaporeans sitting around me merely applauded politely, and as “Home” was sung I was not conscious of anyone singing or even humming along with it.  Certainly there was none of those awe-struck noises which usually accompany a foreign group recognising a Singapore icon.  My impression was that the audience simply felt so dissociated from this performance of “Home” that its usual sentimental power was lost.

For the benefit of non-Singaporeans, “Home” is a bland tune to which sentimental lyrics have been added.  It was composed in 1998 by Dick Lee, and while the fact that neither the melody nor the lyrics resonate with me means that it is not a song which I have any strong feelings for, I do appreciate and understand that for many it is a direct reinforcement of their otherwise unarticulated feelings towards Singapore.  It is not a national anthem nor a song rooted in the history of Singapore, and it certainly does not express any sort of religious conviction.  As such, it is open to anyone to sing or to enjoy (or not) without the risk of causing national upset or undermining any firmly held religious faith; it is simply not the kind of thing which might be expected to spark controversy when foreigners sing it.

However, even though it does nothing for me, I would be the first to argue that since there are many for whom it has a powerful emotional resonance, it deserves respect by those who perform it in public.  The Cambridge choir certainly showed great respect in their performance of it, and sincerely believed that they were paying due homage to a Singapore icon by singing it in a manner they genuinely believed to be appropriate; but by doing that, they inadvertently stumbled into a fertile field of possible offence.

The song had been arranged in such a manner as to suit perfectly the sound of the choir – an archetypical English cathedral-style choir of boys and men.  With its gently layered harmonies and richly textured choral writing, it suited the choir to a tee.  A beautifully light-toned and clear voiced tenor soloist (the kind of voice any cathedral choir would snap up without hesitation) stood at the front of the stage and sung the melodic line with its Singaporean-centric words (was it my imagination, or were the words rather less clearly enunciated than had been the case in the rest of the programme?).  The whole thing simply oozed Englishness.  This was an arrangement which transformed it into the kind of thing you could happily slip into a weekday Evensong in any English cathedral and provided nobody listened too closely to the words (which nobody ever does at Evensong) would not occasion any comment, other than how nice it was.

But while the anonymous arranger had done a fantastic job in transforming “Home” into a piece of beautiful English cathedral music, he or she had completely expunged those very qualities of the original which have made it so hugely popular amongst Singaporeans.  In a kind of musical equivalent of British colonialism, this simple Singapore icon had been taken and transformed into something which was much more akin to the English concept of elevated musical quality.

I loved the sound of the arrangement, but I have lived in Singapore too long not to recognise that this is not what “Home” is all about.  “Home” is all about appealing directly and in the simplest possible language to Singaporeans whose taste in music is confined to something they can hear and sing along to without effort.  This was an arrangement which expunged the simplicity and replaced it with complexity.  It was sung beautifully, of course, but “Home” is not about beauty, it’s about Singapore and a place where beauty, to resort to a famous old clich√©, is very much in the eye of the beholder.

There was another issue.  A purely musical one. 

Up to that point in the concert I had loved everything.  The singing was wonderful, the music was glorious and the supreme pleasure of hearing a superb choir performing a vast range of delectable repertory had been a matchless aural experience.  However, when they sang “Home” and made it sound like everything else they had sung, it suddenly dawned on me that everything in the programme, whether from the 15th or the 21st century, whether by an English or a Russian composer, had sounded exactly the same.  Gibbons, Parry, Britten, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Lee should all have their own unique sound; but they did not.  The encore forced me to rethink my whole impression of the concert, and revise downwards an opinion which had hitherto hovered around the “Utterly Magnificent” mark.  Performers should think long and hard about the subliminal message they are sending out in an encore – sometimes, it is better just to leave people wanting more as they head for home.


  1. Dear Dr Marc, I thought I knew where you were going in this post, but you surprised me. Perhaps the disadvantage of a choir putting so much effort into developing a sound that may be perfect for choral evensong, is that they lose the ability to create other sounds. I have heard a similar complaint of string players who may develop a gorgeous vibrato and rich, but ultimately monochromatic, tone which they apply like shiny varnish to everything from Bach to Bartok.

    Having diagnosed the problem, doctor, what’s the remedy ?

    1. I do not think choirs whose performance focus is on providing music for cathedral services - and who do it supremely well - should try and turn it into concert repertory. Choirs like The Sixteen and Polyphony are more geared towards interpretation of repertory and can communicate it out of context in a way cathedral/collegiate chapel choirs cannot.