Happy Birthday SYC!

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

Having sung with the SYC Ensemble Singers back in 2005 during “Pedals & Pipes” as a member of TJChoir, as well as a number of co-productions and workshops with SYCES as part of the SMU Chamber Choir, joining them has always been a dream for me. Now, I have finally gotten about fulfilling it.

January 2014 marks my 6th month with the SYCES, and what a journey it has been. The experiences I’ve had in this span of time has been everything I expected and much more – from helping out as part of the concert crew for the charmingly delightful “We Are Singapore”, to my first performance with Sir JoJo and SYCES in the magical “Pagdiriwang” concert. For this, I am truly thankful to the conductors and my fellow choristers for warmly inviting me into the family, and for continuing to make and share music that inspires. One does not simply make good choral music – it is through the passion, sacrifice, and tough training that something beautiful can be created.

And as I remember and cherish the first half of “Year 1” with the SYC Ensemble Singers, it makes me honoured that I can spend that remaining half-a-year (and more) celebrating it with the rest  of the choir, who are commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the formation of the SYC Ensemble Singers (then known as the Singapore Youth Choir).

To all conductors, members, and supporters of the choir – both past and present, thank you for making this choir what is today ❤   I look forward to even more fulfilling and memorable experiences in the future.

Happy Birthday SYC! 😀

– Joseph

A (whole) Night with Glass

A month ago, I went to see Music in Twelve Parts, a four-hour piece featuring the Philip Glass ensemble as part of the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival in London.

I was in the company of two thousand. When the piece was first performed 40 years ago in the UK, there were as many audience members as the number of movements in the music.

I’ve bought the tickets more than half a year in advance; so long that I’ve almost forgotten what to expect, and as it turns out, there could be no better way to approach this mammoth work.

It is quite fair to say that music like Music in Twelve Parts command a space in the listener’s consciousness, capable of altering our perception and realisation. Forget those psychoactive drugs that deliver a quick hit. This kind of musical high has a very long half-life… and multiple flashbacks to boot. Throughout the five hours (which included 3 intervals), I found myself drifting in and out of contemplation, slumber, dream-like states, and trepidation.

The piece started off introducing us to a concept; a simple idea that quickly gathers pace and spins into passages alternating between frantic collisions and more measured, strongly-pinned rhythms.

At some point, one could have imagined building using lego blocks, the pieces deconstructed and reconstructed into a familiar corridor, and other times into a shining piece of otherworldly architecture held together by a single pylon. Whether familiar or foreign, always, determined to be modern.

There is also something mathematical in its formula. The performance was divided into four equal parts, and visually, neatly laid out as three electric keyboards, three woodwinds, a sound mixer and a soprano in a crescent. And it was just that. Throughout the performance, there was nothing more or less to behold.

In my head, it conjured a scene very familiar to us city dwellers. Standing on the platform every morning, you watch a regular train arriving. The same commute to work or school. Some days, you see same people, doing the same thing. But if you look closer, say, the day you forget your headphones (or kindle), you bring your attention to some small detail that normally goes unnoticed. Those shoes are interesting. I wonder what he’s reading. Why is that person not being offered a seat? And so the mood of the morning changes. Hence, very similarly, changes in the passages are abrupt, like being jolted from slumber by the train coming to a sudden halt during the morning commute (or the awkward realisation when you find the side of your head tapping the shoulder of a neighbouring commuter).

Listening to Glass’s music (and so can be said regarding music lumped into what used to be called minimalism, which in these days have become a slightly irrelevant label), one is inadvertently drawn to an approach that is free of anticipation and of free associations. They also require a different mode of listening and engaging. On the surface, the audience looked placid, just like the dynamic of a traditional concert. But to keep an audience awake for over three hours of relentless sound (granted, the occasionally dropping off is allowed) was not a coincidental byproduct. The music itself, however, is not indulgent in any sense of the word. Even a traditional opera is undeniably fuelled largely by champagne, strawberries, and keeping up appearances, which surely is more consistent with indulgence.

In the world we live in today, we find our mental faculties facing demands from a swathe of stimuli; mobile notifications, e-mails, advertising, and demands from people; all of which invade our sense of space. What Music in Twelve Parts had achieved was to allow the audience to step into a musical landscape so rarely afforded.

Some people have described the experience as spiritual. Spiritualism, minimalism, ambient, etc. However, maybe those were just means of describing a meditative state, like that of being a blank canvas, simply allowing the music to wash over. Or to take it to another level, I found myself as a canvas, but not exactly blank. Parts of the music highlighted different parts of my thoughts, my memories, and my experiences. It also made me feel like a cog in a much bigger system of machinery. But as quickly as these feelings arrived, they disappeared with fugue-like rapidity. A seismic change in chords or rhythm forced the mind to move along, otherwise one risked being left behind by the flux.

It is also music to be appreciated in its totality. As a whole, the piece is symbolic, especially coupled with the backdrop of 1970’s new york, which I can’t say I have experienced, but it certainly can be imagined. There is also a very democratic usage of all its constituent parts that resonates clearly with the core struggles of the 20th century (which continue to this day). An example would be the use of voice, the unmistakable soprano singing to solfège with such sustained sound and clarity, echoing repetitive lines of the melody passed on by the other parts and itself melting into woodwind refrains.

It was really not unlike my experience as a member of a choir. I was an SYCES member about 8 years ago, on-and-off over a period of 2 years, a period of my life which was ultimately curtailed by higher education (and having left Singapore for that purpose).

Listening to Music in Twelve Parts, I was reminded of a largely failed attempt to grasp the rhythm to Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. We were in the Waterloo Street studio one Saturday afternoon, and Jenn had divided the choir into two halves. We were asked to clap to what looked like a very simple looking score. What resulted was an odd cacophony of mis-claps and expletives generated by a group of musicians navigating the terrain of frameshifts. (Two years ago, I attended a Steve Reich marathon at the Barbican Centre where the man himself opened the event clapping to this very piece. It is one of the moments when a master of the art single- (or double-) handedly exposed all my inadequacies in one fell swoop.)

Despite the fiasco, the musical vocabulary has never left me.

I also remembered a time when we were criticised for the impenetrability of the music we used to perform. The repertoire that SYC has taken on, coupled with its mission of supporting new music and living composers, did not always sit easily with the society of that time. The mere filling of the Esplanade Concert Hall was a product of years of convincing people that the music meant more than an evening of entertainment one slots in their annual social calendar.

And again, whether it is navigating the morning passages of Glass or scaling the peaks and troughs of Schafer, whether we are performers or listeners, there is a wider context to the music. Great music speak of a larger world we live in, an age where are forced to connect with others at an unprecedented scale. Personally and perhaps for many, being a member of a performing arts group that was actively engaged in the avant garde was a form of risk-taking that was sorely needed amidst the typically risk-averse climate of our society.

The other quality of music like Music in Twelve Parts is their universality. Listening closely, the keyboards was reminiscent of the higher tones of an indian sitar, or that of church organs, and maybe a marriage of both. The process of walking out of the concert hall was like walking out of a state of suspension, and it also left a sentiment where one wished the world was that much simpler and that much flatter. We can choose to use music as a key to open doors and break down walls, such as with international collaborations (e.g. the well-established Three or the recent choral atelier which I am truly gutted I couldn’t be part of), or it can be used to reflect hate and ignorance, not unlike what the internet can be used as a tool for. The music industry today reeks of sexism and cultural misappropriation.

And to finally illustrate my point, it’s about one in the afternoon and the sun is due to set in a couple of hours. We are approaching the depths of winter as I sit here in my London flat in front of my laptop. In a few minutes I will commence to trawl through a local bookstore recommended by an old SYC friend. Despite the true deciduous nature of the climate and the cold, warmth can be found in the fact that 8 years on, this simple activity represents a friendship that really started from the appreciation and engagement of music which as formed a bond between individuals. Surely, something has to be said about having dedicated parts of (and for a few, the majority) our lives to creating and expanding the musical landscape.

I believe that for many ensemble singers, singing is more of a necessity than an option. When questioned as to what music is, Glass offered that music is a place, and I cannot find a better definition. By creating music, you are creating a place for you and the audience to inhabit. What or who is present in this place is, however, subjective. Our future musical paths are shaped by our earlier experiences. I remember fondly that no matter how tedious it could be, preparations for each new piece, for each rehearsal and each new concert were like breaking down existing boundaries and constructing new worlds to live in.

There are music which demand a different way of listening, music that requires listeners to make up their own stories. You have read, without me having pointed out explicitly, my very own narrative set to the backdrop of this musical work littered throughout parts of this letter – the daily commute, the nostalgia, the characters and the music. It’s a narrative that changes each time, which is why writing it down now is so precious.

Happy festivities!


A message from Jonathan Velasco

Thank you, Sir JoJo, for this lovely message. It has been an honour and a treat to have you here with us, and we can’t wait to see you again!

Dear SYCES and Jennifer,

It has been 24 hours since our concert last night. I didn’t even have time for sepanx (separation anxiety) because everything was a whirlwind after the concert ended. By the time I was able to catch my breath, I already found myself here in my next hotel in Manila. It feels so weird to be booked in a hotel in your home city hahaha!

And so it is only now that I am able to express my thanks to you all, for the wonderful music making that we all did. I leave you for now, with a smile on my face, full of artistic satisfaction in the instrument that is the SYCES. I hope you are happy with what we did, as I am.

Ate Jen, thank you for inviting me to conduct your baby. You have honed it into a fantastic group of like-minded individuals with a passion for excellence. Thank you for your hospitality and kindness. In you and Albert, shine the best example of true Singaporean hospitality. I am so glad to be counted among your friends.

And so, onward towards the Christmas season! Remember our songs, and its messages of hope, of meaning, of celebration. Luwalhati sa Diyos sa kaitaasan, at sa lupa’y kapayapaan sa mga taong kinalulugdan Nya!

PAGDIRIWANG – A choral atelier with Jonathan Velasco


Young Musicians’ Society presents
a choral atelier with Jonathan Velasco (Philippines)

Bringing together singers of different ages, professions and musical backgrounds, the atelier platform seeks to provide the singing public with the opportunity to explore choral music from around the world with our guest conductors.

This December, join Filipino choral conductor, Jonathan Velasco, in a celebration of the holiday season in our second atelier to date. Together with fellow choral enthusiasts, explore seasonal and Advent music in the week-long atelier (5 – 11 Dec), which culminates in a concert performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Singers must be able to read music and have at least 3 years’ experience singing in a choir.  As the atelier can only accommodate a maximum of 48 singers in a balanced number of voice parts, you may be asked to audition.

Application closes 31 October 2013.

Download the brochure and application form here, or email us at atelier@yms.org.sg for more information.

Atelier Sessions

Thu         5 Dec 2013       2:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Fri           6 Dec 2013       9:30 am – 12:30 pm, 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Sat          7 Dec 2013       9:30 am – 12:30 pm
Sun         8 Dec 2013       Evening dress rehearsal (Esplanade Concert Hall)
Mon        9 Dec 2013       2:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Wed       11 Dec 2013      Atelier performance

Fee: $120 (inclusive of scores)

Atelier Performance (as a concert segment)
PAGDIRIWANG A celebration of the holiday season
With Jonathan Velasco, Jennifer Tham and the SYC Ensemble Singers

Date: 11 December 2013
Venue: Esplanade Concert Hall

Happy National Day

思念 (Nostalgia) was one of the Singapore Youth Choir’s first commissioned pieces.

This is what composer Leong Yoon Pin (1931-2011) has to say about the work:

Nostalgia is actually about a person – again, the name of a poem – going away from one’s country. Although in person you are away, the heart is difficult to be away. The heart is always coming back.*

On this our 48th National Day, our wish for Singapore is for her to be that country to which our hearts will always come back.

We also remember Leong, who was born on 5 August, and whose works illuminated the way for so many who came after.

*from the National Archives Oral History Centre,  Oral History Interview with Leong Yoon Pin (001490/04), 4 June 1994.

My journey through Birth and Death

Rehearsing Dr. Hoh Chung Shih’s Birth and Death – Five Songs for Thich Nhat Hanh creates ripples in my mind. Just like the poem that the work is based on, which consists of only two Chinese characters – Sheng (life, to be born) and Si (death, to die) repeated and arranged in several permutations to give its meaning, my mind is filled with myriad interweaving thoughts on the musical ideas behind the piece and its relevance on our lives.  

My first encounter with Birth and Death was at SYC’s 40th anniversary concert in 2004. That was the last performance I caught of the SYC before I auditioned to join the choir and I still vividly recall Birth and Death being one of the pieces that struck me the most at that concert. For one, the piece consists of various movements written as interludes between other works, giving it a feeling as if the ‘big mystery’ is slowly unraveled through the concert. But what really intrigued me then as part of the audience was the i) (visual) staging of the piece, ii) the different vocal sounds explored that teased my aural palette and iii) the use of ‘primitive’ instruments to create a unique soundscape. Being a Composition major to-be at that time, I found myself pondering over the concepts of the piece. For example, historically (and perhaps more so in many contemporary works today), Composers would dictate exactly how they would want the piece to sound, right down to the last articulation/dynamic/tempo marking. However Hoh’s Birth and Death  gives each singer their own distinct part to play which allows for freedom of self-expression, yet this is still within a given framework which guides the overall shape of the piece.

The choir reprised Birth and Death again in 2009 as part of the Esplanade’s Spectrum new music series. This time, the entire work was performed including the last movement. I was again in the audience (this was the year that I took my sabbatical, only to find out later that the absence of music in my life was killing me softly…So I rejoined the group, coincidentally, shortly after this performance). As with every live concert, each (re)delivery of a piece is never exactly the same as the previous time – that’s why we go to concerts! The work was given new life with its performance in a different venue. The Esplanade Recital Studio, being a smaller, more intimate venue than the Concert Hall, brought the work closer to the audience. For me, this performance made me reflect on the themes of the piece a bit more personally. Hearing the musical materials transform both within the individual movements as well as across the entire work made me think about the continuous and changing nature of life. The different movements interspersed between other works in the concert seemed like new opportunities and challenges arising and passing in our journey through life. The powerful silence in Movement V (the ‘big mystery’?) reminded me of my Buddhist/Taoist upbringing – Emptiness is Form, Form is Emptiness. Ideas of Attachment versus Separation, Presence versus Absence, Past-Present-Future started resonating in me. Buddhists (and also many non-Buddhists) believe that the Present comes from the ending of the Past and the Past disappears with the coming of the Present. Whatever is in the Present is evolved and accumulated from the Past and whatever that is coming in the Future derives from the Present effort.

Perhaps it is apt that the choir will revisit Birth and Death in our upcoming concert in August. This concert marks the beginning of SYCES’ 50th anniversary celebrations, presenting yet another chapter for the ensemble. As we prepare ourselves to face Birth and Death again, I am excited that I finally get the chance to experience it ‘from the inside’ (maybe I wasn’t ready before?). Having meditated over it for quite some time now, I must say I have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the piece. But I wouldn’t say that I have arrived. As with the stream of life, no amount of meditation can really pull one away, it is a continuous journey. I look forward to the road ahead both as a musician and as a person in life. To end off in the words of George Santayana, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval”. Join me.

– Kenny

Thank You

A note from Corrado Margutti that warmed the cockles of our hearts.
Thank YOU, Corrado, for your music and friendship.

Dear friends of the SYC Ensemble Singers,

I like to write you these few lines only to tell you grazie, thank you. Now it’s 2am and I’m going to go to sleep and when you listen to these words (I know that you are going to do a rehearsal at 2pm) probably I’ll wake up because in Italy it will be the Aurora, 7am! It was a wonderful week spent in doing music with you. I’d like to be there with you now. I feel like telling you that the time spent with you in conducting Italian music of mine and not only was for me a so delicious time. A nice, good, expressive, intense and amusing choir has been the soundtrack of my week in Singapore. I’ve known you and your wonderful conductor (who has prepared a very nice atelier choir too!). And I have found the perfect organization by your president Albert and a great welcome by you and all the executive committee.

To conduct you is an honour, I’m thinking about you now while you are doing the rehearsal, and when I was conducting you I was thinking that if a composer listen to you, he would like to write music for you… So I can’t wait for your coming in Torino. Have a nice rehearsal and be sure that in Italy there is someone thinking of you.