Together

If there ever is a word that can encompass what it means to be in a choir (and there are many other words I’m sure), that word would be “Together”. I know that sounds somewhat obvious and simplistic, but never underestimate this word. It is easier said (or written) than done. After being in SYC Ensemble Singers for 6 years, I can definitely attest to the fact that being ‘together’ is more than meets the eye.

Singing in a choir is about singing together. but what does that mean? Does it mean singing the same pitch, the same word, or the same dynamic with other people? Does it mean breathing at the same spots, inflecting at the same points of each phrase, and ending each word the same way? Or does it mean having the same tone, the same vowel sound, and the same resonance?

At times, I feel like the more I understand the concept of “Together”, the less I get it as well (I know it sounds contradictory…hear me out). Singing as a collective seems to be a constant process, of listening, of adjusting, of feeling. Whenever I figure out a way for me to sing together with my fellow choristers, I realise more things that need attention. It seems to me like an unending cycle of figuring things out, and of stretching our senses to understand the experience of singing.

As we prepare for our 50th Anniversary pre-tour concert ‘This Song of Mine’, I find myself going through the process of learning (and re-learning) what it means to sing together, so that we can sing the songs of Chinese tribes;so that we can bring forth the stillness of the lake; so that we can re-create sounds of the Basque country; so that our hearts can “break with pride”, and your hearts will be transported to “the verge of the unknown”.

So what does it mean to sing ‘together’? Well, the most important thing is to find out…together.

– Delin –

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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!

Leslie

Can you sing this note for me please?

In a note

You can approach a note in many ways.

Sometimes you are a stranger, you start with a tentative knocking on the door and then slowly enter with much politeness.

Sometimes you enter into a space with multiple doors, you do not know which is the right one. You think you are in twilight zone.

Sometimes the door is located in a weird position. You think it is too low too high too wide too narrow too something. You frown.

On a bad day, the door may be locked.  You try to pick the lock, with some help from your friends. After multiple tries, you hatcheted the door like in a B-grade horror movie.

Sometimes you lingered too long in a space and open the door late, much to the irritation of people behind.

Sometimes you open the door and you see heaven.

Sometimes hell.

But never two the same.

So every Saturday we enter doors after doors, 30 odd people enter and exit , enter and exit, criss-crossing each other’s path. Sometimes we hold hands and enter safely, sometimes we are alone and afraid, sometimes we hold the door for each other.  For we know we are blind without each other. We need each other to draw the map with sounds.

Interbeing

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching of “inter-being” states that there is no separate object, event, or experience that can exist apart from all others. Everything is made up of other things. The elements that make up the world are patterns of dependency and interweaving. In other words, they are relationships. What we are seeing and experiencing are basically only relationships.

Understanding this, one would understand why section leaders are so particular about attendance and discipline. And a thousand other things that holds the structure together. These are the nuts and bolts that make a concert, a practice, a piece of music, a phrase, a note, a sound, possible.

To think that one is part of this creating process fills one with awe and gratitude.

Impermanence

I was in SYC 10 years ago. Left and now I am back again. The members have changed. The music has changed. The name has changed. I have changed. So what is SYC? It is no-thing and everything.

It is the intersection of our lives for that few hours a week, it is an exploration of our inner space, it is a discovery of new ways of relating with others, it is an experiment with sounds.

It is a journey between one door to another, from the beginning of a note to the end.

– Ming Boon

5 (not so odd) months

Some 5 odd months ago, I stumbled on a peculiar video on youtube that featured a group that just walked out of The Matrix, producing a myriad of sounds, dissonances, whispers, chants, and seamless music. I was amazed, and did the unimaginable.

Some 5 odd months later, I am racking my brains, trying to think of something to adequately describe how the past 5 months in SYC has been. How surreal it is, from being an online spectator, a virtual audience, to actually singing with choristers who seem so much more larger than life on stage, but are people who only possess a simple, yet epic joy, for singing.

It has been a ride with SYC, from the initial audition where I harboured no hope or expectation of result after the overwhelming experience; but was shocked, and exhilarated after my news of acceptance into the choir. Albeit it being such a short time since I’ve joined the choir, I’m thankful for being a part of We are Singapore, and it is really only by constant concern and advice from fellow choristers that I am able to learn such a rigorous repertoire and be on stage with the choir.

SYC has inevitably allowed me to  grow as a musician, and in my ensembleship. I am thankful for all my fellow choristers, and despite differences in age, profession, nationality, we all somehow converge into one voice, one spirit, all for a greater purpose to spread our joy for singing to the our audiences.

Ultimately I look forward to the process of turning ink on paper into beautiful oscillations of pressure, into wrinkles in the air, into music that speaks so wonderfully to the heart and soul. Albeit the exhausting rehearsals, I am thankful for every moment I get to spend with the choir in music-making, for every bad practice, for every good practice, and for every sound that not only comes from vocal cords, but also, from the heart.

Now, watching the very first video that introduced me to SYC brings back a rush of joy, reverence, awe, and satisfaction.

GG

Birth and Death Round 1 Part 2

Chinese Whispers is often invoked as a metaphor for the unreliability of human recollection. To put this into context, it would be the singer’s recollection of…

sounds which are primarily formed  by pitch + decibels + duration.

This is definitely one of the pieces that I reacted with a [O.O] when I first saw it. But loved it nonetheless. From what I recall back in 2009, it goes something like this:

1) 1st practice- Bewildered by Score

2) 2nd Practice- Initial Recognition of Required Task, lost.

3) 3rd Practice- Assigned to the longest processional group, composed myself.

4) 4th Practice- Crossing fingers not to be the last of the processional group

5) nth Practice- Last of the processional group, yay

On the day of the performance, after umpteen rehearsals (which turns out differently every single time), I was assured that my ears have grown accustomed to detecting dedicated sound waves from Mr Member In Front. Stage lights on, lighthouses transmitted Sheng Si with alluring notes, leaving them diffusing and colliding in the spaces. As we walked through the lighthouses and the other processional groups, the human flesh struggles not to be drawn to surrounding disturbances-Si sh sh Si Si SH. Growing tensions and uncertainties resulted in the gradual dissolution of the initial intense cry out.

Picking this score up again for our upcoming concert means a lot to me, not only because it’s the start of the next re-creation of the piece, but as an individual, I am determined to transmit and not transmute.

Chinese Whispers with the idea of summoning the souls to ensure the survival of the men working in the fields, we will see how this goes!

sh sh si sh si

-Peiyu

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

hello for the first time

My virgin post here, and my thoughts on SYC so far! 🙂

It has been one year since I joined SYC though it felt like a short period of time that has passed so quickly. It feels rather surreal to have been part of SYC’s 2 major concerts, Due North, and Black & White for the amazing experience that I have taken away thus far. In the beginning it was not really a clear answer as to why I wanted to continue my choral journey after my years in secondary school and JC other than the joy of singing, and there seemed to be some other reason I wanted to join SYC that I could not really put my finger to it initially. After having performed and sung with them this time, it may sound rather cliché but I did end up figuring the true reason why I really wanted to do this, in a way that I can finally put it to words. It was the emotions and feelings that arise when performing and singing the songs each time, not just that from myself but more importantly feeling the passion and emotions of the person next to me. To me it was a blessing to be able to sing on the same stage with the people around me, i.e. the same talented people producing such beautiful sounds and chords that feel like they’re going to burst out of the basement studio/recital studio/room anytime, and create music, delivering interpretations of different pieces of music. The intense set of repertoire also felt as though we were telling a story from a book, each concert one book, each song one chapter, songs that excite or tickle the senses of the audience.  Feels kind of exciting to do that haha!

For me it was a really liberating and comforting feeling, especially with the stresses of daily life, to indulge in the energy and the passion surrounding you, (and feeding on each other’s energy) and that is the kind of happiness I got to experience, the feeling that I really enjoyed in singing in a choir!

I look forward to more of such experiences to come in this SYC journey, and also working harder and improving myself musically. But more importantly I’m just really thankful for the earcandy and for being able to make music with such a passionate group of individuals, so for all the SYC peeps, thanks! 😀 for the incredible experience and all the effort that you guys have put in. 🙂

– Jia Rong