The first time I heard Shadowcatcher by Robert Casteels was when I have yet to join SYC and was scrolling through their YouTube channel, chancing upon a video which showcased the song itself.

Shadowcatcher Shadowcatcher urban-shaman

Simply paint my shadow white and make me someone.

It was one of the songs that caught my attention and its tune was etched in my mind. The words in the song made no sense because I didn’t know the context of the song. This song even has a rapper and I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know that choral songs could involve a rapper. How does one compose a choral song with a rapper? What a revelation! This is such an interesting fusion because we mostly listen to rappers in modern pop songs accompanied by a back track and here we are, finding a rapper in a choral piece! Instead of pop music, the choristers are now the ones who readily provide the ‘background track’ giving this piece a sort of unique ambience. Pretty cool huh!

As I listened to the YouTube recording, I imagined the amount of work that had to be done and wondered how they pulled this off. The video showed parts of the score as the members sang the piece. There were also claps, snaps, and chants whilst singing was in progress. The coordination of speaking in rhythm as well as making the different parts of the song respond to each other was amazing. Words the rapper had skillfully articulated were re-sung by the choristers moments later, not only making it rhythmically catchy and pleasing to the ear, but emphasising the words and shaping the character and imagery of the piece.

No hit no catch no match

So go and get the torch

Hey we need to scorch

Hey we need to scorch

The shadows of your mind…

Catch, march, torch, hey need to scorch

Now as a member of SYCES, I have a chance to be exposed to many different types of music, and interestingly enough, the choir recently picked up Shadowcatcher once more. Although the music of the piece remained similar, this score was actually an updated version of the Shadowcatcher that I watched and listened to on YouTube. As I held the score in my hands and started flipping through this complex piece of music, flashbacks of what I heard and saw on YouTube filled my head and I was so excited to give this piece a shot! There were fun and interesting parts to the song such as singing the words “monkey” and “donkey”, which made me ask myself: “What am I actually singing?” and “What do these words mean?”

Thin and fat and lean and mean all forming a black meltdown

Black on white black on white say it right and be forthright

Black Black White White Meltdown.

Since the music was not in any fixed key, getting the notes and the interval jumps were tough initially. With tuning forks in everyone’s hands, we tried our best to get the notes. It was only after observing patterns were we able to piece the entire song together.

Another challenging and sometimes scary bit of the song would be how fast paced it is! With so many things going on, you have got to be on your toes when singing this piece. Subdivisions:“1 and 2 and 1e and a 2e and a…”, tuning fork ready, take your note from others, re-tune. Entry! And… cut! Wait for the call; respond! Count count count. Whenever this song was being rehearsed, there would always be a little tension in the air because we all understand the stamina as well as amount of effort needed in perfecting the music (so thrilling!). When everybody’s hard work and concentration is pumped into singing this song, magic happens. We all know how piecing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle feels like: the end result is a beautiful picture which could only formed from piecing the puzzle together, giving us a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, kind of how I felt when we completed the song!

Sha-dow cat-cher Shadowcatcher (spoken in rhythm =166)

I think at the end of the day, this piece has taught me that when we embark on a challenge, the start is not going to be easy, but it is this mindset of thinking it is too tough for us that we must be able to get rid of in order for us to progress. Once we bear the correct mindset, constant familiarizing as well as hard work is what we need to make things possible. With that, I’m looking forward to conquering more challenging pieces in future!

Let us continue to catch shadows.


HEY there again, SMUCC!

It’s time once more for SMU Chamber Choir’s annual concert, Wrinkles in the Air! This is the 4th Wrinkles concert that SYC has been invited to as guest performers, and I am so looking forward to performing with the cheerful members of the choir again: To meet new friends, catch up with old ones, and make beautiful music. Only a couple of Wrinkles ago, I had eagerly awaited (in much the same way) for the very first combined rehearsal – except back then, I was still an active member of SMU Chamber Choir. Many things raced through my mind: “Ooooo… I think they’re gonna sound awesomeeeee”, “Ok, focus focus, don’t make a dumb mistake later when you sing beside them”, “match their voice, match their voice match their voice…”. That practice had turned out well, and the Wrinkles in the Air concert for that year was a stunning success. Now, I’m an active member of SYC Ensemble Singers, and the first combined rehearsal with SMU Chamber Choir went great too (though we will still need to do some cleaning up to make the music even more awesomeeeee). I was most delighted to see that my alma mater choir had grown and matured much further in the years since I graduated. I truly hope that Wrinkles in the Air, and all the many wonderful experiences as part of the SMU Chamber Choir, will continue to be an inspiration for them and all future batches of students to continue pursuing their love of music – just as it was the case for me. -Joseph


So recently I went for a talk on the wonders of meditation by a particular famous guru from India.

After having gone through a rather turbulent 20s, I seek to attain inner peace within as I welcome my big three-o this year. This explained why, being such a skeptic on religious and spiritual affairs, I went for the talk.

During the talk, the guru guided us through a 20-minute meditation session, and it was after that the realization struck me.

Actually, I have been going for weekly meditation sessions all along, for the past decade. As I step into the studio with a group of like-minded people twice a week, we start off by breathing and stretching exercises. That prepares our mind and body for meditation ‘training’.

And then meditation commences: we focus on making sounds, unifying those sounds, using our brains, minds and ears to do so, as we try to achieve a harmonious blend (well not the music, per se, but the ensemble-ship). We do all these at the same time. We train ourselves to be mindful of our own sound, of the sound made by the person beside us, and of the choir as a whole. Sometimes we get distracted and thrown off by a stray quartertone here, or a triplet out of place, flared tempers and emotional outbursts; but we will always find ourselves at the start of the practice again – focus on the music, sing with others, repeat this rehearsal after rehearsal.

On hindsight, singing with this choir has trained me well in keeping my focus, in being mindful of the moment, and appreciating the present. Sometimes I lose sight of these seemingly trivial concepts as I get carried away by the negative emotions that arise as a reflex reaction to everyday life and things. And coming to these weekly rehearsals, had helped me to remember and to train these skills, all of which I shall put in practice in my meditation outside of choir, in my life, and in the endless flow of moments in time.

And also, to carry me through the entire 90 minutes of Flood of Beauty.


Arty – Facts

  1. Background information: “Artifacts” was composed by Eric Banks for the SYC Ensemble Singers’ 50th Anniversary, and was premiered at THREE in December 2014.
  2. Method: from a body of poems that I had previously written, Eric selected lines/sections, and re-arranged them to create a libretto. He took as inspiration the 50 Artefacts for 50 Years series (in celebration also of the choir’s 50th anniversary), which you really need to check out here.
  3. Factoid: When I first posted on the blog, I wrote about the choir’s tour in Turin while nursing malicious earworms from Eric’s “Twelve Flowers”—a composition in 12 sections/movements with Japanese and English text sung concurrently, over, under, around each other.
  4. For the past year, we’ve done quite a bit of other music composed after poetry. Off the top of my head: “Sonnet 43” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning x Kelly Tang), “Nona Sensilia” (Joyce Koh x Edward Lear and his nonsense verse), “Life has…” (Sara Teasdale x Ivo Antognini, “My Song” and “When Thou Commandest” (Rabindranath Tagore x Vytautas Miškinis x 2), “Nightmare” (Angeline Yap x Leong Yoon Pin), “De Profundis” (Federico Garcia Lorca x John August Pamintuan), and the list goes on…
  5. “walk inside the poem’s room/ and feel the walls for a light switch,” wrote Billy Collins, of the ways to read a poem. Not long ago, Mingboon blogged about approaching a note as one might a door: knocking tentatively, hacking through it, lingering too long before it, and ultimately finding that every door is different. Every experience of music/poetry/art is transformative, and we reach for metaphors of space & architecture to reflect this.
  6. Learning to piece together “Artifacts” with other people: (1) yes, those were precarious days for my battered tuning fork, (2) sometimes it was like a slow debugging of the ear… or a gentle cleansing of one’s third eye (some chords, I guess, do that to you), (3) when all else fails, the only thing you can do is dance—and the same is true of most things in life.
  7. If you could cobble together a meal from the ingredients mentioned in “Artifacts”, here’s what you’ll get: salted fish, sweet cream on a butter biscuit, a biscuit soaked in rainwater (why am I so obsessed with biscuits? I don’t know), honey, and a salad of roses, reeds and fern fronds. Maybe you should order takeout instead.
  8. For posterity’s sake, here’s a photo of Eric and I demonstrating—quite successfully, in fact—the art of the Side-Hug:


— Samuel

Silent Miracles


The conductor gave her cues. The choir members opened their mouths. But instead of being greeted by intoxicating harmonies capped by delicious overtones, the entire Esplanade Recital Studio was immersed in sheer and utter silence.

The year was 2009 and the concert was “Birth and Death” – SYC’s contribution to “Spectrum”, a series that featured contemporary classical chamber music. While this wasn’t my first SYCES concert, this was the one that left the most lasting impression on me.

For their last number, SYC performed the 5th and final movement of Hoh Chung Shih’s eponymous work. Choir members quietly “sang” the characters “生” (shēng/birth/life) and “死” (sĭ/death) as their conductor Jen etched these words, slicing the air with her deliberate calligraphic strokes.

I was awed and left speechless. When a friend whom I later met asked me how the concert went, I said, “I honestly don’t know. I am unable to process what I just experienced.”

At that point, I couldn’t understand why SYC did not sing. I couldn’t understand why those characters had to be written in the thin, still air. I couldn’t understand why during the post-concert open forum, Jen earnestly shared that it took her some time to prepare herself to conduct the final movement. I remember that my mind was awash with questions that needed answering.

How could any piece involve that much preparation? How do you prepare for a silent piece? (How do you even decide to perform a silent piece?) How could performers sing in empty tones? How could a single performance put me in such a state of numbing confusion?

At that point, my stormy brain groped for answers to no avail. No previous experience could anchor me; no theory could shine a beacon of clarity. Drowning in this absence of meaning, I sank slowly and surely into silence and unease.

It took 4 years and another SYC concert before this silence was broken.

As I was watching their 2013 Christmas concert “Pagdiriwang”, I finally understood what silence meant. The choir had just premiered John Pamintuan’s “Nativitas” – a new composition employing Prudentius’ 4th century poem. The song had all the elements of a Pamintuan arrangement – syncopated counterpoints, masterful contrasts of simple and stacked chords, distinct yet connected thematic movements – all culminating in a triumphant, glorious ending.

However, at some point during the performance, time stopped and the moment felt extended. At some point during the performance, the choir was both singing and silent at the same time. At some point during the performance, there was no “I” and “them”, no “performers” and “audience”, no “sound” and “silence”. There was only a collective “we”, there was only the ever-present “now”.

This is the miracle of music and singing.

It is a miracle because singing is never about the past nor the future. It is never about fulfilling future expectations nor making up for previous mistakes. It is never about the artists nor the audience, but about everyone present, physically or theoretically, in that space and time. It is never about silence nor sound, but the silence from and sometimes even within sound.

I realised while watching Nativitas, I was witnessing the first of many births, the first of many miracles.

Every performance is a miracle not because it “was” nor it “will be”, but because it simply, purely “is”.

The 5th movement 4 years ago invited me to die from my notion of what choral music was – audible and probable; tonal and logical. It was an invitation to die to myself and be reborn – to restart my choral journey through sheets of songs, to explore worlds within works, to soar the lofty heights and plunge into the fathomless depths of the human spirit.

Lastly and most importantly, it was an invitation to celebrate the gift of silence –

The silence that invites us to die to our false notions and images, opening us up to new experiences and relationships

The silence that gives birth to skilful arrangements and moving renditions

The silence that precedes and pursues not only tearful sighs,

but also rapturous applause.

= = = = = = =

*Aldo finally found the courage to audition for SYC in Jan 2014 and has been learning, unlearning and journeying with the group since then. SYC will be performing at the all-Pamintuan choral festival, SingaFOUR: Maior Caritas IV, at the SCO Concert Hall on Sun 27 July 2014.

Memos to self before a performance

It’s 8.10 PM. Stand in front of the monitor backstage. Watch the house lights fade into relative darkness. Watch the SMU Chamber Choir enter the concert hall, ascending the risers, flooding the stage with their deep cerulean-blue outfits. Observe (vaguely, through pixels) how the light plays on the stage. Feel your pulse quicken slightly when the pitch pipe is blown. Think about the note. Think about how it feels to be thinking about the note onstage.

A first beat is given. Hear male voices in unison singing what sounds like a medieval plainsong. Experience a vision of a rather damp monastery and a drowsy monk named Adso doodling on the margins of illuminated manuscript. Suddenly, the music is overcome by an exceedingly groovy rhythm. What is this amazing song, you ask a friend. It’s Arma Lucis by Jackson Berkey. Cool. Learn that this was the first piece he’s ever sung in a choir.

Walk around the large holding room. You’ve been here before, back in 2012 when you first joined the SYC Ensemble Singers. Nothing about this room has changed. Perhaps there are fewer chairs now. Think about Mostly Margutti (the concert ft. composer and conductor extraordinaire Corrado Margutti) and the atelier choir (you didn’t perform then, but helped out backstage) and the echo chamber of a stairwell between the dressing rooms and the holding area. Hear sopranos walking up the steep flights of steps.

Realise that the choir will be singing a composition by Corrado Margutti later—Dona Nobis Pacem. Rehearse, in your head, the flowing metre of Lorca’s poetry. Enough time will pass. Gather with everyone for silent warm ups. Dona Nobis Pacem: a prayer for peace, set to the idea of rain. Martial Arts: the theme for today’s warm ups. Huh. Nevermind, everyone has great fun making a terrible travesty out of iconic Bruce Lee fighting moves. Feel flushed. Stand still, letting the breath return to its usual measure of air.

10 minutes remaining. Get in position and walk to the stage door. Listen to them sing Seal Lullaby from where you stand. Do not fall into gentle slumber! Instead, think back to last year’s SMU Chamber Choir concert. Remember the people you sang beside. Remember the people you’re supposed to be standing beside this time! Grin at the new singers whom you will be performing with for the first time this evening.

Hear muffled applause through the thick walls. See the house lights enter the dim waiting area beside the doors. A crack of light becomes a walkway, a brief glimpse of the grand piano, footsteps on the wooden flooring.

Enter stage right.

– Samuel