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.


The Beginning of Something

Before I auditioned for SYC, I watched quite a few of the choir’s concerts. One, in particular, stands out in my mind: Black & White (March 2013). This concert was held in the Esplanade Recital Studio and the songs sung revolved around the paradoxes of life. True to the theme of the concert, I recall alternating between feeling intimidated and being pleasantly enveloped in warmth. There were songs that were cacophonic and strange with random mutterings and exclamations and there were songs with beautiful, haunting motifs.

I remember watching the choir in awe, completely taken in by the experience. I remember looking up at singers who seemed larger than life; an effect no doubt intensified by the intimacy of the space. And then I remember thinking how amazing it would be to sing and create music like that, music that had soul, that could make you feel so much.

I finally plucked up the courage to audition at the beginning of this year and June marks my fifth month with the choir. I can’t believe I’ll soon have spent half a year with the choir. It feels only like yesterday I was sitting at the back of the choir room waiting to audition. It’s been an amazing, thrilling and challenging journey so far.

I love that we sing all sorts of songs – songs that are beyond the spectrum of normal (O-rologica!), songs that are rhythmic and make you want to get up and dance, songs that make you ache, songs that you could close your eyes and feel lost in. And more than that, I love that the people who seem larger than life on stage are really down-to-earth and fun to be with and sing with. I’m so grateful to have their support, advice and encouragement.

Here’s to creating new friendships and great music! This is just the beginning.


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

Stones & Singing

*Warning: post written on post-performance high*

Well, tonight, if you didn’t already know, we performed with THE ROLLING STONES. Yes you read that correctly. THE ROLLING STONES. Yes. THE ROLLING STONES. ROLLING STONES. STONES XD

XD 😀 😀 😛 XP

Awesome possum McAwesome! We shared the same stage as these legendary artistes! They smiled and wave to us! Mick Jagger called out our name and said we sang “beautiful”! *Faints*

Well so far in my short close to 5 years in SYC, I’ve gotten the chance to sing/support in many various events. There has been 2 weddings; 1 funeral; a Singapore Citizenship oath swearing ceremony; a Spanish Flamenco Mass; several church services in Europe; educated secondary school kids on music appreciation; exchanged songs with other choirs in dining halls; sang by the roadsides; sang while we waited for our food in restaurants… and many more. Well of course tonight we can add “sang with the Rolling Stones” to that list. (Y)!

So why do I list all this out?

Well there’s this general impression out there in Singapore (I feel) that choral music is kinda… detached. It’s something murky out there, only for the cultured or high browed to appreciate.

Something “atas”. Something inaccessible or far away, beyond reach of the common folk.

That, however, is simply not true.

As seen in the many occasions that call for song, music is but just another expression of life. We sing when we are happy, we sing when we mourn. We sing when we are with others, and we sing when we are alone. We sing to commemorate, we sing to let loose, to enjoy life to ROCK IT OUT!! An expression of life, something that resonates deep within us, that all of us have a personal connection to.

Of course when we sing about life, we inadvertently and unapologetically present various opinions and ideas, all at the wishes of the composers. Simply put, we are messengers. Opinions and ideas, as we all know, will sometimes be disagreeable. But this is where we learn how to agree to disagree, after all, in life you can’t always get what you want.

So next time you hear a choir sing, don’t just dismiss it as abstract music. Examine it, embrace it, and see how it speaks to your soul. If it seems like nonsense, so be it. But hey, who said life was logical?

Midst all the stuff and nonsense of our lives, let the song challenge you, and see how it might help you examine yourself deeper than you ever expect.

– Benlee


When I first picked up Nona Sensilia, I was excited precisely because it was nonsense. The illustrations were of a literal tiger lily, a boot-wearing ostrich, a broom-plant, and many more, all cute and ridiculous.

The music, too, is nonsense, in the sense that there isn’t much harmony, just a collection of notes with speak-singing and speech sounds. It requires generous use of the tuning fork. We have equal trouble getting the notes and the rhythms right.

It’s challenging. It’s fun.

Maybe it doesn’t exactly sound like “music”. But when you stand in the middle of a city and close your eyes, and just listen, you hear but a collection of words and sounds, too. Yet these paint in your mind the cityscape.

Similarly, the notes and speech sounds we make, while sounding ridiculous, precisely paint the ridiculous pictures they are about.

Laugh with us.


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!