WANG Chenwei 王辰威

Composer

Composing Captivating Works with the Essence of Traditional Music (Zaobao 2021-09-30)

Author: Tan Yu Xin 陈宇昕, Lianhe Zaobao (original article in Chinese)

Translation: Wang Chenwei 王辰威

Phang Kok Jun vs. Wang Chenwei

On the occasion of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s 25th anniversary, «Art Chat» invites young local composers Wang Chenwei and Phang Kok Jun to share about their affinity with SCO and their philosophies in composing Chinese music.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) celebrates its 25th anniversary. Its gala concert on 9 Oct. «Dazzling Rhapsodies» includes «Spring and Autumn» by Tang Jian Ping, « The Legend of the Merlion» by Liu Xijin and «Tapestries – Time Dances» by Eric Watson. Moreover, SCO has commissioned new works from Wang Chenwei and Phang Kok Jun for this concert.

Wang Chenwei and Phang Kok Jun are both young local composers. The concert’s overture – Wang Chenwei’s «Lion City Rhapsody» – integrates musical elements of the five main Chinese dialect groups in Singapore, namely the Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese, as well as 12 special musical instruments including the Nanyin Pipa (pear-shaped lute), Teochew Dagu (big drum), Cantonese Gaohu (high-pitched fiddle) and Hakka Touxian (lead fiddle). For this project, Chenwei learned from various local teachers about each dialect group’s music in the past months.

«Medley of Singapore Chinese Pop» by Phang Kok Jun reinterprets Chinese pop songs by JJ Lim, Stephanie Sun, Kit Chan and other Singaporeans through orchestration and the incorporation of stylistic elements such as Jazz.

Journalist Tan Yu Xin takes this opportunity to invite the two for an «Art Chat» to share about their affinity with SCO and their philosophies in composing Chinese music.

Musicians are adept at both solo and orchestral performance

Tan

You have collaborated with SCO for many years. What do you think of the SCO’s sound qualities?

Phang

Similar to a symphony orchestra, the bowed strings form the main corpus and blood of the Chinese Orchestra, and SCO is no exception. Their bowed strings group is excellent, and their sound can support the whole orchestra. Even as unique characteristics of Chinese music are presented – such as through punctuated sounds [by the plucked strings], the bowed strings’ foundation is indispensable. Singapore is a melting pot of cultures at the crossroads between East and West. SCO can play diverse styles of music – they could be rehearsing very traditional pieces now and perform a jazz concert next week.

Wang

SCO can be very harmonious when required but yet showcase individual character in solos. This is part of a performer’s artistic cultivation. In Chinese music, most people’s training is geared towards solo performance. Despite being masterful soloists, SCO’s musicians can put aside their egos [to play cohesively as a group] – this is true professionalism.

Tan

SCO’s musicians can play both solo and as a group – have you tried to challenge any instrumental section, like how Mozart wrote operas to tease the limits of soprano singers – as if purposely giving them a hard time?

Phang

Well, I’m not Mozart, and it is hard to give SCO a hard time. However, I do consider the limited rehearsal time for professional orchestras and hope that they can produce the best effect within the shortest time. I thus usually would not purposely make things difficult for the orchestra. But, on the other hand, I might write solo parts that showcase the soloists.

Wang

The most popularly played Chinese music works mostly sound harder than they are to play. For example, the Ruan concerto «Reminiscences of Yunnan» [composed by Liu Xing] sounds very difficult, yet the notes flow smoothly for the fingers. The soloist can achieve twenty points of musical effect for ten points of effort.

Phang

It is tough to write things that are easy to play but sound challenging.

Tan

You both value efficiency.

Wang

Yes. When composing for an orchestra, we would start communicating with the admin staff and musicians months in advance.

Many possibilities still for Chinese music

Tan

Nowadays, the Chinese music scene requires a lot of new works. As composers, do you feel like you are in the right place at the right time?

Wang

Yes, indeed. As Chinese music is still in a developmental stage, there are many possibilities yet to be explored – and thus opportunities for contemporary composers to contribute. Almost anything imaginable in Western music (whether tonal or atonal) has been studied in great depth.

Among the Chinese music we know nowadays, there are very traditional and very Western-sounding pieces, while most lie in the spectrum between. Actually, I am subtly concerned whether [in the overall trend,] Western elements have become the main dish while Chinese elements have been reduced to flavouring.

It is easy for a conservatory-trained composer to compose in a generic pan-Chinese style. However, composing in a traditional style requires arduous study because each traditional genre has different characteristics.

Presenting traditional Chinese music as the main dish to contemporary audiences does not seem to appeal to their aural tastes as much as presenting it as a flavouring. For example, people may perceive [traditional music genres such as] Nanyin to be boring or old-fashioned, yet delight at hearing Chinese elements in crossover/fusion music. It seems as if we Chinese only appreciate our own culture when viewing it through a Western lens.

Phang

The Chinese orchestra is still developing and does not have a fixed instrumentation. Besides the Chinese orchestra, there are also chamber ensembles. Due to the pandemic, we now even have orchestras without wind instruments. Western music also took many years to develop different instrumentations.

I find it interesting to see Chinese music practitioners still experimenting. For example, I have written for the Taipei Chinese Orchestra’s [earlier] instrumentation which included the Gaoyin Pipa [(higher-pitched than the Pipa), Xiaoruan (higher-pitched than the Zhongruan) and Dahu (lower-pitched than the Zhonghu). Such experiments to find different combinations and timbres are fun and necessary.

As for Western music, I feel that it still has room to develop. Music changes with social, political and technological advancements globally, and there are bound to be new possibilities.

Advancing traditional music through symphonic orchestration

Tan

Is Covid changing music?

Phang

Yes. Many people are trying different technologies to create art. We have seen a lot of these in the Tokyo Olympics, such as using motion to create sound design. I feel that one is always in the right place at the right time – and as artists, this means that we have to know what resources are available now and make good use of them.

However, I have a dilemma. On the one hand, we should cultivate audiences’ musical appreciation. On the other hand, the general public form the 99.9% – will we become obsolete if we do not follow their tastes?

Wang

I believe that symphonic orchestration can advance traditional music. This should not neutralise traditional music’s characteristics, and neither should authenticity be asserted to the extent of rejecting symphonic orchestration in favour of reverting to traditional heterogeneous ensembles.

We need to find a balance, to take in the sound and essence of traditional music to create captivating works without diluting tradition.

Phang

Composers of Chinese music like Chenwei and I are all seeking a balance.

Tan

Should music aim for connoisseurship or maximal outreach?

Phang

Recently, a not-so-good theory has been dawning upon me – art goes where the money is. When the church was wealthy, church music flourished. Next came the aristocrats as patrons. In this capitalist era, the common folk are affluent – will music then develop according to the tastes of consumers?

Wang

There are already many forms of music that cater to the public, such as pop. That said, it is now hard to draw boundaries between pop, classical or traditional. Neither extreme is good – I don’t wish for music to be either alienating or pandering to trends. Instead, we could boost outreach by explaining the music well and crafting the video production suitably.

Phang

Likewise in novels. I feel that in the best novels, the readers can guess what the protagonist is going to do 50% of the time, while the rest is unpredictable. For music, if we break too many habitual norms, we often hear the words “I don’t understand”. Yet, pandering to the crowd would not do justice to our [artistic] intentions. We need to find a middle ground to challenge the audiences’ thinking within a familiar environment.

Tan

Singapore offers a wealth of musical cultures. How should the diverse ethnic elements be utilised without descending into cultural appropriation?

Wang

To be culturally appropriate (instead of cultural appropriation), we composers have to respectfully and humbly learn the intricacies of other cultures. This is, of course, a growth process too. For example, in my composition «The Sisters’ Islands» [2006], I emulated Gamelan scales and textures, as well as Malay dance styles and ornaments. In 2018, I rewrote all the Rebana (Malay hand drum) parts in this piece in a more authentic Malay drumming style after receiving feedback from a Malay composer friend Syafiqah.

Phang

In my opinion, one does not need to overthink. What is cultural appropriation? Is it wrong to create a multicultural work? Tchaikovsky composed a «Chinese Dance», while Debussy and Lou Harrison took inspiration from Gamelan, showing their interest in other musical cultures.

I wrote a series of works related to Indian flutes and consulted flautist Ghanavenothan Retnam. I told him that I hoped I did not misuse elements of Indian flute performance. He said he heard my style, understood that my piece was inspired by Indian flute music and appreciated my efforts as a kind of contribution. Composers are always re-creating.

That said, we should not flippantly appropriate what we hear. It is always best to ask and learn. There are lots of resources available, and we have no excuse not to research.

«Art Talk» invites artists, art lovers and community members to converse, creating new sparks and insights.

Photo caption

Young composers Phang Kok Jun (left) and Wang Chenwei (right) both agree that musical composition needs to balance connoisseurship and outreach.

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