WANG Chenwei 王辰威

Composer and Audio Engineer

Searching for a “Singapore sound” (Zaobao interview 2021-01-07)

Author: Zhang Heyang 张鹤杨, Lianhe Zaobao (original article in Chinese)

Translation: Wang Chenwei 王辰威

What kind of music can represent Singapore? This episode of “Art Chat” invites Assoc Prof Lum Chee-Hoo and Wang Chenwei to discuss their thoughts on how local musicians search for identity in Singapore’s multicultural environment.

In his 2019 book “Semionauts of Tradition: Music, Culture and Identity in Contemporary Singapore”, Assoc Prof Lum Chee-Hoo from the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University interviewed several local musical groups performing original or fusion works, such as SAtheCollective and NADI Singapura, discussing the dynamic relationship between music, multiculturalism and national identity.

In Apr. 2020, Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s online virtual performance of “Confluence” – a 2009 composition by its composer-in-residence Wang Chenwei – received the attention of prime minister Lee Hsien Long, who shared it on Facebook. He wrote, “this virtual performance of Wang Chenwei’s “Confluence” by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra harmoniously weaves together Indian, Malay and Western musical styles, performed by musicians on Chinese instruments — a marvellous representation of our vibrant multi-racial society.”

This episode of “Art Chat” invites Assoc Prof Lum and Wang Chenwei to discuss their thoughts on how local musicians search for identity in Singapore’s multicultural environment.

Zhang Heyang (“Zhang”): Why are we searching for a “Singapore sound”?

Lum Chee-Hoo (“Lum”): In the initial stages of my research, I did not ask this question deliberately. Instead, I sought to find out why many young musicians formed their own ensembles, using traditional instruments such as the Guzheng and Dizi to perform non-traditional pieces or collaborate with musicians of other ethnicities to perform novel, original music.

Some respondents felt that repeatedly performing traditional pieces lacked novelty in the long run, while others felt that traditional music requires innovation to attract young audiences, allowing the flame to be passed on. Some considered traditional Chinese pieces to be somewhat distant from their personal upbringing, despite the deep cultural heritage represented. These musicians yearned to perform works that were more intimately related to their own cultural backgrounds. Such identity anxiety led local musicians onto a quest for originality and style.

Wang Chenwei (“Wang”): Like Dr Lum pointed out, cultural identity is not predetermined by one’s blood or genes, but nurtured by one’s environment. For an average Singapore Chinese, Indian music and Malay dance could well feel closer to heart than Beijing opera or Shaanxi opera.

For example, the hand drum rhythms that I heard in a neighbourhood Malay wedding naturally flowed into “The Sisters’ Islands”, which I was then writing for the composition competition organised by Singapore Chinese Orchestra in 2006.

One crucial question faced by career composers nowadays is: with so many compositions past and present, east and west, why would people choose to listen to, or play mine? Individuality thus matters a lot to new compositions, and it can be realised both through composition techniques and cultural nuances. Through searching for my personal “Singapore sound”, I seek to mould a unique personal compositional style.

“Singapore sound” should not be narrowly defined

Zhang: Given Singapore’s multicultural environment, does the “Singapore sound” have to be born out of “fusion”?

Wang: There can be two approaches to the idea of a “Singapore sound”. One is top-down – starting from a certain principle, for example, “CMIO” (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others), and pursuing a representation of the four races in music. The other approach is bottom-up – ignoring “racial” categorisation and embracing any music created by Singaporeans from their heart as “Singaporean music”, regardless of what these works represent.

Note: I could add that the two approaches often coexist, even within the same creator/entity. For example, while I seek to represent a combination of “C/M/I/O” in many of my works (top-down), this is motivated by my sincere interest in ethnic musics and respect for other cultures (bottom-up).

That said, it might be difficult for a recognisable “Singapore sound” to arise naturally. One important condition for forming a localised musical style is the limited access to outside information for a prolonged period. In today’s Singapore, any kind of music from anywhere in the world lies at one’s fingertips. Therefore, the chance of a localised Singaporean musical style arising naturally is not very high.

Note: By “arising naturally”, I mean that if music creators in Singapore did not have any purposeful intent to develop a “Singapore sound”. The extent of globalisation today makes it difficult for a new pinpointable localised musical style to arise, if one does not already exist.

Lum: A “Singapore sound” should not be narrowly defined as a kind of music representative of the country, but rather understood as music unique to Singapore, regardless of how such uniqueness is manifested. We have to be aware that creating music is searching for one’s voice rather than responding to an assignment to achieve a “Singapore sound”.

In the creative process, cultural fusion is a spontaneous kind of communication and a possibility for innovation. For the audience, the process of learning from each other’s cultures could be seen as an epitome of Singaporean society in terms of aesthetics, sociological or political agenda. No matter which perspective one comes from, these “fusion” works create a valuable opportunity to reflect cultural inheritance and the moulding of identity.

We have to be cautious about the notion of “fusion”, lest we become entrapped by templates. Creators also have the responsibility to examine and gatekeep their new works, to ensure that “tradition” is not lost in the process of innovation, and that “fusion” is not reduced to the mere toying with traditional signs.

Wang: Indeed. Also, there are many levels of “fusion”. Performers donning ethnic costumes, playing Malay songs on Chinese instruments would be more of an outward combination. What I seek is fusion in musical content. For example, in “Confluence” there is a fughetta with an Indian-style subject and a Gamelan-style counter-subject. In “Golden Snake of Pagoda Street”, I synthesised Chinese-style melodies with Carnatic rhythmic structures to achieve a “mixed-blood” kind of fusion.

Note: I could add that outward manifestations of “fusion” are nevertheless essential for evoking public interest. Without first experiencing easily-comprehensible “fusion” musical performances, one is unlikely to develop an appreciation for more intricate forms of “fusion”.

Mass communication is crucial

Zhang: Which musical pieces can represent Singapore?

Lum: When I was studying overseas, I have been asked, “Which song represents your country”? I spontaneously sang “Di Tanjong Katong” as a convenient choice, because the title refers to a place in Singapore.

This question can have many answers: pieces with titles or lyrics related to Singapore, compositions created by Singaporeans, Xinyao – Singaporean Chinese pop music that was the craze in the seventies and eighties, National Day songs etc.

Wang: What the public identifies as “Singaporean” is mainly determined by familiarity. Regardless of how deeply a piece of music embodies characteristics of ethnic music in Singapore, it would not be identified as “Singaporean” if it is unfamiliar.

On the other hand, any widely familiar song would be identified as “Singaporean”. Singaporeans regard “Munnaeru Vaalibaa” as a representative Tamil song, yet musicians of the Indian classical tradition tell me that this song does not actually embody characteristics of Indian music. Thus, it is evident that which songs become identified as “Singaporean” depends very much on publicity by the government, schools and the media.

Zhang: How should we search for, or regard the aspiration for a “Singapore sound”?

Lum: Singapore is still young. We should not prematurely apply a definition to the “Singapore sound”, but rather work towards establishing a more vibrant musical ecosystem.

More guidance is needed in terms of education, such as promoting more works by local composers and encouraging students to create.

Wang: I feel that creators have to remain sincere, and works have to come from the heart, not made to ingratiate others. This is especially important in this age where social media tends to favour short and sensational content.

The search for the “Singapore sound” is a challenging quest, and we are all working hard towards it. However, the real reward often comes from the process of searching, rather than whether we arrive at a definite answer.

Scan of newspaper
Lum Chee-Hoo x Wang Chenwei: Searching for a “Singapore sound”
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