What is the new Chinese music in Singapore? How is it different from the old Chinese music? How is it inspired by contemporary music? To answer these questions, Singapore Poetry is pleased to publish the preface and opening extract of a book-length project undertaken by Dr. Samuel Wong, the Artistic Director and the pipa player of the contemporary Chinese music ensemble, The TENG company. A Youtube video of the ensemble’s performance follows the extract.
The Rise of New Chinese Music Ensembles in Singapore: A Case Study of The TENG Ensemble
by Dr. Samuel Wong and Teresa Fu
In 2001, I had the good fortune of travelling to various parts of China to interview leading pipa players as fieldwork for a book project that I was undertaking. One of my interviewees, Zhang Hongyan, who is currently professor at the Central Conservatory of Music and also its deputy head of department for the Traditional Music Faculty, struck a nerve in me at the beginning of the interview by saying, “I’m not like other Chinese musicians, I don’t believe in Chinese Orchestras, I only believe in Western ones and that’s why I only work with symphony orchestras”.
As a Singaporean pipa player who was introduced to the instrument from my secondary school’s Chinese orchestra (CO) and who had always associated Chinese music with the CO, I was naturally shocked by Zhang’s statement. As with most other millennial Singaporeans, my first foray and exposure to Chinese music was from the CO. I became involved in it directly when I joined my school’s CO as an extra-curricular activity (now known as co-curricular activities), and there I received an introduction into the enchanting world of Chinese instruments.
After the initial incredulity, Zhang’s statement also begged a pertinent question: Why was she against the concept of the CO—was that not her culture and heritage? After learning and researching more extensively, I discovered that the concept of the CO was not Chinese to begin with. It was a politically motivated artistic construct that was modeled after the Western symphony orchestra. This model was supported by the Chinese government and propagated throughout China to play mostly propaganda pieces when it first began. In fact, some of the instruments that we see in today’s COs were invented in a short span of time, to fill the gaps in sound that arose from this lackluster modeling for political purposes.
Further research of the years that followed began to shed light onto Zhang’s statement, and how she felt that the sound was just in her words, “not right”. Her provocative statement also prompted me to ask myself: What about my culture and heritage? Did I learn more about my own culture and heritage from playing the pipa and joining the CO? What did it mean to be a Singaporean Chinese playing in a foreign, politically motivated orchestra? Interestingly, as a pipa student who was unaware of these background circumstances, I remembered that it was a transcription of New-Age musician Kitaro’s Matsuri for Chinese orchestra that was the most popular repertoire among all our pieces—for both the musicians and audiences alike. In retrospect, it seemed like a joke that could only happen in Singapore, because people were not aware that we were such a mishmash: a Chinese politically motivated art form modeled after the West, playing a piece written by a Japanese composer, and featuring Singaporean students who did not identify with Chinese or Japanese cultures but with Western popular culture instead.
This then leads me to wonder about the relevance of Chinese folk songs or even the Nanyang style, which began as a regional visual arts movement in the 1950s. Firstly, the use of performance practices by traditional Chinese music is not relevant to me as a Singaporean Chinese musician; while it informs my playing and my practice as a pipa player, it does not contribute to my identity as a Singaporean musician. Although my great grandparents were part of the Chinese diaspora and might have identified more closely with Chinese traditional culture and hence the various Chinese musical styles, I identity as a Singaporean who was influenced by the music that I have heard as a young person—namely pop music, but never folk music. As such, I have come to the equilibrium where I refer to the pipa as an instrument, like an electric guitar, which does not belong exclusively to any particular culture, but to the world. While the techniques have been developed by Chinese culture, I look for new ways of playing and interpreting the instrument, without the baggage of “Chinese-ness”. If an American rock band Incubus can use a retuned pipa and play it like a guitar in their piece ‘Aqueous Transmission’, so can I in a similar fashion.
– Samuel Wong, 2014
New Chinese Music Ensembles in Singapore
Moving away from a typical CO model that is often large and expensive to maintain, there has been a gradual emergence of smaller and likeminded groups, such as The TENG Ensemble, SA Trio, The Pipa Quartet, Resonance Sheng Ensemble and Stringanza, to name a few. The aforementioned groups were also featured on a two-page spread in The Straits Times Life! in early 2014, and were described to be contemporising traditional Chinese music.
For example, SA Trio experiments with electronic modulation and looping of traditional Chinese instruments, while The Pipa Quartet uses an electro-acoustic version of the pipa, to play and experiment with their own versions of house, electronica and metal music. Resonance Sheng Ensemble features different versions of the sheng (a wind instrument made of vertical bamboo pipes), and its repertoire consists of a mix of traditional Chinese pieces as well as contemporary pieces such as songs from Disney movies and modern jazz classics. Stringanza is a mix of Chinese and Western bowed string instruments and also plays music from contemporary movies, as well as Chinese oldies, in an attempt to give Chinese instruments new life.
While considered innovative by less exposed audiences, the idea of reinventing Chinese music is not new or unique to Singapore. China has also been making progress in their Chinese music landscape. For example, programming in the popular China Central Television (CCTV) music channel is featuring less Chinese orchestra work but more of 新民乐 xin minyue (literally translates to ‘New Folk’), a new form of Chinese music. As a commercial entity, CCTV also realises that they have to appeal to a broad audience base. Another example is the emergence of 中国风 zhongguo feng (literally translates to ‘China Wind’), a genre coined by Mandopop singers, which integrates the textures of Chinese instruments with popular music. The genre has also created mass appeal, as can be seen from the recent Chinese reality talent show 中国好歌曲 Sing My Song, in which the top prize was awarded to a zhongguo feng piece after it received the most votes from the public.
Collaboration with groups that play other genres is also on the rise. In June 2014, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra’s youth arm, HKCO4U, collaborated with the jazz-inspired fusion group SIU2 in a concert at the Sunbeam Theatre. Shortly after, in August 2014, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) also presented a similar concert in collaboration with the renowned jazz quartet, Brubeck Brothers.
Local programming for Chinese music in Singapore also acknowledges this shift in Chinese music, with the 2015 Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts presenting erhu player and composer George Gao’s Shaoqin Bang, an ensemble of Shaoqin (a reinvention of the traditional erhu) performers, playing Western classical, Chinese classical and pop music pieces.
With a growing need to appeal to the public, which consists primarily of a Singaporean audience, the question to follow would then be: what is the Singaporean sound? Simply put, Singapore music is what is devised by Singaporeans in composition or conception, and effected by Singaporeans in performance. As such, the identity gradually develops itself and the sound that is born from this encompasses a Singaporean aesthetic that is marked by a Singaporean musician’s touch. The TENG Ensemble is one such ensemble that advocates for this process of music making to create what can be termed the Singaporean sound.
Development of The TENG Ensemble
‘The TENG Ensemble’ started as a name for a pioneering ensemble group of young, likeminded and award-winning Singapore Chinese instrumentalists in the 2004 Singapore National Chinese Music Competition. The group eventually won the First Prize in the competition’s Ensemble Category and impressed musicians, critics and audiences with their renditions of exceptionally challenging classical pieces.
Following the competition, a few individuals within the ensemble decided to collectively form ‘The TENG Company’, to provide for the creation and development of projects in Chinese music. These same individuals were also the core group responsible for the restructure, re-training and management of the Anglo Chinese School (Barker Road) Chinese Orchestra till May 2005, leading the once ailing orchestra to a Gold award at the Singapore Youth Festival Central Judging 2005.
The TENG Company’s premiere project was to create an English-language resource for Chinese instrumental music, and hence commissioned and published the 250-page ‘QI — An Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra’ by artistic director Dr Samuel Wong. The book was launched in August 2005 and reprinted in 2007. To date, it has reached readers beyond Singapore, in cities and countries such as New York City, Germany, Norway, Japan, Hong Kong and Canada, to name a few.
In early 2009, the company staged a tour of Singapore’s public venues, such as The Arts House, the National University of Singapore, as well as in conjunction with Singapore Management University’s then-arts festival. The tour was titled Liu Xing (literally translates to ‘Popular’) and featured a series of classical Chinese pieces juxtaposed with contemporised Chinese folk songs. The audience, however, comprised primarily of affiliates and practitioners in the Chinese music circle.
Later in 2009, The TENG Company was invited by the then-artistic director of National Museum’s Night Festival, Aaron Khek, to stage two original works that were accessible and could appeal immediately to the general public of non-concert goers. The company brought together a few musicians from the Liu Xing tour: a pipa player (Dr Samuel Wong), a sheng player (Yang Ji Wei), a cellist (Gerald Teo), a soprano (Wilson Goh) and a guitarist who was also the composer (Benjamin Lim). With this ensemble, which has kept the name ‘The TENG Ensemble’, the company commissioned a new piece that combined and deconstructed two Chinese folk songs, played against a backing track comprising electronic beats and soundscapes. This became The TENG Ensemble’s first foray into electronica, and the audience that comprised a strong and diverse crowd of children, teenagers, adults and the elderly, filled the grounds of Singapore Management University and stayed throughout the performance. Staff of the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) who were in the audience then invited the ensemble to play at the 2009 Singapore Blog Awards organised by omy.sg. At the awards, the ensemble met Robin Hu, the then-Senior Executive Vice President of the Chinese newspaper division in SPH, who was filled with praises for them.
Following these two successful performances, The TENG Company realised that there was a demand, and in fact a need, for new sounds in the Singaporean music landscape. New sounds in The TENG Ensemble’s case were also able to introduce people who do not usually listen to Chinese instrumental music to the Chinese instruments themselves. It also opened a door for Chinese music to be used as entertainment, beyond artistic means, and reaching out to a large audience is no longer restricted to the spectacle of a Chinese orchestra.
Dr. Samuel Wong will be giving a lecture titled “What is Traditional Chinese Music” in Singapore on February 15, 2015, close to the first day of the Chinese New Year, which falls on February 19 this year. Details of the lecture below:
“In this lecture, award-winning pipa player and artistic director of The TENG Company, Dr Samuel Wong, will be taking you through the finer points of appreciating Chinese music and expounding on its various styles, genres and interpretations. The lecture will also cover topics like Chinese music aesthetics, traditional and folk repertory, the Chinese orchestra, the development of new trends and why Chinese music is here to stay.”
Date: 15 Feb 2015, Sun
Time: 2pm (2 hrs, no intermission)
Venue: Esplanade Rehearsal Studio, Singapore
Samuel Wong Shengmiao obtained his PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Sheffield in 2009 and is the Artistic Director and Pipa player of The TENG Company. He is author of the books Impressions of a Pipa Player (2003) and QI: An Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra (2005), and is the recipient of the Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore Award 2009, the JCCI Singapore Foundation Culture Award 2009, the Henry Worthington Scholarship, the Hokkien Huay Kuan’s Arts and Cultural Bursary, the Singapore Institute of Management Teaching Excellence Award 2012 and the Ngee Ann Polytechnic 50th Anniversary Distinguished Alumni Award for Arts & Culture. He is currently a member of the Music Education Programme Advisory Committee of SIM University, Head of Research at the Singapore Chinese Music Federation, as well as a mentor for the Artist Mentor Scheme (2013 &2014), an initiative helmed by the Singapore Teachers’ Academy for the aRts (STAR) and supported by the National Arts Council. He is currently faculty with the University at Buffalo-State University of New York programme in Singapore and the LA SALLE College of the Arts.