If you had been in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in April, you would have had a chance to hear the music of Hoh Chung Shih. A leading light of Singapore’s classical music scene, Hoh was the resident composer at Mount Holyoke College. Besides conducting classes and workshops, he also participated in a composers’ panel and premiered his new work Hi-Lo Fide-Lio: Wunder mir ist so bar. For the performance, attendees were invited to bring their own smartphone or mp3 player to listen to their favorite version of Beethoven’s Mir ist so wunderbar from the opera, Fidelio, while interacting with new music from the college orchestra and digitally processed lo-fi sounds from speakers.
Hoh kindly agreed to an interview by SP.
SP. Congratulations on the premiere of Hi-Lo Fide-Lio! Could you say something about the inspiration for this new composition?
HCS. This new work came about because Ng Tian Hui, who is now the Director of Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra, wanted me to write a work for their concert season. I wanted to support Tian Hui’s work in his new position as director, and I decided to take on the challenge of stepping out of my comfort zone. I wanted to find a way to engage the general audience and a community orchestra in my own perhaps very specific and specialized concerns in music and its expression in our current state of new media and information age. What can a concert work be? What can a work based on old classics such as this number from Beethoven’s Fidelio be? What is not too demanding technically for a college orchestra and yet challenging enough artistically to be engaging for the performers as well as the audience? Those were some of the questions for me while I was composing this work.
SP. How did the audience respond to the performance? What was your own response on hearing it “live” for the first time?
HCS. I think, for many people in the audience, it was their first time moving around in a concert setting to shape their own listening experience. Nonetheless, they were very willing to participate in roaming around, finding the various sound sources, and creating their own audio mix as a self-created experience of the work. I was definitely very encouraged by this openness, which said to me that I had set up the work right spatially and sonically to allow for interest in exploration. The work was performed twice in the same concert and there was no lessening of interest in the exploration. I think I can explore further this setup for a concert work.
SP. Your work appears to delight in unusual pairings of musical instruments and sources. Hi-Lo Fide-Lio brings together live and recorded music. Dragon Singing. Autumnal Waters pairs the flute and the computer. Eavesdropping…Ives Dropping…Dropping Ives relies on two singing cellists. Parts couples the piano and the trombone. How do you decide on the combinations? Is there an aesthetic preference or philosophical notion or ethical spirit that runs through the decisions?
HCS. Yes, to some extent it is true I do not write often enough for the ‘standard’ ensembles like the string quartet, etc., but in the few instances that I do, I do not like them to sound the way one would expect a ‘standard’ ensemble would sound. For example, Wayang Kulit is for the ‘standard’ brass quintet, but I took the opportunity to explore the subtle changing colours of a single chord through different voicing in a relatively small range of brass sounds simply through setting up conditions for each brass player to play through its entire range with different combinations of articulations and dynamics.
Having said that I am interested in new sounds even in traditional combinations of instruments, I should say that I am actually more interested in new performance conditions and situations, and often the new sounds result from rethinking how musicians interact with each other with their specific instrumental characteristics in certain performance situations. For example, in Eavesdropping, for 2 singing cellos, I am interested in how a performer can mimic his or her instrument in performance, and, in turn, shape how he or she plays the instrument: performance as a result of listening, and vocalization as a sonification of mental musical images. And in the composition of this work for its premiere, I had the good fortune of having a female and a male cellist, so one could even explore the differences in vocal ranges against the cellos of fixed range.
So I am really thinking about how instruments are merely physical and musical extensions of musicians who have certain mental expectations and imaginations of the sounds of their instruments, and through performance, a musician is able to sonify the mental sonic image through physical interaction with the instrument in a specific way, while employing a wealth of learnt experiences and training. And by challenging the performer physically through composing a set of sounds and actions to execute, I am creating for musicians new interactive environments for making music.
Parts for trombone and piano, for example is an interactive environment for music making where each performer has his/her own music part to play in his/her own time and trajectories. But they are also within the same time and space for music making, thus having to respond to each other constantly as they proceed with their own materials. For the listeners, we certainly would perceive the duo as within the same time-space of musical narrative and so quite inevitably we find musical connections and meanings. With a number of works I have been interested in for some years now, I am not composing a fixed sequence of sounds as a piece of musical work, but a mobile and therefore interactive time-space environment for musicians to interact with the given musical materials, with their own instrument, and with each other; the result of this interaction is the music.
SP. The titling of your works shows a special care for words, a love for imagery and wordplay. Re-veiling Variations uses the image of a veil for musical commentary or glosses, which hide and reveal at the same time. Eavesdropping…Ives Dropping…Dropping Ives is a playful critique of the American composer. What images are most compelling to you? What musical ideas do you wish to subvert?
HCS. I guess titles are texts and hence I always try to think of how best to represent my musical ideas in words and images. I always find there are correspondences between the arts in terms of what is fascinating artistically, regardless of media and disciplines. And so the titles are textual representation of the sonic works, rather than just being descriptive.
SP. You have also incorporated texts into your music. mantra:imagine puts to music not only the words of the Heart Sutra and the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, but also the words “Coca Cola” and “Pepsi Cola.” Variations (on the brink) makes use of a text by Singapore poet Alvin Pang. Singing Forgetting is an allusion to Zhuangzhi’s notion of sitting-forgetting as a state of enlightenment. Who are your favorite authors? Are they the same ones who appear in your music? Do they undergo sea-change in your music?
HCS. I must confess I am not an avid reader of literary texts. I read a lot more for information than for inspiration. But I like words for how they sound. I like the rhythm in words spoken. I like the colours and articulations of people from different background. But of the texts I read for inspiration, I like poetry the best! I like that poems are suggestive, in that, most of the time, I do not quite know what they mean but I like the flow of the words, and the sounds of the words. I also like poems when, in terms of rhyme and rhythm, they are minutely structural, and, to me, writing a poem is like constructing music. An author who comes to mind at this point is John Ashbery. For me as a musician, a sound can mean something quite specific in the body and mind/heart, as it is felt and sensed, but it need not mean something intellectually. And I usually choose words for titles, and texts for compositions, that sound good and in analogous way resonate with the workings of the music.
For a very literal example, if you look at the work Mountain Bright, I wrote a simple poem by basically rearranging the word order of the first stanza. This is kind of what I did in music in terms of the pitches used amongst the various instruments throughout the work.
I guess I like analogous workings I sensed in the different art forms I encounter. Talking about favourite authors, I think I have always liked the experimentalists; some websites that I like exploring are: http://epc.buffalo.edu/poetics/ and http://www.ubu.com/. I think it has a lot to do with my years doing graduate studies in Buffalo, as well as my personal interest in anything not quite fitting into any one form. I personally feel this whole blurring of categories in the arts is very Asian, as I grew up surrounded by the arts at home, and at a cultural cross-road like Singapore.
SP. In your description of the work Wayang Kulit on your website, you wrote of your compositional interest in “finding common ground among cultural practices, on which to make music.” You are trained in both Western classical music and traditional Chinese music. Could you explain in words–what you have done musically–the common ground that you have found? What are the difficulties, in terms of composition and audience reception, in finding this common ground?
HCS. The common ground I suppose is the artistic practice and thinking itself. I think it cuts across disciplines, media, and cultures. What do we recognize as artistic is what I am curious about. I am always curious why the Chinese see artistic practice as a form of self-cultivation. Right now, my view is that, through art, we engage ourselves in spirit and in imagination. What we produce as art work is just the material outcome of this engagement. For musicians, we produce sounds distributed in time, for listeners, it is the experiences of time as shaped by sounds. I think, in the use of various media, whether it is words, or sounds, or lines, or colours, the ultimate aim is this play or interplay of something spiritual, material, and physical.
Working with this attitude or approach, I find it is easy to enjoy collaborations across disciplines with different artists. And in turn I learnt so much more about making art, and about myself as artist.
Regarding the audience, I am always curious what they get out of the experiencing of art. So much of art experiences comes out of doing it. Unless we can get audience to participate in this process, the experience is always very indirect and vicarious. I treasure a deeper connection with the art of a work, and I would like my audience to be able to appreciate that too. So I am not sure what counts as a difficulty. It is all challenges in making art.
Hoh Chung Shih studied at King’s College London, and completed a PhD in Composition at the University at Buffalo, where he also studied computer music at the Lejaren Hiller Computer Music Studios. For more than 10 years, he also studied the guqin (Chinese 7-string zither) with Master Ji Zhiqun. Through commissions and requests from Asia, Europe and America, he collaborates with some of the world’s premier musicians. His interest can be described as an exploration of a double intersection: one between the avant-garde and the experimental, and the other between the international contemporary and traditional Chinese literati cultures.