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  • Jennifer Tham

New music : seen to be heard

Updated: Jul 19

I love new music. Well, maybe not ALL of it; mostly the ones that taste medicinal, that shift the way we look at things : light and shadow, body and breath, sound and silence.


For 30 years, I've been lucky enough to have the SYC Ensemble Singers live and breathe new music with me. We've premiered more than 50 commissions/gifts so far, and in September, my choral suite will be added to this growing number. (Hopefully.)


IKEA music, that's what Di (Paris-based-Singapore-composer/SYC-alum) called the choral suite when I told her about it—a bunch of instructions, and the requisite bits and bobs to make the piece of furniture yourself. Yes, my score is a diagram, of placements and to-do lists, for activating the concert space with sounding bodies in lines, square blocks, round things. The sort of boring formless nonsense* that describes the canon of experimental music post-Cage.


Our first encounter with local DIY music was Hoh Chung Shih's Frog Song (1997), where notes gather one by one according to an additive formula until there is a chorus of frogs joyfully"ping-pang"-ing away. We plotted our entrances, one singer at a time, until suddenly, we were all there on stage, a theatre of voices. Chung Shih wrote more construction music for us, a coming-of-age gift : Birth and Death (5 songs for Thich Nhat Hanh) (2004).

The text he used was profoundly moving, a poem using just two Mandarin characters, by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who watched his friends die in order to give birth to peace. We experienced Birth and Death in five movements; movements which tested everything we thought we knew about being a choir and conductor, listening and responding, movement and stillness.


Moving between sound and silence, we worked to protect each other by echoing, augmenting, reinforcing notes and patterns in rows, circles, clusters, with our voices, faces, hands, feet, rocks. To help the audience make sense of all this, we made theatre, playing against/to a filmic ostinato by Gavin Lim, Singaporean film-maker friend. See here :

We invited the audience to use their eyes to make sense of what they heard : the disturbing formless non-sense, the clashes, clusters, sssshhhh, rocks. They studied us, as (ethno)musicologists do, and watched us become that tribe : a choir with its own language, its own culture, its own place on stage—the SYC Ensemble Singers.


Living music, seen and heard.

*Boring formless nonsense : title of a book by composer-sound philosopher eldritch Priest, who writes on music after the 1960s and its necessary nonsense as a way of wrestling with what music is, does, should be.


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