Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Interview with Composer Chen Zhangyi

I had a really pleasant chat with composer Chen Zhangyi in preparation for Time Out Singapore's July classical music editorial. Our discussion about his upcoming musical Pursuant, a collaboration with Jonathan Lim and produced by the SLO, lasted much longer than there was space for. So rather than scraping the rest away, here's what remains of the interview:


The Mad Scene: How did the concept of Pursuant come about (did you have a hand in writing the storyline)?

Chen Zhangyi: At the beginning, SLO contacted me to compose a new work, and they roped in Jonathan Lim, who I think was recommended by NAC. We had a few meetings, where Ms Ng (GM of SLO), Jonathan and I discussed the story, and we came up with the theme about dreams. Shortly after, Jonathan brilliantly came up with some interesting characters and a futuristic story, kind of like George Orwell’s 1984. As I started to write the music, we corresponded constantly, and new ideas would come up between Jonathan and I – so it is a highly collaborative process.

The Mad Scene: Why a musical? Why not an opera with unmiked voices?

Chen Zhangyi: To tell the truth, SLO first approached me to write an opera, but somehow along the way we switched gears to write a musical. It’s a nice challenge for a conservatory-trained composer to write music for an aesthetic that is different from our music or for opera. Modern operas tend to be more experimental music-wise– but for musicals it’s less ‘out there’. I have the reputation of writing challenging and complex rhythms; although I approach this piece with a musical language that is somewhat simpler than in my concert music.

The Mad Scene: Have you thought about how you are going to teach your contemporary music styles and techniques to non-musicians who may not be able to read music? I know it’s already an uphill climb for composers to convince musicians used to Beethoven or Brahms to see things from their perspective, it will probably be harder to work with colleagues who don’t know much about classical music in general.

Chen Zhangyi: I revere the old masters, and I definitely don’t try to fight against Beethoven or Brahms because that would be impossible. Usually the musicians I work with come to appreciate my music in some way or another, especially when they hear the music. I really don’t try to convince them to like it, that’s quite impossible, I give them the score (which can look intimidating to some) and explain how I would like it to be performed, and they usually find ingenious ways to bring the music to life.

I know that there’s a stereotype for contemporary music to be atonal and unpleasant. For me, I try to aim for a new sound, but at the same time I’ll write it in a way that is refreshing and new, but definitely not ugly.

My music might be potentially very challenging for non-musically trained singers, but if they are going to learn to sing a musical such as the West Side Story or Sweeney Todd, which are difficult pieces to sing, then it’s really no different from learning to sing the parts in Pursuant. My style might be new to them, but it’s a good thing to stretch them musically, and maybe they will become better actors and musicians! It’s a good challenge for them; if they can overcome the idea that it’s unfamiliar and all that, I think they will find the music to be quite enjoyable.

The Mad Scene: I read about this Laksa Cantata on your website that you will be performing at the later this year. Tell me more about that?

Chen Zhangyi: The Laksa Cantata is a piece that I wrote quite just before I started work on the Pursuant. It will be featured at The Arts House in July, and it is a project conceptualized by pianist Song Zi-liang and the libretto is penned by Jack Lin (violinist/writer). It is another exciting project I am involved in this year. The entire work is about 20 minutes long, and it’s inspired by Bach’s Coffee Cantata. So it’s a tribute to Bach, but the music is quite different.

The Mad Scene: Is writing for the theatre different from writing for the concert hall?

Chen Zhangyi: Yes it’s very different. You have to think about the ensemble, the staging, the actors, the children’s chorus on stage and how they will act with each other. It’s interesting to think of music in a more theatrical, visual sense, how the music can aid the acting and vice versa. Sometimes it creates new sparks! This is definitely the year of vocal music for me, with the Laksa Cantata and Pursuant.

The Mad Scene: Traditional classical music lovers like to classify music into nationalistic styles, such as Viennese/German, French, Italian styles etc. In your opinion is there a certain style of Singapore music? If so what characteristics are there?

Chen Zhangyi: I certainly can’t say that my music represents all of Singapore’s music. From what I know, Singapore music written for Singaporeans is a nice mix of different influences and styles - I have observed that as a whole, Singaporean music is quite eclectic. My colleagues and I write quite differently, and these different styles reflect on our diverse society, as we receive influences globally. There isn’t a Singaporean-style per se but definitely there are elements that make it more Singapore-like. (Another Singaporean piece besides Pursuant and the Laksa Cantata is) Raintree, a work for orchestra based on a poem of the same title by poet Ho Poh-Fun.


The Singapore Lyric Opera's production of Pursuant the Musical runs from 31 May to 8 June. Ticketing information available at the Events Page.

More information about Pursuant the Musical:

More information about Chen Zhangyi:

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