Poème Symphonique: A Retrospect

” … How should I present this project to my schoolmates such that they can get a meaningful experience out of it?
Wait… should I even be doing this project, when I’m not doing well in Chemistry, and I’m in such a lack of time, busy with A-levels preparation, music prac and all my CCA stuff … “

These were the thoughts circling in my mind as I was desperately, frantically asking schoolmates (through Facebook, Raffles WUTW bulletin, e-mail, SMS, phone calls, word-of-mouth & whatnot?!) if they had clock-wound metronomes they were willing to loan me for the Poème Symphonique project…

How it all started

In case you might not know, Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes is a composition by Hungarian composer György Ligeti during his brief acquaintance with the Fluxus movement. The instructional score indicates that for a full performance of the piece, 100 clock-wound ticking metronomes are to be set off simultaneously by 6-7 players on stage. The audience would then be allowed to enter the venue silently and listen to the mass of sound evolve as the metronomes get unwound (the ones with fastest tempi dying off earlier). The piece ends when the last metronome stops ticking.

During a composition lesson in J1, Dr Gooi first introduced Poème Symphonique to our music class by playing a recording of a performance of it. I vaguely remember he was giving tips on how to develop a good structure for our free composition, and he made use of Poème Symphonique as an example to demonstrate how Ligeti decreases the density of sound across time — as metronomes die off one after another, the density of ‘ticks’ diminish too. I was truly amazed at how certain ticks coincide and produce a dense chunky texture of sound. The texture changes in quality every other moment due to the random interpolation of ticks. As a result, Poème Symphonique left a great impression on my mind since that lesson, and I thought it might be quite cool to perform it in school ourselves (I really wanted to hear it LIVE). However, due to the hectic workload of PW that ensued, that idea was back-burned.

The idea was revived in an unexpected occasion. I was on the train home after watching Dr. Hoh’s SITE-THING Experimental Music concert, sometime in Aug 2010, with Dr. Gooi and another music class senior. On the train, we were casually chatting about the possibility of composing an Experimental work for the next such concert. Then, Dr Gooi suddenly said, “Why not do something in school next year (i.e. 2011)?” Immediately I remembered the dormant Poème Symphonique idea, so I brought it up. To my delight, Dr Gooi said that the idea was not bad, and we could give it a try, but he did have some concerns whether I could actually gather 100 metronomes required for the performance. However, at that time, I was already overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of being able to watch the performance LIVE, so I promised him without a second thought that I could make it happen.


Heeding Dr Gooi’s advice, I ‘roped in’ my good friend, Kwangyi, a H2/H3 Art student. The objective was to make this project a Music-Art collaboration, so that the eventual performance can take the form of a quasi arts-installation. We had a good start in December 2010, brainstorming possible themes or concepts that the installation-to-be could be based upon. For example, we thought of the concept of keeping time with metronomes — how it related to human lifetime and various other artistic allegories. We came up with so many ideas that we did not know which ones to pick! We also explored possible venues in school (Amphi, canteen walkway, garden outside Manna) where we could hold the performance. It was a great start, but after that, things started to crumble…

Little did I expect my J2 year to be so frenetic! The first three months whizzed past without warning, and we haven’t progressed the least bit on our planning since December last year! To make matters worse, Kwangyi informed me apologetically in April that he would not be able to help me in the project, due to his hectic Chinese Orchestra SYF practice schedule coupled with his H2 Art coursework. I was not spared by my busy Guitar SYF practices, concert practices, schoolwork, etc. either, so the next two months or so flew past without any progress on my Poème Symphonique project.

My spirit was willing to fight on to make Poème Symphonique happen, but time constrains held me back. Honestly, it was all the more discouraging whenever I stagger into music lesson, exhausted, and would see Dr Gooi standing there, grinning, then asking, “Ji Heng ah, your metronome project, die a silent death alreadyah?” I know, we have not had progress on the project. However, with CCA practices lasting till late at night, and having to complete tutorials for the different subjects, prepare for CTs, music prac lessons, etc. etc. Where was there even time to think guiltlessly about Poème Symphonique, something that I was really just doing for fun?

It was already around mid-May, so Dr Gooi and I decided that we really should set a deadline; a tangible goal we could work towards. We aimed to present Poème Symphonique on the day of our Music class composition recital, sometime in early August 2011 before National Day. Which meant I only had 2+ months to collect as many metronomes I could. At that time, I did not have any metronomes on hand yet!

Getting metronomes

Without much ado, I listed the names of friends who (I thought) may have clock-wound metronomes they would be willing to kindly loan me for the project — an optimistic total of 70 over people. I also took into account an approximate 20 metronomes that Mr Phan Ming Yan from The Arts House previously “sort-of” promised to contribute (The Arts House has previously held a performance of Poème Symphonique and thus has a couple of unclaimed metronomes left in their storage). Hence, I reached a total of 90 predicted metronomes, and I told my two music classmates, Rebecca and Yuting, that I felt really confident in realising a good performance.

Reality wasn’t so beautiful though. Many people I contacted did not actually own metronomes. Some did, but have misplaced them in their homes, and they expressed their sincere apologies for not being able to contribute, wishing me all the best. It’s ok, no worries… I also set up a Facebook group and used it as a channel to gain awareness of my schoolmates on this project, with the hope that some of my schoolmates can help to spread my message to their juniors in musical CCA groups, who’d probably have metronomes. It worked; I managed to garner around 5-7 metronomes through that medium. Many who responded to my Facebook messages, SMSes also told me that their metronomes were quite old and rusty (or faulty), and were uncertain if I still wanted theirs. I couldn’t have asked for more — I was already terribly desperate for metronomes! As if it was not bad enough, to my horror, Mr Phan from The Arts House broke the news to Dr Gooi and me that the metronomes were nowhere to be found in their storage! There goes my 20 plus metronomes!

It was really heartening to see a few friends genuinely wanting to help me, to ensure I could collect enough metronomes for the success of my project. My friends in Chinese Orchestra, Wen Yun and Weiyi, were exceptionally proactive in spreading the message to their CCA-mates and classmates, and they helped me garner 8-10 metronomes that way. My Guitar Ensemble junior (and presently Chairwoman) Abirami actually took the trouble to contact her juniors in RGS, went down to RGS to collect metronomes from them back and forth despite her PW workload… Also thanks to the many others who responded to the chaos I created on Facebook (even though I did not approach them), volunteering their metronomes. It was from this difficult experience that I genuinely understood the importance of having friends I could rely on around school — “a friend who helps you when you’re in need, is a friend indeed!” Thank you my dearest friends!

I saw how this self-initiated project grew into EVERYONE’s project. Everyone had a part to play in it — not only by loaning their metronomes, but also helping to spread my message, and also asking after the progress of my project whenever they see me in school. I guess this makes this ‘Raffles’ performance of Poème Symphonique radically different (or should I say better?) from Ligeti’s premiere of it in 1963 — the metronomes Ligeti used were brand new ones which Walter Maas (Director of Gaudeamus Foundation) loaned from a manufacturer. As such, Ligeti had the metronomes all ready; he just had to unwind them and get them ready for the performance. However, I did not even have any metronomes to start with, and when the metronomes I loaned started coming in, I could envision how everyone’s efforts would culminate in a performance they were looking forward to.

The Performance

When Aug 2011 arrived, I managed to collect 51 metronomes in total, after having exhausted all possible sources. Not bad, considering time constraints and limited people-connections. In order to achieve the sound mass possible from 100 metronomes, I recorded the tickings of 49 metronomes in the Music room with the help of Dr Gooi and my music classmates a day before the performance on 5 August. I also designed a scheme to wind and set tempi of each metronome, to ensure a performance of 20 mins plus.

On 5 August, we held two performances of Poème Symphonique. The first run was held in the Hodge Lodge during lunch time, where I invited all the metronome donors, my classmates, CCA-mates and all other interested schoolmates. The Hodge Lodge was a good location suggested by Dr Gooi as it had sofas and chairs (and most importantly air-con) for students to want to sit, relax and listen to the entire performance. The setting up was done in a rush because the security guard came late to open the Hodge Lodge doors, so we were running against time. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave time for some of my friends to first have lunch and still make it here before the performance started. We placed the metronomes on chairs arranged in two circles (resembling an orchestral seating arrangement), with the score placed on a conductor’s stand in front of all the chairs, such that it seemed like whoever stood at the stand to read the score was ‘conducting’ the metronomes. I briefly suggested what we could listen out for to everyone present, and also encouraged them to move around the room to listen to the sounds from different perspectives. Then, my music classmates and I set the metronomes off (Yes, Dr Gooi helped to start the CD player playing the recording of the 49 metronomes).

The first moments were utterly impressive. We actually heard how each regular, individual phases of ticking collide, forming temporal masses of sound, disappearing, appearing, never two similar moments, each beautiful in its own right. Other than one particular Wittner metronome set at mm 40 that couldn’t sustain its momentum, thus dying out even before completely unwinding itself, I thought the performance was impressive. We heard how the layers of sound diminish in complexity, and eventually get reduced to a clear, periodic ticking of the slowest metronome. It was also amusing how everyone, initially scattered around the room, began to gather around the lone ticking metronome towards the end, silently praying that it would stop that very moment. The wait for its ‘death’ became unbearably painful, to the extent that I could hear some of my friends already swearing in frustration for it to stop!

The second performance wasn’t as successful. We ran it in the evening, before our Music class composition recital in LT2. After rewinding the metronomes, I placed them on the foldable tables of the LT chairs, all the way up to the centre walking aisle. Actually, Ligeti specially instructed in his score that “the performance should be set up without the audience present … While (the metronomes) are ticking, the audience, which has been waiting outside, is let in.” Laughably, the audience were already present in the LT while I was still setting up the metronomes! Since I have already ‘broken’ Ligeti’s rule, I thought it would’ t hurt to introduce an element of ‘audience participation’ to the performance by requesting the audience to set off the metronomes. Similar to the 1st run, after briefing the audience, we set the metronomes off. However, from the stage, I noticed a metronome that seemed to be unwound and thus could not tick even after my friend released it. My friend tried winding the metronome, and it did start ticking. Little did we know that towards the end of the piece, after the metronomes set at slowest tempi have ‘died off’, that metronome set at mm 110 was still alive and ticking! I was in a fix — we were already behind the starting time of the concert, and by right I should stop the metronome manually to allow for the concert to proceed. However, if I did that, I would be defying Ligeti’s intention for the audience to be made aware of the “mechanical, automatic nature of the music” with my “human intervention”. Nonetheless, upon Dr Gooi’s request, I stopped the metronome and apprehensively went up to stage to thank the audience. Fortunately Dr Gooi saved the night by jokingly commenting, “It’s now the Hungry Ghost Festival ah, so these things happen…”

Despite the minor hiccups, I am still very thankful that our “Raffles” performance of Poème Symphonique did not incite a terrible scandal that Ligeti met with after his premiere!

Ending thoughts

Nonetheless, there were also dreadful moments of doubt. I didn’t do well for my J2 Chemistry CT1 and CT2, and felt really embarrassed in front of my friends and teachers, walking around school without any self-esteem. Yet the metronome collection was still going on, and I often had to lug the metronomes into Chemistry lecture. There was always the imagined fear of the lecturer approaching me (metronomes were really attention-catching), asking why I was holding on to so many metronomes, and if I told him about my project, he might question if I could even manage my Chemistry grades when I’m doing this “extra” metronome thing for fun.

Certainly, this was a unjustified concern, but it does make sense — think of the amount of mugging my classmates can do in a free block, while I’m hurrying around school meeting people who are also studying, to collect their metronomes?! I knew I was missing out a lot on my studies. Why not just stay at the “basic”, noncommittal level? Like what the others are doing — just study well for Gamelan, Chinese Music, Commentary, Essay, do reasonably well for practical, complete a composition portfolio, in the realm of A-level syllabus, and leave anything ‘extra’ or for ‘interest’ like my Poème Symphonique project after A-levels, or don’t even think about doing it at all.

But I believed my outright desire to pursue Poème Symphonique as an opportunity for schoolmates to participate in a shared, music-making experience should not be obliterated by the A-levels. It is disappointing that arts and aesthetics events are commonly perceived as pointless distractions (due to their not being part of A-level assessments), and are thus sidelined by grades-driven students and teachers alike. The advent of Raffles Diploma ironically does little but exacerbates the blatant ignorance and belittlement of these events, making it compulsory for students to (reluctantly) attend at least 2 arts-related events annually to meet the criteria for a Diploma in Arts and Aesthetics domain. Can’t blame students, we’re all on the same boat, tearing our hair out over A-levels. But this shouldn’t be the way.

I guess my desire to continue Poème Symphonique stems from an innate curiosity for new sonic experiences. I think it’s meaningful to be able to, in my time in school, share some of these beautiful experiences with my friends. Perhaps everyone has their own ways of doing so, and mine so happens to take the form of a rather cumbersome, but rewarding project. I can’t be certain what my friends present at either of the 2 performances have learnt from their experience, or whether they even enjoyed themselves like I did. Perhaps my explanations weren’t clear enough for them to understand what this whole affair was all about, but I hope it has at least been an eye-opening (or ear-opening) musical experience for them. In fact it has been an aim of experimental musicians (despite their variety of artistic directions) to get musical innocents involved in the process of making music — this ideal becomes the core behind many fringes of experimental music like Fluxus (which often involves audience as an object of experimentation), Cornelius Cardew’s visual scores (Treatise) as well as John Cage’s point behind 4’33” that is so oft-missed by many — that ‘silence’ does not exist simply because of the permanent presence of sounds around us, worthy of our attention. For Cage, these environmental sounds and noises are more useful aesthetically than the sounds created by the world’s musical cultures, as they get closer to introducing us to Life.

My dear juniors, I know I’m in no right to tell you what to do, but if you have any slightest idea, or a passion for sharing a particular kind of music (could be classical, jazz, not necessary experimental music like me) with your schoolmates, or to introduce a novel project to the school examinations, I strongly encourage you to go all out to do so.

Grades are important, but contrary to common belief, these interests and ideas can’t wait any longer either, because they will ‘die pitiful deaths’ in your minds if you don’t act on them. That said, do always keep in mind the feasibilities, but just make sure you don’t regret your decisions to hold back your plans due to constrains. I’ve always felt that it is just so honourable to be able to share and engage people in the beauty of music. After all, think about what can you do to leave a legacy in the minds (if not the school) of our schoolmates, who may not have the chance to be exposed to the various music genres we’re aware of. What do you want to leave behind for the school? Think about this, and somehow you’ll have the motivation to settle the commitments holding you down, and yet still enjoy the process of sharing the musical experience with your friends, regardless of how busy or tired you may be.

Finally, I would like to thank all my music classmates for being supportive of my endeavors, and taking ownership of the project as well. Thank you, Dr Gooi, for always being a wonderful source of inspiration and encouragement. Thank you for lending me your cute little Wittner metronome too.

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