On 黑光 Dark Light and beyond

Last year, I took part in the Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition (SICCOC) with an entry entitled 黑光 Dark Light. It was my first attempt at orchestration. To be honest, I felt rather daunted initially with the mammoth task of scoring for so many instruments. Nonetheless I kept to my usual working style — think of a strong idea on which the work could be based, develop a neat structure, then begin the actual writing phase.

To me, the competition was a big milestone which gave me a tangible goal to produce a work (without which I doubt I’d even get started on composing). I viewed it as an excellent opportunity to learn, and if possible, get in touch with some other musicians in the SEA region. Really little did I expect that my composition won the favour of the panel of adjudicators, and that they were just so generous to recognise me with the Singaporean Composer Award. Frankly, I’m certainly not up to the mark, which explains a part of the ‘guilt’ that was crashing within me especially during interviews with news reporters. I often thought, “What have I done to deserve the prize?”

The composition itself had several flaws. It wasn’t well-orchestrated because I lacked practice in orchestration technique. The important 弹拨 parts were overpowered by the quacking 唢呐— I could have doubled the 弹拨 to give them greater volume. I wasn’t satisfied with certain transitions from one section to another. I also regretted my choice of the 管 for playing the ending phrase — it sounded a little too rough for the stillness I was hoping for.

The idea behind 黑光 was as follows:

Dark Light paints the musical soundscape of two musical bands crossing paths — a Wind Ensemble from Eastern-China and Javanese Gamelan troop from Indonesia. As the two bands draw closer to each other, their opposing sonorities (smooth winds versus sharp, plucked or mallet attacks) present an uncomfortable tension. Furiously attempt to outplay each other with blaring clashing pitches, interlocking rhythms and sheer volume of sounds, the conflict heightens and bursts with a passionate outcry from each band. A moment of intense stillness in the wake of the conflict rips through the heart of a hauntingly beautiful girl standing in the midst of the bands. She sings euphoniously beneath an unsettled silence…

I provided the above short scenario in my programme notes on the composition. Compositionally, I divided the Chinese orchestra into 3 symbolic groups based on the scenario’s context:

  1. Eastern-Chinese Wind ensemble —吹管、唢呐、笙、大堂鼓
  2. Javanese Gamelan troop — 弹拨、大锣、云锣、编钟
  3. ‘Atmospheric’ sounds — 胡琴、Bass Drum

The conflict happens between the Wind ensemble and Gamelan troop, while the ‘atmospheric’ sounds set the stage for action. The tension heightens towards the end of the piece, arising from the stubborn, cumbersome repetition of a deceptively simple motif (C-Eb-C-Bb) by the Wind ensemble, whose every attempt is put off by the Gamelan troop, who plays an contour-inversion of the motif (Ab-F#-Ab-Eb). There are also episodes of contemplative intensity, where a beautiful vibraphone timbre leads the two opposing forces in a time of mediation, but to no avail. When the composition was performed during the Awards Presentation ceremony on 25 Nov 2011, I was delighted that the tension between the clashing bands came across pretty effectively.

I’m thankful for the many caring friends and relatives who have extended their warmest congrats to me after hearing news of my award. While I am truly glad that Singaporean musicians (of whom I am one) are being recognised for their efforts, I feel the urgent need for me to improve on my composition technique, as well as my depth of understanding on musical styles. On hindsight, I would like to give thanks to the Lord for bringing me through the tiring period of composition in July, while I was also juggling my H3 essay, studies and preparations for the Poème Symphonique project…

What’s next for me then? Surely, my next compositions might just very well see me following the same working style as Dark Light. But each experience would be a fresh beginning all over again. It seems like every new composition I start on will get harder and harder as I try to out-perform myself, improve and challenge my old ideas. It’s probably going to be hard work getting myself out of the shadow of my first ‘success’ (the award). True enough, that’s what brings new meaning to life, isn’t it?

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