“Sunny Island” is the set piece commissioned by the Arts Education Branch (AEB), Ministry of Education for this year’s Singapore Youth Festival 2017 (Secondary School) Level.
The Band Post is pleased to speak to Wong Kah Chun, composer of the work, as part of the SYF set piece interview series.
TBP: What do you feel about the opportunity to write this year’s SYF set piece?
It is a mixture of emotions. It is very positive and I am very honoured to be considered for something like this.
When AEB commissioned me around March or April 2016, I was in this position thinking that I would be writing a piece of music for thousands of band members to play it.
Back to my days in River Valley High School band, I could still distinctly remember my favourite set piece to date, ‘Singapura Suite’ by Jan van der Roost. This was a work that I really enjoyed performing throughout all the SYFs I have participated.
I suppose that the SYF set piece should be about creating memories. It would be nice if in ten years, the participants of this year’s SYF reflect on their performances and recall that it was a great experience.
TBP: Did you originally intend to write a march style for this work? Why so?
I was given two options, either to write a march or an overture. I was working in many projects across Japan, be it as a clinician or guest conductor with the junior high, senior high and university bands, and I realized that the set pieces for AJBC always include a march.
A march is so structured. Usually it opens with an introduction, followed by the first subject, the base subject, and then back to the first subject. It then continues with a trio section, usually in the sub dominant key, before a final section. There are many ways to approach the writing of the march but it is a standard of wind band literature.
Since I was from the Singapore Armed Forces Band (SAF Band) under Tan Aik Kee, we played marches such as by Sousa and Fučík. I also played a lot of Japanese marches, back in the days of RV under Chan Peck Suan, RJ under Takehiro Oura. I still remembered some of the favourites; Masamicz Amano’s Festival March, March beyond the Critical Point, and March Blue Sky!
With these influences, I think I know a little about marches. The concert marches I’ve played are very functional, so I decided to write a march that is fun to play, instead of the many overtures I used to write.
TBP: Why did you decide to use “Dayung Sampan” as the main theme to your work?
Again, I was given a few options by the good people at AEB. I could create an original tune, or I could use something related to Singapore, along the nation building theme set clearly in the SYF.
Of course, there were also suggestions to use folk songs. The main issue however was to see what is copyrighted and what can be used freely in the public domain. Hence, we have a lot of pieces that used Rasa Sayang as the theme because it is free to use.
I decided to take a step back and re-look at our culture. Instead of questioning if a certain folk song originated from Singapore, I thought about the folk songs that were traditional to our geographical region – the Malay peninsula instead.
So Dayung Sampan came up, and it is indeed special. This tune was adapted into ‘Tian Mi Mi’ (甜蜜蜜) as sung by pop singer Teresa Teng, but yet its original lyrics are in Malay. It has a sense of multiculturalism, which was something that I was fascinated with.
Despite the tune in mind, it was not easy to set it to music. The structure of the song was not the typical 8 bar phrase melody, so there was some work to ensure that the harmony was functional to fit into the march.
TBP: Would you describe some of the composition techniques you have used in your piece?
My interests as a conductor is always about images and extra sounds.
An example is the Bb major chord in the beginning “Infinite Dreams”, where we have the trombones doing Bb, D and F. The low registers and very low clarinets bring in a big theme, and this image is adapted from the 1984 local TV drama series ‘The Awakening’ (雾锁南洋). The idea was not to copy the sound or the theme song, but to portray the moment before the sun rises; like the start of something in a very dark manner.
Then, you have instrumental combinations such as low clarinets and low saxophones. It is a different kind of sound, and the balance is very important so you don’t hear solely clarinets or saxophones, but a new instrument, maybe ‘clario-phones’ or something like that.
We then move on to the “Tropical Breeze” section. The first part is a very standard Japanese styled march with an effective harmony, but in the second part, I decided to have a functional section with melody switches that were inspired by Malay tunes. The sounds in this second part are like those of ‘Dondang Sayang’ (love ballads), or the playing of the Angklung instruments. In the orchestration, there are also elements of local Malay folksongs, with the trombones doing off-beats and trumpets playing with the high winds.
In the trio section, the melody ‘Dayung Sampan’ is played by the Euphoniums and Trumpets. The horns now take the off beats instead, and the theme becomes lighter on a higher register. There is a slight modulation in the middle but still very functional.
The final section “Reach for the Stars!” in the work is where I spent most of the time on. I was combining several elements together; you have the Alvamar Overture element in the woodwinds, with bits of running notes; the chorale in the brasses; the introduction of the 2nd melody and fresh percussion rhythms. There are 4-5 elements running at the same time but I had to balance what is important and what should be in the background.
TBP: What do you intend that the students learn about when playing your piece?
When I was in RV, I had a very good friend and batch-mate who played the horn. We were the kind of band fanatics, like literally ‘SIAO-Band‘. After each practice, we would listen to recordings and share music that are ‘Shiok!’
I guess I want to create an experience so that when the bands end their performances, they would be able to feel happy with the music they performed. It could be because of their music on stage, or the collective preparations they have put together as a band. They should feel proud because of the teamwork and the end result they achieved together at the end.
Like in the final section “Reach for the Stars!”, it is like an overture by James Barnes. It is about the submission of all parts, where everyone has a voice and everyone is important. Although it sounds complex, if the band does it together as a team, it will work… and I believe in that.
TBP: Do you have advices for the students involved in this music-making process?
Trust in the whole team.
Your conductor, your leaders, your section leaders, and very importantly, trust in your juniors. You need to trust everyone for everything to be successful.
And just enjoy the music.