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An Interview with Zecharaiah Goh Toh Chai and Timothy Reynish

Zecharaiah Goh Toh Chai Zecharaiah Goh Toh Chai

Zech, tell me about your first impressions of the "Big Band World" and WASBE - I think you came to Hammamatsu in 1995 and I wonder what performances made a big impact on you as a musician and composer

I was 25 years old during the 1995 WASBE at Hamamatsu, I remember very clearly the great performance by the Royal Northern College conducted by you. I have not heard anything like it and I did not know that there are so much variety in instrumental colours and textures that could be drawn from just Winds, Brass and Percussion alone. I was deeply intrigued and told myself that I will write something in the future that will showcase the kaleidoscopic and extraordinary sounds of winds and percussion.

Before that, you must have been caught up in the Singapore band movement?

I was a band director from the late eighties till the late nineties working with many wonderful band such as Victoria Junior College Symphonic Band and Bedok View Secondary school band. I was not exposed to much great original repertoire at that time but I still tried to programme some Grainger and Holst in the band programme. Most bands in Singapore were worried about the Singapore Youth Festival Central Judging for band held every 2 years, and so was I. I worked really hard to prepare the bands for the SYF every two years.

In the late nineties, what were the big influences on your music, and what were your most important pieces, stylistically what was happening to your music?

I was writing a lot for choirs, many choirs were commissioning pieces that show influences from Singapore and its neighborhood countries, these pieces were mainly written for international competition for choirs around the world. Singaporean choirs did very well and continue to achieve better results today. It was during the late nineties that I began to search for a unique voice that represents me and my cultural heritage. I began to study non western musical styles and aesthetics that would slowly make its way into my musical composition in the future.

Sang Nila was the first work of yours I heard, and tonight we came across a little notice about him when returning from the pub. Can you tell us something about him and characterise the piece which Adam Gorb and I so enjoyed at WASBE in Singapore?

Sang Nila was commissioned by the West winds, Singapore, for WASBE 2005. It was a great opportunity for me as the band needed a new work that showcase the band and the choir. I used a lot of sounds of the Indonesian Gamelan orchestra represented by all two sets of marimba (with four players), Gamelan Gongs, and a whole range of western percussion instruments. For the choir I used the onomatopoeic sounds of percussion instruments such as Gamelan and Malay drums (Kompang) sung by the human voice. The texts for this work was simply the name of Sang Nila itself. To put it in a few words, Sang Nila was the man and early ruler of Singapore who gave Singapore's its name.

I think that I remember that it has Chinese vowel sounds - perhaps similar in use to the Inuit sounds that Michael Colgrass uses in Artic Dreams. Would it be difficult for western choirs?

I think it might be a little hard, but I can work with the ensemble to produce the various sounds.The instrumentation includes the full band of winds and brass and a very big percussion section that require 10 percussionists.

Lets talk about your music first, and perhaps later the potential development of the wind ensemble and orchestra in Singapore, Japan, China and Korea. The next work for wind that I heard was your Marimba Concerto for Kevin Bobo and the University of Kansas. How did the commission come about?

Kevin Bobo and John Lynch together with the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble commissioned the Marimba Concerto. I knocked on the door of Kevin one morning and asked if he would like to play a Marimba concerto that I would write soon after and he agreed without any hesitation. I than approached John Lynch for a possible performance and commission. Without much delay the commission came through with great anticipation from the soloists where he later performed from memory the entire concerto in just three weeks. When John moved to University of Georgia, he took the piece with him and perform at CBDNA in 2009 when his band was selected for the conference. As it was a jointly commssioned work with Philwinds, I had two performance in the same month.

How did your music develop in those years at Kansas

I studied orchestration with James Barnes and I must say I learnt so much from him and I am very grateful to his guidance in my Kansas years. I spent a great due of research into the Marimba, trying to bring out the characteristic of the instrument and the virtuosity that Kevin Bobo has to offer at the same time. I wrote the first movement for Marimba and woodwinds with tuned metal percussion instrument such as vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, and chimes. I also used the sounds of harp and double bass (plucked string only) and piano to accentuate the different timbres and colours. No brass for the first movement, just pure clean sounds of woodwind and tuned percussion to bring out the wooden sound of the Marimba

How does the Saxophone Concertino fit into your oevre?

I wanted to write something for the saxophone for a long time and when I had the opportunity to realise it, I took sometime to study the altissimo range of the instrument as well as lyrical characteristic of the higher register of the instrument. I spent a lot of time working with Vince Gnojek, the professor of saxophone at the University of Kansas before composing. I wanted to write a solo piece for Alto Saxophone and wind band, although most of the time it was written for even smaller groups of chamber instruments within the wind ensemble. I had a Saxophone quartet playing in the middle of the slow section which in common practice by many composers was to remove the section as it may confuse the ears with the soloist. I wrote a concerto for vibraphone last year, and I might want to write for Bass trombone or Bass clarinet, if I know someone who is interested to play it.

I was delighted when you agreed to write Symphonie Bombastique for me, jointly with your father, who shares my birthday, the Year of the Tiger. Can you tell me something about this work.

It is a coincident that my father and Tim Reynish share the same birth year, 1938. 2008 marks the 70th year of these two great gentlemen. For Tim, it was a series of celebrations around the world where more new works were commissioned and premiered. One of the works commissioned was from me, and he invited me to write an original composition for Philwinds in 2008. I wrote a simple piece that showcases different ensembles and soloists from the wind ensemble, it is a quasi concerto for wind orchestra highlighting virtuosic playing and myriad of instrumental colours unique to wind band. I scored for three bass clarinet parts instead of the usual one player in this particular piece adding more bass sounds to the low wood wind section that I really enjoy. There is an interlude that feature the Jazz trio of an amplified double bass, Drum set and various solo instruments. If you listen carefully you will hear in the background, elements of Baroque trio sonata playing alongside with the jazz ensemble. As a musical caricature of Maestro Timothy Reynish, you will hear many witty and charming symbolic gestures that in my own musical language, describing the multi-faceded, multi talented Tim. This piece in constructed in a giant arch form that span a total of 10 minutes in duration. The ending of this piece has an aleatoric part for hand bell players in the audience,(we used hand chimes in the premiere) this signifies the eternal legacy of wind band music and the longevity of Tim's music making and his strong support to commissioning new repertoire for this genre.

At that CBDNA Conference, I think both you and I enjoyed the music of Chen Yi and her husband Zhou Long. I wrote:

Chen Yi's Fanfare was a premiere, as was the version for wind ensemble of The Future of Fire by her husband, Zhou Long. Originally scored for childrens' choir and orchestra, this new version was given by a mixed chamber of under twenty singers. Researching Zhou Long's music in preparation for this article, I came across his statement:

Thinking about what we could do to share different cultures in our new society, I have been composing music seriously to achieve my goal of improving the understanding between peoples from various backgrounds. My conceptions have often come from ancient Chinese poetry. There are musical traits directly reminiscent of ancient China: sensitive melodies, expressive glissandi in various statements, and, in particular, a peculiarly Chinese undercurrent of tranquility and meditation. The cross-fertilization of color, material, and technique, and on a deeper level, cultural heritage, makes for challenging work. But there is more than this... more than reminiscence."

There is no doubt in my mind that both Chen Yi and her husband Zhou Long are creating an extraordinary synthesis of Western and Eastern musical cultures. And their two works in this programme should lead us all to follow up their music. The Future of Fire was sensational by any standards, a whirlwind of ideas, some clearly traditionally pentatonic, some avant garde; there seemed to be Chinese percussion underlying both sides of the equation. This is a work I would love to hear again and again, together with Goh Toh Chai's Sang Nila which was premiered in Singapore. This marriage of Occident and Orient provides a wonderfully rich vein of compositional processes. The next WASBE Conference is in Taiwan, and if I had any influence on the groups going, I would immediately commission as much music from these two as I could afford.

I find also Bright Shen to have a distinctive voice and I am very excited by the Beijing composer Chen Qian. One problem seems to me that our Western ears tire easily of pentatonic scales, but in your music and theirs there is a refreshing new idiom, certainly in the use of percussive sound, harmonic procedures. Do you think there is a lingua franca amongst "serious" composers of Eastern origin, and do you think it is important for us westerners to get out of out box and listen and learn?

Pentatonic scale or the Anhemitonic scale (C,D,E, G,A) for example, represents the sound world of Chinese music. And only in a fraction of a great number of scale source we can use. Besides the melodic scale source, we also have a very tonal language(there are different tones of high to low pitches in every chinese word) which I used extensively in my choral works and other Chinese aesthetic such as Chinese Martial Arts and Calligraphy, those movements and gestures can be translated and transformed into sounds, it is definitely more abstract and less recognizable to the westerners but given time, it will eventually sink in, we in the East spend a lot of time digesting the western musical language and we hope that in the near future, we can introduce the exotic sonic delicacies to the west as well

You are at present working on the first wind band piece I commissioned, Derek Bourgeois' Symphony of Winds (HaFaBra). You are right that it gets far too few performances. What is it that attracts you to it?

The orchestration and melodic contours attracted me to this wonderful piece. Most modern composers( I am included) shy away from writing a basic beautiful melody like those we can find in abundance in Derek's Symphony of Winds. He also brought to life the wind ensemble and its unique tone qualities which I really enjoy.

We have talked a great deal about repertoire, and I know you are 100% with me in my private war against "cheese". Who are the composers of today, perhaps for wind band, whose work you admire?

I like the music of so many great composers of our time like James Barnes, Michael Colgrass, Takemitsu, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Derek Bourgeois, Joseph Schwantner, Kenneth Hesketh, Adam Gorb, etc. They are so many and these are the few I can remember now

You are back conducting at school band level, what works do you want to tackle in the coming three years?

I will programme some band classics like Grainger and Holst, and perhaps the music by the composers I mentioned earlier. I will also programme one Singaporean work in each concert as well.

I was thrilled with your work on Derek Bourgeois' Symphony of Winds with your school band for the Singapore Youth Festival. Can you tell us something about this contest.

SYF, or Singapore Youth Festival, central judging for bands happens every two years. This event is an assessment for Singapore Junior High and High school bands. The assessment will put the bands into five different categories of Gold with Honour, Gold, Silver, Bronze and certificate of participation. Every school in Singapore worked very hard to achieve the highest award and spend a lot of time on the set piece as well as the choice piece that last for about 15 minutes.

I know that you are very keen on developing Singapore original music for bands. How is that going?

There are more commissioned works for local composers over the past ten years compare to the past, that have generated a large collection of original repertoire for Singaporean bands. However, most band in Singapore enjoy playing Japanese transcription of orchestral literature. I have conducted Philwinds in its ten years anniversary concert, a total of ten Singaporean works for bands in 2010. I believe in creating a platform for younger composer to showcase their compositions for band. I will programme one local work in every concert that I conduct since 2009. Dr. Kelly Tang, Dr. Ho Chee Kong, are two very respectable composer who were born in the 1960s, are getting more of their wind band works performed lately. I have written 8 pieces for wind ensemble in the past 8 years. The younger composers, and students of Kelly and myself, such as Bernard Lee Kah Hong, Jeremiah Lee, Benjamin Yeo, Wong Kah Chun, Chen Zhang Yi and Wang Chen wei has also contributed to the local wind band repertoire. I believe that as bands started to travel abroad for competition and performances, there will be a growing demand for Singaporean composition.

And where do you see the wind band movement moving?

I hope that one day, Philharmonic Winds will turn professional, giving them more time to concentrate on the playing skills and giving us more great original music for wind band and wind ensemble. Philwinds had premiered many Singaporean wind Band compositions and I hope that it will be part of their mission to promote music from Singapore in the future

Dr.Goh, its 4.am and time for a cup of English Breakfast Tea. Thank you for your time.