Monday, 28 March 2016

XPERIENZ: IN C / Asian Contemporary Ensemble / Review

Asian Contemporary Ensemble
University Cultural Centre Dance Studio
Friday (25 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 March 2016 with the title "Unusual experience of minimalist music".

The Asian Contemporary Ensemble (ACE) founded by young conductor Wong Kah Chun surprised once again, and in ways which one least expected. Its latest concert coupled Beethoven's evergreen Fifth Symphony with the Singaporean premiere of American minimalist Terry Riley's seminal score In C, in performances which confounded expectations and pre-conceived ideas.

The Dance Studio at UCC is a very small space, which meant that the audience numbering about 100 was seated within the orchestra's ranks. This closeness must have been unnerving for performer and listener, but within a friendly milieu of sharing space and feedback, both parties soon got used to each other.

Conductor Wong, informally attired in polo shirt and denim jeans, introduced the various instrumental groups to the audience and also briefly spoke about Beethoven's orchestration between the movements. Without further fanfare, the Beethoven symphony got underway with the familiar “da-da-da-dum” motif.

Shorn of opulence or bombast, the composer's ideas were laid bare on a plate. One soon discerned how he brought the disparate parts together, in consonance and dissonance. Just four each of first and second violins, three violas, two cellos, two basses and the minimum complement of winds, brass and percussion, meant that the sound was not going to be rich or fulsome.

That was not the idea in the first place, and depending on where one sat, the balance was also certain to be awry. However what the listener got was a truly organic feel of an overplayed masterpiece, and the power of raw emotions set into music. This pair of ears happened to be in the direct trajectory of the trio of trombones that announced themselves wholeheartedly in the finale, and shrill blast of the piccolo.

The Surround Sound effect worked better in Riley's 1964 classic that started an inexorable trend in musical minimalism. Its premise was both simple and primitive, a repeated rhythmic pattern of the C note over which various sequences from combinations of instruments could be grafted onto its unwavering linear structure.

The ensemble was further pared down, now led by percussionist Ramu Thiruyanam on the MalletKat Pro (an electronic xylophone) and drum, with significant contributions from cello and keyboard. Traditional instruments like guzheng, tabla, guitar and bamboo flute were added into the mix, and audience members armed with a single-paged score were encouraged to sing any of the 53 notated fragments during appropriate moments.

The result was a heady and serendipitous melange of sounds, dizzying and strangely hypnotic. Riley's work was in essence the basis of music itself, the very foundation upon which the sounds of African drumming and Javanese gamelan become possible. The Western forms of the canon, passacaglia, theme and variations and the more sophisticated fugue could all be derived from its basic pulse and momentum.

Every incarnation of In C would result in very different outcomes, and ACE'ss version which played for  a good 37 minutes became a thrilling encounter with music at its most rudimentary grassroots. Little wonder that the many children in the audience sat quietly transfixed, clearly overawed by the experience. That is exactly how good music should move people.      

Professor Ho Chee Kong was in the audience, and
took the opportunity for photos with the performers.

No comments: