Tuesday, 3 May 2016

SETTS #3 / Southeastern Ensemble for Today's and Tomorrow's Sounds / Review

Southeastern Ensemble for
Today's and Tomorrow's Sounds
The Chamber, The Arts House
Sunday (1 May 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 May 2016 with the title "Concert with an edge".

Simply put, Southeastern Ensemble for Today's and Tomorrow's Sounds (SETTS) is the most avant-garde of Singapore's new music groups. Its latest presentation was not so much a concert but a sitting within a creator's workshop and laboratory, half-expecting something to blow up in the face.

Composer Wang Chen Wei arranges a
microphone to record the string quartet.
The artists and technical crew of UFO Project
prepare themselves as an amused audience
(including Pearl Samuel and Peter Kellock) look on.

Tables and floor were littered with metres of cables and wires, a veritable spaghetti connected to computers, cameras, microphones, electronica and various paraphernalia. There were possibly more composers, performers, collaborators and support staff in attendance than actual audience, but nobody was counting.

The 2-hour programme performed without break opened with Waves, conceived by UFO Project, possessing the polystylism that described Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's works. A string quartet (violinists Christina Zhou and Nanako Takata, violist Janice Tsai and cellist Lin Juan), playing a Bach-like chorale, was being peppered by electronic sounds, and soon they were completely submerged.

A dancer dressed as an alien in pink polka dots then commanded the floor, spinning a globe attached to a slowly rotating electric drill. The quartet soon returned, closing in a serene C major chord, perhaps symbolising that peace and strife on earth comes in waves and cycles.

The longest work was Chow Jun Yan's Childhood Rhapsody, from which four of six numbers were performed by pianist Shane Thio alongside the real-time painting of four canvasses by visual artist Frank Lee Foo Koon. Using combinations of brushes, rollers, improvised styli and Pollockian drip technique, these were more than mere scribbles.  Possibly representing suppressed memories of past trauma, the sometimes violent music was achieved by scraping and striking the innards of the grand piano.   

The chamber was then plunged into total darkness for Malaysian Goh Lee Kwang's The Air (Singapore). Snatches of clarinet (Colin Tan), flute (Roberto Alvarez) and oboe (Joost Flach) tones punctuating the stilness as a projected electronic stop watch counted the time elapsed. Resembling forest sounds at night and John Cage's Ryoanji, the work concluded just past the 10-minute mark.

Wang Chen Wei's Cosmic Echoes employed Alan Kartik's French horn skills, transformed by Kittiphan Janbuala's manipulations into time-phased distant tones. These had an unearthly ethereal feel, as if heard from some faraway galaxy with digitally transformed images from the Hubble telescope. In a similar vein, transformations were applied to Christoph Wichert's bassooon and vocalisations in Ding Jian Han's Hanged,  using Eric Tan Wei Fang's poetry read by dramaturge Natalie Hennedige. 

The final work, E-lab-oration, was a joint effort by Hennedige, Thai composer Anothai Nithibon and Singaporean Hoh Chung Shih. Its title provides certain clues, as this was derived from a Facebook chat-cum discussion, with protagonists played by French horn, bassoon, piano and Iskandar Rashid on percussion. Whether solo, in conversation, or engaging in debate and gentle disagreement, here was a forum of ideas tossed up, discussed, accepted or rejected.

Composer Hoh Chung Shih works on his
personal composer as a silhouetted Shane Thio performs.

By wait, who does the fourth instrument represent? One guesses that to be the audience, the fourth leg of a stable table, without whom created music and performances such as these would cease to exist. The stars of SETTS #4 strike back on 26 September at Esplanade Recital Studio, so be sure to return. 

All the performers and artists of SETT #3

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