Sunday 20 March 2022

A:LIVE / Morse Percussion / Review


Morse Percussion

Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Friday (18 March 2022)


There is probably no better time than now for percussionists in Singapore. And there are likely more professional percussionists active here than ever before. The formation in 2020 of Morse Percussion, a professional ensemble in the mould of Kroumata or Repercussion, is a sign of these heady times. And there is no shortage of local composers to write for percussion, as illustrated in this concert of fascinating contrasts and variety.


Five composers were represented this evening, beginning with Tony Makarome’s Kuanzhai Xiangzi performed by four players. The title refers to a popular tourist district in Chengdu, Sichuan province known for its architecture, culture, wide and narrow streets. Rhythmically vibrant and light-hearted, it unapologetically fused Western with Eastern influences. Melodic interest was provided by vibraphone and marimba, while the slung Chinese cymbal gave it an exotic feel. Pentatonic melodies abounded, including one similar to the Oriental central section of Ravel’s Laideronette, Imperatrice des Pagodes from his Mother Goose ballet. Totally enjoyable.


August Lum’s A Well-Matched Fight V.2.0 featured just three percussionists on drums. Inspired by Chinese martial arts, notably the exploits of Marvel Comics’ hero Shang-Chi, this is a battle piece for unpitched percussion. A snare drum heralded a call to arms, and a showdown between two opposing players ensued. The work is not scored, and thus relying on improvisation by both drummers. Yet the work did not convey the idea of randomness, but rather something choreographed, judging by their pugilistic postures and wushu inflected movements on stage. Their mutual stares of daggers also gave the work an edge of high tension and uncertainty.   


Completely different was Avik Chari’s V.I.D.A., where the use of pre-recorded electronics dominated initial proceedings but gradually became a complement for the four percussionists. The title refers to life itself, but its initials spell roles played by the foursome, that of a visionary, introvert, dreamer and adventurer. The music was serene, even poetic, with a laid-back feel provided by the striking of a Tibetan bowl and stroking of a wooden frog. This is as much a nature piece as one inspired, according to the composer, by the emergence of artificial intelligence.    


The only aggressively atonal piece was Morsus by Chua Jon Lin, also the only woman composer among the five. Its title was partly derived from the ensemble’s name and the Latin word for bite, describing a sharp lancinating pain. Only four instruments – tam tam, marimba, vibraphone and snare-drum – were used. The tam tam was bowed rather than struck, producing a scraping timbral effect, while the snare drum struck when being laid upside down caused an unearthly buzzing sound. Call this avant garde, and it conjured up a suitably nightmarish soundscape.


Tour de force for the evening was Jonathan Shin’s Mad Dog Mancha, calling for seven players in all, with the composer himself at the piano. The title itself alluded to a quixotic Iberian spirit, one that is vigorous rhythmic, full of emphatic ostinatos yet totally unpredictable. Calling this West Side Story updated and on steroids would not be too far from the truth. Its grimy, inner city ghetto-like vibe coloured with a gamelan-like precision interplay (with no less than four pitched instruments) brought out the loudest cheers from a clearly enthused audience.   


Time just flew by in the hour-long concert, much helped by the pre-recorded interviews with the five composers. Morse Percussion, manned by virtuosos Derek Koh, Joachim Lim, Cheong Kah Yiong, Yuru Lee, Sng Yiang Shan and Tan Lee Ying, is a force for new music to be reckoned with. 

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