About this Piece
I first encountered Jennifer Tham and the SYC Ensemble Singers in the summer of 2005, at a choral festival in Bandung, Indonesia, where I had the extreme pleasure of watching several hours of their private rehearsal before a festival workshop. I loved the rapport that Jen shared with her singers, and how she was able to accomplish such complex and expressive musical tasks with the simplest of instructions or even a single gesture. My second impression of SYC and Jennifer came in the summer of 2012, when I came to Singapore to attend the Asian premiere of my work, Twelve flowers. This is rather imposing 14-minute a cappella work in eight parts, in both Japanese and English, and Jen had been rather apologetic in advance about the choir’s modest preparation. When I arrived early to the rehearsal, I will never forget how the members of the Ensemble Singers were strewn backstage in small enclaves, rehearsing together the various sections of my piece that were still challenging them. These enclaves were not comprised of members in the same section. Rather, they were mixed, and every singer was required to sing his or her own part independently with (or against) the other singers in the enclave. Then, the members of the enclaves switched around, to try out sections with different singers. The whole process was so disciplined, so inspiring, so organic. I felt honored to have my work performed by singers who evinced such attention and care. Over the years, Jen and I have always enjoyed reconnecting at various conferences and symposia. She is my “go to girl,” a wonderful colleague that is fun to spend time with – we both love coffee, lingering meals, round things, and everything about the Pacific Northwest. Whenever we “talk shop,” we learn so much from each other, and she is one of very few people that I allow to photograph me. Recently, in a second balcony in Seoul, we even got scolded for whispering too loudly during a concert. If ever I were to get into trouble at a professional event, I would prefer that it be with Jen. I trust her with my friendship, with my musical reputation, and with my music.
It was on my trip to Singapore in 2012 where Jen brought up the idea of a commission for the 50th anniversary of the SYC Ensemble Singers. At first, I thought that I would be able to choose and set my own text (and began to wander into the mysteries of Cantonese literature). Jen rescued me from this potentially thorny thicket earlier this year, when she suggested that I look at the poetry of Samuel Lee, a current singer in the ensemble. After meeting him online, I asked Sam to send me all of the poems that he felt comfortable sharing publicly. From these poems, I chose (and/or adapted) 50 lines – in order to reflect the 50th anniversary of the ensemble. The title of the piece, Artifacts, was inspired by SYC’s campaign on Facebook (called Artefacts), which has highlighted various different accomplishments of the group – one for each week of this anniversary year. In choosing from Sam’s texts, I sought those that would be fragmentary (part of a larger thought or event), leave an imprint (either visual or emotional), and contribute to the overall narrative of marking time. Hence, my selection of “burnished verses” as the descriptive phrase for these texts.
With these fragments of Sam’s texts, I have created fifteen different scenarios (places, times, emotional states), which I will delineate here. In [I.], I have tried to capture the moment of quiet when we can only hear our own “breathing.” (Notice the rhythm of this word, which I tried to score similar to breathing.) It is at this moment that we can safely question ourselves, and try to uncover those things buried deep within us. In [II.], the increasing howl of the wind (through rising scales and shifting unvoiced fricatives) leaves us wondering about our own frailty. In [III.], the bright, saturated green of joy is matched by the final, climactic urgings to repeat the song, over and over again. In [IV.], the “waltz of names” begins with a proud declaration, and descends voluptuously into the contours of the unknown. In [V.], alternating heartbeats in the outer voices frame an intertwining duet in the inner voices, which rises with longing and resignation to an insecure conclusion. In [VI.], the swamp is not entirely lonely; with various unvoiced and voiced consonants through the octaves, the wind moves through the reeds, and a couple of dragonflies (libelulle) interrupt the solitude. In [VII.], the rising sevenths resemble the waves in the harbor; but as these dissonant intervals are stacked, they begin to take on the image of the thickly crowded city – quite the opposite scenario of the solitary swamp. In [VIII.], the accompanying voices use five liquid consonants to prolong the salient pitches of these transparent melodies. These five phrases should be like encountering five different roses, along with their lingering fragrances. In [IX.], the bustling cityscape frames the haze of the setting sun (scored in the voices of the soprano, baritone, and bass sections). The day ends contentedly, and without regret. In [X.], the waxing and waning clicks of the accompanying voices form an arid landscape, full of insects – while the half-phonated phrase implies an even drier world. In great contrast to the chaos of clicks, [XI.] moves slowly, with the lugubrious self-satisfaction of a sweet reward. In [XII.], the folding pentatonic eight-notes refer to the rigors of origami, but the graphic notation of the stave itself refers to more. Maybe one of the singers will be able to spot it! In [XIII.], I have tried to combine the wonder of this rare astronomical event with Sam’s banal commentary by treating the shooting star like a holiday sparkler (scintilla) – and have placed this effect in the oscillating unvoiced fricatives of the inner voices. In [XIV.], the “swing” of the jungle is created in the ambiguous meter of the accompanying voices, while the certainty of one’s favorite wishes is placed in the octave melody of the outermost voices. This conviction carries into the descending parallel tenth duet (in the mezzo and bass voices) of [XV.], a faith that is framed by the repeated rhythmic motive found at the beginning, in which the word “breathing” has been replaced by “knowing.” Perhaps, the transformation of the piece could be: that all of the questions we ask ourselves have, in our hearts, already been answered.