Classics of Our Own: A Personal List – Part One

Do Singaporean wind bands have a repertoire they can call their own? Do we have our own “classics”? Indeed we do, but we seem to be reluctant to celebrate these works as well as their composers, and failed to give them the recognition they richly deserve.

Here is a personal list and a broad survey of the field. Do you agree that these are or may one day become classics? Are there any other works you know that are not in the list?

Marches

Ridzwan Salmy bin Mulok | Singapore Police Force March

Frederick William ROY | Singapore Infantry Regiment (SIR) March

Abdullah Sumardi | Tentera Singapura – March of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)

Tonni WEI | Bandstand

PHOTO: cyberpioneer
SAF Central Band at Swedish Tattoo 2013 / PHOTO: cyberpioneer

Singapore’s earliest professional bands were the Singapore Police Force Band, the Singapore Armed Forces Band (then still divided into the SIR, RSAF and RSN bands) and the Peoples’ Association Band. In keeping with the proud British tradition of military bands, they provide ceremonial and marching music to important occasions such as state visits, and the annual National Day Parade.

In those early years, Inspector Ridzwan Salmy bin Mulok’s SPF March & Captain F.W. Roy’s SIR March were synonymous with the parade, and later on, Captain Abdullah Sumardi’s Tentera Singapura was added to this distinguished selection. In recent years, the signature tune of the SAF bands is MAJ Tonni Wei’s tuneful Bandstand. Regardless of the artistic development of the wind band, marches remain an important cornerstone of the repertoire and these memorable marches provided the beat to the nation’s history.

Concert Works

LEONG Yoon Pin | Daybreak & Sunrise (1992)

Kelly TANG
Overture No. 1 & Overture No. 2 (2009)
“Sarabande” from Two Contrasts for Concert Band (2013)

WONG Kahchun | Pecos Pueblo

Benjamin YEO | Legend of the Ancient Hero

Hardy MERTENS | The Singapore Experience (1990)

The pioneer and father of Singaporean music, Leong Yoon Pin, contributed only one original work to the wind band. Daybreak & Sunrise was composed as the set work for the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Indoor Band Central Judging in 1992. While the work was atmospheric and rich with oriental colours, it was deemed esoteric and posed a serious challenge to the participating bands that had, in previous years been used to more traditional, made-for-school-band American overtures.

PHOTO: SYF 2009 / credit: Class Pictures
SYF 2009 at Singapore Conference Hall / PHOTO: Class Pictures

In subsequent years, a distinguished list of internationally renowned wind band composers including Hardy Robert Foster, Soichi Konagaya and Jacob de Haan were commissioned to create the set work (usually based on local folk songs) until 2009, when the commission was entrusted to Dr. Kelly Tang. In his usual charming yet unassuming manner, he made his contribution in the form of two overtures, simply entitled Overture No. 1 & Overture No. 2. My favourite of the two is Overture No. 1, which succeeds to pose the appropriate technical and musical challenge to the secondary bands while remaining a wonderfully joyous piece of music. The 2011 commission was awarded to the immensely popular Satoshi Yagisawa, and eventually in 2013, Dr. Tang was again asked to provide the set work. This time, he created Two Contrasts for the Concert Band from which came the beautiful Sarabande that may arguably be the most confident wind band composition from a Singaporean composer.

As established local and international composers give their take on what makes a set work Singaporean school bands, two young composers in their mid-20s who were very much grew up within the SYF tradition started to make their mark on the international wind band scene. Wong Kah Chun & Benjamin Yeo had their first works published by Tierolff Muziekcentrale (Netherlands) and C.L. Barnhouse Company (USA) respectively, making them the first local wind band composers to be published and distributed internationally, marking the debut of Singaporean composers on the world stage. Out of their many well-received works (many of which were selected as contest works in other European & Asian band contests), Wong’s Pecos Pueblo and Yeo’s Legend of the Ancient Hero stands out in this period.

One additional work deserves mention, and this is Hardy Merten’s The Singapore Experience composed in 1990 to mark his visit to Singapore to work with the National Theatre Symphonic Band (NTSB), the former incarnation of the Singapore Wind Symphony. The work is a rhapsody on his experiences in Singapore, using our national songs like Chan Mali Chan, Munnaeru Vaalibaa, and Count on me Singapore as musical themes to express his feelings. The result is a thoughtful and emotional tribute to a country that he grew to love and he would constantly return to for the next 25 years.

Concert Works (with Chorus)

Zechariah GOH Toh Chai | Sang Nila (2005)

In 2005, Singapore hosted the WASBE Conference, which is one of the most important annual gatherings of wind bands from all around the world. Sadly, there were not as many works by Singaporean composers featured during the conference – however, one epic composition for wind band & chorus did make its world premiere. Adam Gorb says it best, as quoted from Tim Reynish’s website (www.timreynish.com) :

Nothing could have been a greater contrast than what followed: Sang Nila by Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh Toh Chai. For me this work was the highlight of the conference. This was a haunting and magical work for chorus and band, featuring chanting and beguiling bell sounds. Here the influence of Gamelan music was triumphantly integrated into the musical language; the static harmonic field in this context was totally appropriate. The composer, who conducted this premiere has clearly absorbed many musical directions of the last fifty years, and the final choral passage with vowel sounds paying homage to Stockhausen’s Stimmung was most memorable. Here is a composer whose original voice deserves to be heard worldwide.

Concertante Works

Zechariah GOH Toh Chai
Concertino for Alto Saxophone & Wind Ensemble (2004)
Concerto for Alto Saxophone & Wind Ensemble (2013)

Without fear of being accused of prejudice as a saxophonist myself, Dr. Goh’s two concertante works for the saxophone composed in 2004 & 2013, respectively given their world premieres by Prof Vince Gnojek (USA) and Chien Kwan-Lin (Singapore) in annual Saxophone symposiums organized by Dr. Goh himself. Clearly his love and affection for the Saxophone played a major role in the creation of these exquisite works for the instrument.

This article is the first of a two part series and will be continued by “Arrangements & Transcriptions, Recent works by the younger generation of Singaporean composers.”

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