Darren Sng is a Singapore-born composer living in London, whose works span a range of genres and medium including film, orchestral, electronic and experimental concert music. Having been occasionally talked out of writing overly-ambitious music in his earlier years as a composer, Darren’s current artistic direction remains ironically driven by a stubborn urge to challenge instrumental conventions in extreme yet meaningful ways. His compositional output includes titles such as ‘Baby Bird in the Forest’, a piece that calls for an entire wind orchestra playing on mouthpieces only, commissioned and premiered by the Philharmonic Youth Winds. Besides music for large ensembles, Darren is also passionate about multi-disciplinary music. His recent work involves a chamber opera titled ‘My Days as a Zombie on Earth’ staged by Tête à Tête Opera in collaboration with the Royal College of Music.
Darren’s unique and versatile artistic voice extends into his work as a film composer, seeing him through various genres from action to drama and comedy. Darren was a nominee at the 2020 International Pannonia Film Music Competition, and has written music for numerous films that have received a generous selection at festivals including Los Angeles Short Film Festival, Sundance Collab, Toronto International Women’s Film Festival, Changing Face International Film Festival, Southern Shorts Awards, Indie Short Fest, Lift-Off Global Network based in Pinewood Studios, and the Oscar-qualifying In the Palace International Short Film Festival.
Darren is a two-time recipient of the 2020/2022 Elgar Memorial Prize, and read music under the tutelage of Kenneth Hesketh and Dai Fujikura at the Royal College of Music (London).
How has your life been, to be studying under Kenneth Hesketh and Dai Fujikura at the Royal College of Music?
I wouldn’t have wished for better teachers than Ken and Dai, both of whom are incredibly demanding yet generous and encouraging all at once. Studying with two teachers simultaneously is a fascinating position to be in, especially with their distinct aesthetics and teaching styles. It is a wonderful opportunity to develop a personal artistic voice, by listening to a variety of opinions about my music and assimilating feedback from both sides that I resonate with into my own compositional style.
The Royal College of Music is also a community that I feel extremely proud to be a part of. At every corner of the building there are loads of people eager to engage with composers and contemporary music. As much as the notion of contemporary music being intellectually and physically challenging is still a rather prevalent assumption round the world, the open-mindedness of musicians in the RCM to explore the unfamiliar is remarkable. It is not uncommon to find friends with minimal experience performing new music (or none at all) emerging completely transformed by positive experiences of doing so. This is likewise very encouraging for us composers.
What are some valuable things that you have learned from your teachers? Who else are your influences and inspirations?
It is difficult to sum up four years of education in a single paragraph but I shall try 😛
With Ken, my biggest takeaway is the value of authenticity. The questions “is this really you?” and “is this the music that you want to write?” often arise in our conversations and are good reminders for me as a music creator to stay truthful to my interests and perspectives, no matter what the rest of the world demands for.
With Dai, it is detail. He once drew a parallel between composers and sushi chefs. Both take care of small individual pieces at a time, yet every tiny piece count towards the overall impression of a meal. It is similar in a musical composition where every 0.1% adds up to form a larger whole, and I find myself having to be convinced by all the 0.1% in my work before sending it in.
I listen to a wide variety of music, and try not to limit myself to contemporary classical music (although composers such as Unsuk Chin, Michael Daugherty, and Rebecca Saunders are among my favourites). I also enjoy traditional orchestral repertoire (Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, etc.), film music (Hildur Gudnadottir, Jonny Greenwood, Natalie Holt – I’ll speak more this later), indie pop (Fenne Lily, Matilda Mann, Bon Iver), and Kpop (Mamamoo and Blackpink are in my area too)! We are fortunate to be living in a world with easy access to a huge range of music, and I believe that as a contemporary composer it is important to lunge into the big wide world and embrace this diversity.
How would you describe your music and your artistic direction so far?
I recall how I was often discouraged from writing overly-ambitious music in my younger years as a composer, – music that deviated too far from repertoire that performers were used to playing, or that conductors were used to conducting. Ironically, I’m still driven by that stubborn urge to push boundaries of instrumental or aesthetic conventions in extreme yet meaningful ways.
In past few months, I had the pleasure of writing and premiering a new chamber opera titled ‘My Days as a Zombie on Earth’ with Tête à Tête Opera in collaboration with the Royal College of Music. The entire process was ride of a lifetime, as it felt like a cathartic collision of multiple aspects of my artistic interests in a single piece.
To list some of them:
- Pushing technical capacities of opera singers – screaming, shouting, and swearing were notated elements in the score which the cast had fun performing
- Collaborating with other art forms in a larger multi-disciplinary piece
- Combining a variety of musical styles into a single coherent work. These include experimental elements, jazz influences, horror and noir aesthetics.
- Exploring new compositional processes – for example, a saxophone solo in the opera was constructed through a notated improvisation between my flatmate (saxophonist Sophia Elger) and I.
What would you consider the most challenging aspect of composing music?
Knowing when a piece is finished. I am wild about editing, and I often find myself incessantly making changes to my music in the name of refining it (although I try not to change things once rehearsals start, as that would be a recipe for disaster). I find deadlines extremely helpful, and I tend to work to the last second.
BUT BEFORE YOU ASSUME THAT I’M A PROCRASTINATOR, this is not because I scramble to finish a piece at the final moment but instead because I use every second of time to improve on the work that I have done. This occasionally extends beyond the first performance of a piece, where I make changes to it having first heard it live. I suppose that is the beauty of being a living composer – the compositional process is a dynamic one, and music continues to transform and develop as long as there is breath and creativity in me.
Can you explain how you might compose a new piece of work?
Concepts that question aesthetics and instrumental conventions often spark ideas for me. As an example, I have never been particularly interested in quoting preexisting musical material in my music. In a recent commission from the Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra however, I was tasked to do just that (i.e. quote a Singaporean folk or national tune of my choice). Instinctually, I chose to put a spin on the requirement to convince myself of doing so – what if the entirety of the piece is made up of a single stretched-out statement of the tune? The result was a piece which included the well-known Singaporean melody ‘Five Stars Arising’ but rhythmically augmented to a point where it was barely perceptible yet characteristically present amidst a sustained ambient instrumental texture. I gave it the title ‘Impression of the Stars’ and the piece turned out astronomically more meaningful than I ever expected with a mere quotation.
Congratulations on being accepted into the Masters of Arts Film and Television Composing at the National Film and Television School. How do you feel about this new opportunity?
Terribly excited! Having spent four years in a music college being surrounded by musicians on a daily basis, doing composition in a film school is going to be a radical change of environment. NGL, it seems slightly daunting not knowing the types of interactions, conversations, and friends I will make with people in other fields, but I am looking forward to peering into a wider world beyond my area of expertise. As the proverbial quote goes “Life is not about music, music is about life” – I view this as the perfect opportunity to momentarily dip my feet into fresh puddles and understand other aspects of life from the world we live in.
What was the main drive behind your dream to go into film and television composing?
I’m a firm believer in all forms of collaboration. It is for the same reason that I enjoy writing music for film and television.
On an artistic level, I have always found joy in observing how music responds to other art forms and contribute to a larger multi-disciplinary entity. In film and television, music is mostly an emotional storytelling device (although sometimes literal, in the case of diegetic music) which when placed alongside picture, can achieve an endless possibility of things. These include enhancing dramatic arcs, bringing attention to specific elements in a scene, establishing locations or time periods, and potentially working in opposition with visuals to highlight subtexts. All of these happen as music weaves in and out of attention – sometimes it makes a prominent statement at the forefront, other times it makes its subconscious impact in the background, and occasionally it is non-existent. Music has the potential of bringing perspective to its picture, and likewise picture has the potential of bringing perspective to its music.
In terms of work process, composing for film and television is nothing short of a collaborative one too. Being a film composer, we are in constant communication with others on a project, namely directors and producers whose vision we aim to support. On larger scale projects, composers may work with teams of orchestrators, music editors, and additional writers who have a direct influence on their score. Although it is understandable that collaborative composition is not for everyone (it can be infuriating to have your work tampered by other people + some may argue that collaborative work dilutes auteurship), I oddly thrive in these environments. The trick to working well in a collaborative process is to appreciate that I, as a composer, am just one brain in a pool of creatives. Everyone has a valuable opinion, and it is up to me to find a compromise between my individual artistic vision and ideas from others that I may not have considered otherwise. Often, I feel infinitely more satisfied with a collaborative outcome than I would have if I had worked in isolation.
How do you think your experiences in writing wind band or ensemble music will be applied to writing film and television music?
Although writing music for winds has been a substantial part of my compositional life, I wouldn’t say that it completely defines my aesthetic. Every single experience writing various types of music for a variety of instrumentations (wind music included) educate me, and eventually find their way into informing the decisions I make while writing media music.
Versatility is a huge part of being a media composer. In addition to having the ability to reflect various ethnicities, time periods, and genres according to the films we score, one has to also be adaptable in their approach so that their cues can be effectively customised to a frequently changing edit while maintaining musical logic and coherence – a balancing act with versatility at the core. As a concert composer, I too enjoy hopping between contrasting styles, genres, and instrumentations to keep the palette vibrant. I may spend some time working on a piece for solo instrument, followed by a theatrical work, and perhaps an electronic track shortly after. This has certainly been good practise for shapeshifting which comes in handy in the world of media composing.
What are some upcoming projects you are working on in the near future?
I wish I can share about my future compositional work in more detail, but as a concise response I am in the midst of working on some concert (mostly vocal music at the moment, which is always a joy) and film projects which will likely be greeting the world in the coming months. Exciting times!
I have also been immersing myself in other activities such as conducting – having recently co-conducted the Raffles Winds in Singapore along with Lee Jinjun, as well as taking the role of music director with a London-based community orchestra known as the City Showtunes Orchestra. I have also spent the summer doing a front of house job with a theatrical company in London, and it is already an understatement to say that every second of it was a blast.
Being a composer, a lot of our time is spent in creative solitude, and it is these experiences of throwing ourselves out into the world to make art with other people that reminds us of the value of what we do 🙂
A contributing editor at TBP.