Bertram Wee is a Singaporean composer-pianist who is active in the field of contemporary concert music both as performer and writer-of-notes. His recent music deals with violence, sonic palpability, and the notion of externalizing corporeality through the medium of sound. As a performer he performs most notably with the award-winning b-l piano duo (Royal Over-Seas League Competition 2017), and more recently with the Singaporean new music collective weird aftertaste with his esteemed colleagues.
Bertram has had his work performed at and/or has performed at events and festivals of international repute, among these the BBC Proms (London), Ultraschall (Berlin), Gaudeamus Muziekweek (Utrecht), Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Musik 21 (Hannover), Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and Singapore Festival of the Arts. He has won several awards for his concert music and in 2022 was an Artist-in-Residence at the Esplanade (Singapore) as part of its inaugural Contemporary Performing Arts Research Residency. In 2021 he was a recipient of the NAC Arts Scholarship.
Many years ago, Bertram was (in retrospect) some flavour of “band nerd”. He played the tuba to a somewhat acceptable standard.
The Band Post interviews Bertram on his thoughts about Kinderszenen [Scenes of Childhood], the set piece written for this year’s SYF Arts Presentation for Pre University Bands
This is the first time you are commissioned to write the set piece. What were your initial thoughts?
It’s a privilege! Band was a substantial part of my formative musical life and it’s special to be able to re-encounter it in this manner. I grew up immersed in the repertoire (Grainger is pretty much an idol to me) and for better or worse, this stuff is part of my musical DNA and has shaped the way I think about and write music. (even as my compositional predilections began to lean towards the arcane!)
SYF set pieces have almost always been based around Singapore folk songs – did you consider including such tunes in your composition at the earlier stage?
Is this actually still true?
I’ll start from the first SYF I took part in 16 years ago: 2007, with Gorb – Ikan Kekek was used in Sunrise, and I don’t remember any such tune being used in Safari. From then, as far as I know, only in 2015 and 2017 did a “folk song” explicitly rear its head in a set work. Counting both parts of the Van der Roost and Gorb separately, that makes a 1:3 ratio of SYF pieces using “folk songs” against those without (of course, I’m only looking at the Secondary / JCMI side of things, and from my youth and beyond). Perhaps I’m mistaken/have missed something and all these tunes are embedded somewhere in the fabric of these pieces. That said, it certainly seems like composers have taken strides away from doing that kind of thing.
Either way, it has never crossed my mind to include a “folk song” in my offering. While it was an obligation to include “local inspired themes and subjects” as part of the piece, I find that folk songs are often used to lend local concert music a kind of unappetizing, plastic “Singaporean” flavour and didn’t want to proceed in that spirit. There are of course wonderful, sophisticated examples of these that make you hear well-worn tunes in a new light (just to name two, I adore Chen Zhangyi’s gorgeous take on Count on Me Singapore, and Kelly Tang’s classic Symphonic Suite I find stunning with colour and cinematic allusion) but not many composers have these refreshing perspectives to bring to these melodies – rather they are arbitrarily shoved into marches or flaccid symphonic poems… that’s my two cents worthless.
I’ll end my response with the following sentiment:
“First generation composers felt they needed to inscribe an Asianness within the dominant aesthetic – in so doing they liberated the subsequent generation of Singaporean composers. Today our composition students feel “If I wrote/composed with a folk-tune – it would be so superficial and an insult to my country.” (Dr Kelly Tang, 2014)
Could you talk about some original ideas for the work? What were some ideas or elements that you explored before embarking on the piece?
As mentioned above, according to the brief, the work had to contain “local inspired themes or subjects” so I had a pre-determined point of departure.
In the spirit of the Singapore Youth Festival, I thought that it’d be apt to free-associate on the notion of youth and childhood in Singapore and let all that stuff bleed into the compositional process. In this manner the piece deals with ideas such as impatience, cartoon music, playground chants and band life, just to name a few.
How would you describe your work in a few short words?
It’s an impulsive, impatient, silly romp.
What is the main idea behind the title of your piece?
The title is borrowed from Schumann: his lovely piano cycle (Kinderszenen) demonstrates a kind of warm, rosy outlook of childhood – curiosity, playfulness and introspection is all reflected in the music.
My score is hardly so lofty (kinderszenen, with a small “k” please!), but pretty much proceeds in a similar spirit!
Would you say that the music evokes certain emotions or memories in your childhood or earlier days?
By definition, I imagine that it has to (after all, I wrote it!)
There are specific allusions to my individual experience of youth (for example the opening 4 pitches of the recorder solo are lifted from my favourite tune in my primary school music textbook) but I suppose the larger goal was to reflect some vague, collective spirit of childhood. That’s not to claim that there is such a thing, but hopefully there’s a little something for everyone playing the piece!
Which is your favourite part of the piece? Why?
That would probably be the thickly scored bit towards the end, dedicated to my late conductor when I was in JC – Lin Ah Leck (whom we affectionately called Linsheng). There was a warmth and generosity to his music making process (“band, give me a chance…”) that really resonated with me and that I still aspire to as a musician today.
Further to that there’s a powerful authenticity to his idiosyncrasies, from the way he conceived sound (“big ball!”) to the way he conducted, often ending up mildly disheveled after being bowled over by zeal… I’m still grateful for these formative music-making experiences and hope that musicians and conductors channel his passion for teaching and making music in interpreting the work.
What sort of impact and message would you like to leave for the musicians performing this piece for SYF?
I’d want them to have fun! At the end of the day, it’s just music.