What the Bach!? – An interview with Bright Ong and Leslie Tan | The Flying Inkpot
Think you know Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Or never dared to give it a try? Whether you’re a classical music lecturer or total noob, cross-discipline show What the Bach!? promises to show you a whole new side to Bach through an eclectic multi-sensory experience, complete with audience participation.
Aileen Tang talks to director Bright Ong and cellist Leslie Tan (formerly of T’ang Quartet and now Red Dot Baroque) to find out more.
The Flying Inkpot: What The Bach!? sounds really fascinating! Is it part of a larger project?
Bright Ong: What The Bach!? is a project that is funded by the NAC’s SEPG (Self-Employed Person Grant). The brainchild of Leslie Tan, Bright Ong, Placida Ho and Brenda Koh, it is a standalone project that is run by, and features independent artists of various disciplines.
Leslie Tan: It started life as a desire to perform the Goldberg Variations on baroque instruments. From a simple recital, it began to morph into something bigger. The idea of dancers was floated. And then puppets to string together a narrative that was inspired by the myth that Johann Goldberg – who was but a child at the time of the composition – was asked to perform the variations during the sleepless nights of the insomniac Count Kaiserling.
I had wanted it to be a fairy tale told by music and puppets but that would have taken a year to make and way too much money! That was how Bright persuaded me that it could be a lot more than that. So it evolved into this project that is very theatrical, very accessible and in our desires, very audience-participatory. Great music with lots of humour and fun!
The idea was also to use this opportunity to bring together a dream team to work on something that will have a long shelf life – something that can be transplanted, adopted and easily remounted with newer and different elements too!
TFI: Can you tell us more about how What The Bach!? is more than just your average Bach concert? How do music, art and movement come together in this show?
Bright: What The Bach!? is more of a theatrical experience than it is a concert. It combines the disciplines of music, dance, movement, digital art, art therapy and lighting through theatrical sensibilities. This is not a show where one comes to sit down and passively consume the content, but more of an experience that assaults the senses, and allows you to have some plain ol’ fun in a quirky way! However, the show remains true to its Bach roots, and in particular, the Goldberg Variations. Everything stems from wanting to serve the music, and allowing the audience to experience classical music in a plethora of ways.
Leslie: We conceived this show with the audience in mind. Each part of this show is meant to enhance the other – the movement is never subordinate to the music, the video never plays 2nd fiddle. It was like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together – like chamber music! This show is an ensemble of different art forms and elements brought together to make sense for the modern audience.
That’s why we chose the Annexe Studio as a venue. The dream venue was a shophouse in Haji Lane, with street shows and open rehearsals for the interested public and also side performances leading up to the opening night! But budget and Covid killed that idea!!!
TFI: Bright, what was your vision for this show? Was the crafting and creating also experimental or did you have a clear intent in mind? What is it like working with the artists and creative team?
Bright: My vision for the show is simply wanting to break away from the conventional, and present an alternative view on how we can enjoy the more “serious” art forms. Leslie approached me after having seen some of my other works, where I often play with the reimagining of how one can carry on the classics in a new light (I was pinching myself, Leslie Tan asking me?!). What The Bach!? is something for the audience to enjoy with a fair bit of light-heartedness, but also while appreciating the beauty that is Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The creation process, as it is with these sorts of shows, is where I go in and attack the piece with honesty. I often bring in the mantra of “What does the piece need?” to my approach, and work from there. Every show I work on tends to be created upon brand new premises, because I believe that there is little mileage in these instances to go, “That was how it was done before.” Of course, this is not to be mistaken as a reckless farce of approaching Bach’s work, but more of a way to open up a kaleidoscope of avenues for the audience to enjoy the form.
Moreover, I am a classical music noob, so there was a lot of research that needed to be done on my end, and lots of late-night conversations with Leslie, so that I could piece together both the brain and the heart of what the eventual show needed to have.
The crafting of the show has largely been an experiment and a half, but the process got clearer the more I agonized – I mean, theorized – it in my head. There was a fair bit of hypotheses that got put to the test on the floor, and the entire team has just been a joy to work with. There are so many moving parts that needed to be in sync, and fortunately, on top of their brilliance, the artists were all carefully curated – in the sense that I know most of their work to a certain degree, and that they all fit in with each other, playing off each other’s abilities and drawing from their diversity (and being able to play along with my style of direction). The same goes for the creative team!
It’s been well worth the experiment though; I am excited to get a live audience in and have them play with us! It will definitely make you go “what the ….!?”, in a good way, I hope!
TFI: Leslie, at the centre of the show is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What can we expect from the performance musically?
Leslie: This is an arrangement by Sitkovetsky although there have been other arrangements written before too. Musically we are not playing all the variations and we are mixing the numbers around to our music and theatrical logic and flow. I don’t think this has been performed on baroque instruments before. Or perhaps very rarely. It was arranged for modern string trio. Our aesthetics are still historically informed but the action is all contemporary- including the set! This is a retelling of the Goldberg variations! And yes, we have a set!!!
TFI: What do you think is the perception that people tend to have of the Goldberg Variations and how will this show debunk that? What will the audience member who’s never heard the Goldberg Variations end up thinking of it?
Leslie: The variations are long. It is serious music and we thought, for the modern audience, we wanted people to enjoy it with all their senses. And we wanted it to be a concert that will allow the layperson or even the classical music skeptic to tap along and to move along and to share in our emotions. Like I said earlier, we have moved things around and given twists to the original. The music is untouched – don’t worry!! We created our little theatrical variations but we remain true to the score!
Bright: Generally, the belief seems to be that Bach and his Goldberg Variations are stuffy and non-mainstream. In fact, most people seem to view all things classical that way. What The Bach!? will help you throw all these assumptions away once you’ve entered our doors. I can’t say for sure what every single audience member will think, but you will be in for a treat when we assault your senses!
Thinking big-picture, I truly hope the audience goes away with two things. One, a newfound sense of how to appreciate not just “serious classical music”, but also all sorts of live performance art forms. And two, a wider and stronger bridge between typical non-arts goers and us maniacs in the industry. There are so many brilliant artists of different disciplines in Singapore, and I want to see a broadening appreciation for them. Bring a non-arts-going friend!
As for noobs like me, who are relatively new to classical music and the Goldberg Variations, I hope once you’ve exited the theatre doors, you’ll be armed with the ability to feel the work in a different way, and extend that to everything performance related!
TFI: What will the audience member be expected to participate or is there an option to be passive?
Leslie: You will find out when you get a ticket and come for the show! In all seriousness though, while we would like you to be far more active for this run, there are certain safety limitations pertaining to Covid SMMs, so we had to water down what the audience is expected to do this time around.
Bright: Any performer will tell you that the audiences’ energies plays a huge part in the success of a performance. We wanted to push that further by getting them to move, to sing, to feel, to see, to smell, to taste the music. Essentially to use all their senses to experience the music.
Leslie: There will be a little bit of art therapy through visual art, a building of kinesthetic awareness (all while you are sat down in your pairs of course – no “vigorous” vertical movements allowed, the policy-makers say), and a whole lot of you needing to come in with an open mind and a large sense of humour.
I guess you could be passive, for there is no wrong in that old-school manner of art consumption. But then, where would the fun in that be? Come join us, be present in the moment, and certainly let yourself exclaim “What The Bach!?….”
What the Bach!? plays from 30 Dec 2021 – 2 Jan 2022 (Various showtimes) at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Tickets are available from Eventbrite