Music Unmasked – TFI interviews composer Lee Jinjun, trumpeter Lim Jit Xin and oboist Tay Kai Tze
Masks have become an inescapable part of our lives in this pandemic that has changed our routines and habits in every imaginable way. For other musicians, masks have allowed them to continue playing and performing in concert, but this has been impossible for wind and brass musicians, whose music has been silenced, along with their voices, expression, even their very livelihood.
But it is now finally time for these musicians to take centre stage and herald a new chapter in the reopening of the Arts. And what better way to celebrate this long-awaited and hard-won moment than with a two part extravaganza featuring the woodwinds and horns in Nigel Shore’s Harmoniemusik from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and a brand-new work – Lee Jinjun’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion “The Times Have Changed”?
Aileen Tang speaks to composer Lee Jinjun himself, as well as OMM trumpeter Lim Jit Xin and oboist Tay Kai Tze about how times have changed and what they miss most about pre-COVID days.
The Flying Inkpot: Jinjun, this is your 2nd commissioned composition for the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM), the 1st being The Red Longkang performed in 2019. How different are your styles and approaches in these 2 works?
Lee Jinjun: They could not be more different! The Red Longkang was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore, and was a lighthearted piece in general. On the other hand, the Symphony for Brass and Percussion was conceived as a practical need to get our brass section playing together again before coming back together as a full orchestra. In order to do that, I had to include quite a lot of orchestral brass writing clichés, and this resulted in a need for a large-scale multi-movement work of a much more serious nature.
I initially only had plans to write a four-movement work without intending for it to be a “symphony”. It was only after the work was complete when Christopher Cheong [OMM’s Head of Artistic Planning] heard the first draft, that he suggested calling it a “symphony” due to the symphonic nature of the work structurally.
TFI: So how did the title, “The Times Have Changed”, come about?
Lee: It was inspired by the biggest global event in recent times, the Covid-19 pandemic, and how it has changed our society, in some instances possibly irreversibly. I incorporated aspects of such a calamity in the piece, including struggle, hope and recovery.
TFI: Can you tell us a little more about how those aspects are represented in the music?
Lee: Basically every movement features a different aspect of any great crisis. The 1st movement is a symphonic march of sorts to announce the onset of the crisis and humanity’s inability to cope with it. The 2nd movement is a scherzo where the disaster is “mocking” mankind’s efforts to contain it, and the 3rd movement is an elégie which is a memorial of the victims and gives hope for a better future. Finally, the 4th movement is a driving moto perpetuo that symbolises recovery.
TFI: What was your biggest challenge in writing this piece?
Lee: The biggest challenge was to find a way to make the piece sound colourful and interesting. Brass instruments tend to be fairly homogenous, so the piece can end up sounding stale if the writing isn’t done carefully.
TFI: You’re a product of, and contributor to, the Singapore schools’ band scene, most notably having composed the set pieces for the Singapore Youth Festival 2019 Arts Presentation for concert bands. What is your view on the impact school bands have made on the arts industry here, as well as how it’s influenced your career choice?
Lee: A great majority of professional wind, brass and percussion players in Singapore started in the school band scene. I think I can say with certainty that, without it, many of us would not be in our current musical careers.
TFI: Have you ever written a piece that you later discovered to be unplayable, or at the very least, too difficult for your intended musicians?
Lee: Not entire pieces, thankfully, but I’ve had to tweak select bars in quite a number of pieces after the first rehearsal because of impracticality. It’s part and parcel of a composer’s lifelong journey, and I’m certain I’ve not seen the last of it!
TFI: I’m going to talk to some of the musicians now! Jit Xin, you’re a Research Engineer by day but very much involved in the music scene. It has been an especially tough time for wind/brass musicians. How has it really been like for you?
Lim Jit Xin: Previously during pre-COVID times, I would have a performance once every 2 months or so, and there’ll be rehearsals in between which kept my playing at a decent level. But with the COVID situation, there haven’t been performances or rehearsals, and with a lack of motivation to practice at home, it is tougher to maintain playing levels. The last I performed on stage was with West Winds back in early February 2021 at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre. The only way to motivate myself is through chatting with friends, trying to learn from one another and also listening to various genres of music to keep that ‘musical flame’ burning.
TFI: Kai Tze, you’re a professional freelance musician. How has it affected your work?
Tay Kai Tze: Whenever there is an update from the authorities on the pandemic, I expect to read a paragraph or two about ‘winds/brass instruments’. Never has there been a time where our instruments are mentioned as much in the press I think, and each time it happens, my heart freezes in terror for a moment. Will they continue to suspend our activities? Will our concerts be canceled? I think our colleagues in the choral scene feel the same way. We can understand, accept and cooperate but unfortunately, it’s challenging not to feel dejected when we don’t have a definite end in sight. Occasionally, we glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel only to have the tunnel suddenly extend further and further.
I remember one particular week 2020 when I received emails every single day; all the rehearsals and concerts were canceled or postponed. Performances came to a halt.
For the first time in my life, I suddenly had all this free time but I felt lost. I was used to working with schedules and manoeuvering students and gigs. There was a framework to work with and against. Now, we have to discipline ourselves to continue to practise but what for? I guess I was a little more optimistic in that I didn’t think of giving up. I have been lucky, my last live concert was in May this year when OMM played a reduced version of Mahler’s 4th Symphony.
All sorts of recordings by orchestras, bands, chamber ensembles appeared because we turned to technology for help. I myself was part of some of these projects but as you are really just playing by yourself to a metronome, can you really count it as a performance? It’s like a dish cooked by a machine. The ingredients just have to be assembled, but the synergy, and give-and-take between ensemble members (and conductor) were missing. It just feels artificial and superficial.
TFI: There are up to 20 musicians on stage for Jinjun’s work and 16 for the Strauss/Shore. How does it feel to be rehearsing again with a larger ensemble?
Tay: It does feel nice playing in a larger wind/brass ensemble. Most of us came from the school band system but as they are all not in operation now for obvious reasons, this is as close as it gets.
Lim: It has been a joy to be back rehearsing with OMM. Of course, just to be able to play my instrument in an ensemble setting is a blessing and a joy to behold. But to be able to play with these musicians in particular really brings it to a whole new level; it’s an entirely different music-making level and process. It certainly brought back the motivation and the basic joy in music-making.
TFI: What do you miss most about pre-COVID concerts and performances?
Lim: Being carefree in terms of going to rehearsals unmasked, emptying my instrument’s condensation freely and also not worrying about being COVID-positive. But I guess it’s a new normal, and we just have to do our part: be socially responsible and live with it just like the flu-virus.
Tay: Before COVID, we sat much closer together. This means we could read body movements and gestures via peripheral vision and could react to each other’s energy. This helped cement our ensemble in precision and gelling of our musical ideas. It is much more challenging being seated further apart and in fact, may potentially cause some problems.
The other thing that I miss, especially with OMM is their daringness in programming. Wagner’s Die Walkure? No problem! [Ed; OMM performed it in January 2020] Of course, having restrictions in the number of unmasked performers means that the organization has to be equally creative in terms of finding repertoire but I look forward to the day where I am again part of a huge ensemble on stage!
I also miss having a full-house audience; they are just as important to a performance as the performers themselves. They add to the atmosphere, and I do miss hearing a full-house applause!
Orchestra of the Music Makers play Music Unmasked at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 1 Oct 2021 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available from SISTIC.
Richard Strauss (arr. Shore) – Der Rosenkavalier Harmoniemusik
Lee Jinjun – Symphony for Brass and Percussion “The Times Have Changed” (World Premiere)