Seven Pieces for Organ – An Interview with organist Phoon Yu | The Flying Inkpot
We may not instinctively associate the organ with modern-day Singapore, but Singaporean organist Phoon Yu is ready to correct that misconception with his upcoming CD, SEVEN. Aileen Tang chats with him to find out more about the significance of the number seven and how the organ is still very much relevant today.
The Flying Inkpot: Hello Phoon Yu, do tell us a little about yourself first!
Phoon Yu: I’m a Singaporean organist, composer, and arranger currently finishing up my doctoral studies at the Juilliard School under Paul Jacobs. I studied composition in my undergraduate studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM), with some time spent at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland due to the Joint-Degree arrangement that the two schools had. After that, I pursued my Masters in Organ Performance at Peabody before studying at Juilliard. In my spare time, I read, chat with friends, and put said friends in my multifarious fan fiction…typical organist stuff.
TFI: So tell us how the concept of this album SEVEN came about.
PY: The album is basically built around two collections, each containing seven pieces.
The first collection consists of pieces written by seven Singaporean composers (Jonathan Shin, Huang Ding Chao, Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin, Tan Yuting, Lee Jinjun, Emily Koh, and Wynne Fung) and were inspired by various chorale preludes from the third part of J. S. Bach’s Clavierübung. I commissioned all these works in 2018 as part of YSTCM’s Voyage Festival and premiered them alongside the abovementioned chorale preludes by Bach.
The second collection, The Seven Angels written by Chen Zhangyi, consists of seven movements, each based on the seven trumpet-blowing angels from the Biblical book of Revelation. Each movement depicts the events (usually of a catastrophic nature) that happen after every trumpet blast.
In a sense, the two collections are contrasted with each other. The first collection has multiple contributors, consists of mostly stand-alone pieces of a relatively smaller scope, and exhibits a great diversity in musical styles and theological topics. The second collection, on the other hand, is written entirely by one person, consists of several related movements with several being of a larger scale, and is unified in terms of musical style and a flowing narrative. And of course, the title of the album and the number of pieces or movements in each collection allude to the number seven, which occurs frequently in the Bible.
TFI: In this album, you perform works by Singaporean composers. How did you decide on these 8 composers?
PY: I’d say it was a combination of personal choice and harsh reality. I wanted a variety of styles and approaches to the chorales, and having heard the music of these composers, I wanted it in a genre that I could bring around and perform. In addition, I had known all the composers personally since my studies at YSTCM and Peabody, and so when the opportunity arose to commission them in the form of Voyage 2018, I took it.
On another level, the lack of compositions for organ by Singaporean composers simply means that whenever I want new repertoire for the instrument, I usually have to commission it myself. Perhaps hearing the music in this CD will inspire more Singaporean composers to write for the organ!
TFI: Is there any “Singaporean-ness” in these works, besides the fact that they are written and performed by Singaporeans?
PY: I feel that the pieces are conferred the quality of ‘Singaporean-ness’ precisely because they were written by Singaporeans. Many composers in Singapore have studied abroad or studied with teachers who studied abroad, so they often incorporate those influences into their music in a very personal way. It’s safer to say that these are artistes who wrote the music in their own idiosyncratic styles – and who happened to be Singaporean, thus consecrating it with an abstract Singaporean touch, breath and imputed presence.
TFI: The theme of this album is very spiritual. What kind of revelation about God, spirituality and ourselves might we glean from the pieces?
PY: One very simple answer would be to point to the texts that underpin the pieces: the chorale texts in the case of the first collection and the biblical texts in the case of the second collection. Beyond that, however, the approaches to spirituality are meant to be ecumenical and symbolic, rather than focused on one set of religious beliefs.
What do I mean by that? Consider two things. In the first collection, the composers deal with chorale texts that discuss fundamental Christian theological concepts such as the Trinity, baptism and Holy Communion in the process of composition – regardless of their personal religious beliefs. I think this reflects how the composers, born and bred in a different time, society and country, interface with and glean different concepts of spirituality from their different contexts.
In the second collection, while the disasters heralded by the angels can refer to specific calamities that are prophesied to take place in the future, it can also be symbolic of calamities that have happened (like the world wars), are happening (like the COVID-19 pandemic), and will happen. Put this way, when an audience listens to the music and reads the pertinent text, they can think of the images described and fill in the blanks as to what sort of disaster it represents to them (since many of the biblical images are by themselves very fantastical anyway). When The Seven Angels was featured in an earlier online project titled ‘Beyond the After’, we took this angle in pairing the pieces with electronic music – going for something symbolically representative of calamity and catastrophe that people of all faiths can grasp.
I guess the summarised answer would be that it depends on what you get from the text on a personal level, based on your personal beliefs and experiences!
TFI: Mention the organ and a common misconception is that it’s old-fashioned and its music no longer relevant today. What do you have to say in response to that?
PY: I think a lot of those perceptions come from pop culture, where the organ is shown as being in churches built centuries ago and playing music that’s also from centuries ago – that is, existing in a culture that we don’t interact with and will be unlikely to interact with again. There’s also the association of the organ with outdated tropes – such as with old horror movies or Phantom of the Opera – that are themselves old-fashioned and irrelevant.
But the truth is that the organ is even more relevant today than ever. In the spiritual sphere, many churches, whether Protestant and Catholic, are casting off the shackles of contemporary church music in favour of exploring older worship styles – such as High Church liturgy for the Anglicans and pre-Second Vatican Council practices for the Catholics, all of which the organ plays a big part in. Even churches where the organ has not had a longstanding presence, like in Singapore, are acquiring instruments – albeit electronic replicas – for their worship services. In the secular sphere, concert halls still install organs and still feature recitalists and soloists who play music written in the past 50 years. Countries in Asia – most notably China, Japan, and Korea – have acquired organs from European builders and sent organists overseas for further study. Meanwhile in Singapore, the Victoria Concert Hall has an organ series with local and international artistes, while the Esplanade has programmed several events featuring their organ. Both venues also put organ-related content online over the course of the pandemic, so it’s clear that they retain an interest in promoting the instrument still.
In other words, the organ is still thriving and it’s still as relevant as ever – it’s just that it has acquired a different kind of relevance, which is only natural since we live in different times.
TFI: How much of an organ lover would one need to be to fully appreciate the album? Or would this album be something to make organ lovers of us all?
PY: I think everyone will get something out of this album! Even non-musicians will be awed by the variety of timbral colours, dynamic contrasts and musical styles offered by the collection of pieces. Musicians will derive enjoyment in looking at the texts and reading the liner notes to see how the various elements are depicted musically. And certainly, organists and organ aficionados will relish the chance to hear a rarely-heard organ in action, as well as obsess over the stoplist to see how the registration for the pieces were achieved.
As with many other art forms, experts will always derive more pleasure from having a more intimate knowledge of the craft in question. But I think SEVEN can offer something for everyone to make them hungry for more organ in their lives.
SEVEN will be released on Centaur Records on 15 April and will be available on various retail sites and all major download and streaming platforms.
Visit https://www.phoonyu.com/seven for more information on SEVEN