In the final interview in our series for re: mix's "Bottom's Up!" concert, SG-MUSIC.NET found out more from composer Chen Zhang Yi about his recent works written for re: mix and his latest commission, the highly-anticipated "Double Concerto for Electric Violin and Electric Bass", which will be premiered by re: mix with soloists Foo Say Ming and Wang Xu.“Bottom's Up!" will be happening this Sunday 1 July 2012 at the Esplanade Recital Studio, at 3pm and 7:30pm.
Zhang Yi, you’ve composed and arranged music for re: mix on numerous occasions in the past few years. Tell us a bit about these pieces and what it is like to write specifically for a group of musicians whom you know well. Does it make it easier or harder?
Our collaboration started with an arrangement of Waxman's Tristan Fantasy for solo violin, piano and string orchestra. That was 2009? It was basically a reduction of orchestral score to string orchestra.
“Defiant Deviants” was the next project that I was involved in, where I wrote a companion piece to Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, celebrating unconditional love. It was really a concerto-styled transcription of 3 Chyi Yu songs, including Olive Tree ("橄榄树"). Apparently, that tune was a big hit as they played it as an encore at the concert, and it has enjoyed a number of repeat performances.
In the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” concert, I wrote one movement (Adriane’s Lament - Season of Love) of the set of Seasons that was commissioned by re: mix. The other movements were composed by Kelly Tang (Season of Spring/Celebration), Denise Lee (Season of War) and Derek Lim (Season of Mourning). Interestingly, Ariadne's Lament started as a choral work for the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Byrn Mawr Colleges. Ariadne’s Love (version for choir and string orchestra) went on to win the Abbey Road 80th Anniversary Anthem Competition, culminating in a recording session by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Eric Whitacre Singers, conducted by the eminent composer.
More recently, in the “Que Sera Sera” concert, I arranged a set of songs that I grew up with. That included a Taiwanese pop song "新不了情" and 2 Beatles classics, including Eleanor Rigby, which was already set for strings in the original tune. I reworked it and added a solo violin part with many harmonics and quasi-distortion, recreating an electric guitar effect. The other was Yellow Submarine, using many quotes ranging from Doraemon, Ravel's Sonata and 2 other Beatles songs (Yesterday and Hey Jude). That gave them a good opportunity to give out prizes for audience members who could guess all the titles in it!
It's nice to have a group that you constantly write for; there's a connection and comfort in knowing what they do well. Also, nothing beats writing for people that you know personally, and hang out with before and after rehearsals!
The Double Concerto for Electric Violin and Electric Bass that re: mix will be performing at the Bottom’s Up concert is your most extensive composition for them to date. What was your compositional approach for this piece? Was this the first time that you had composed something for both acoustic and electric instruments together? What were some of the considerations that you had to keep in mind when you were composing the piece?
In the brainstorming for this challenging coupling of electric instruments, I began with an ethereal opening prelúde exploring the extreme ends of their registers. This Palestrina-inspired writing for the solo lines is joined by the orchestra bridging their immense distance.
The second movement is a Scherzo that represents a “stroke of inspiration” as described by a friend playing in the re: mix violin section, who repeatedly told me that it’s his favourite movement!
“Improvisations”, the third movement is more episodic in design, and represents improvisations in terms of instrumental writing as well as composition. These are literally improvisations that I did on the violin, and the bass was mostly done through “air-bassing”! Here we have a double cadenza for the soloists!
For the dance-like Finale, I had access to a guitar, and that sped up the composition process for the bass part. Thus, I was constantly switching between the violin and the guitar while writing this energetic finale!
Yes, it’s my first time writing for electric instruments. There're a lot of considerations and possibilities, and I watched a lot of YouTube videos, especially of electric bass soloists. Bassist Billy Sheehan is one of my favourites! To play with delay and distortion and incorporating that with the string orchestra was one of the important concerns in doing this project. I hope it turns out well!
How did you get to know Say Ming (Music Director of re: mix), and how has your experience of working with him been?
I always knew of him, because he's such a famous pedagogue. Actually many of my friends studied, or are still studying violin with him. So you should ask how he got to know me! I think it was through Ye Zhi's (a member of re: mix) recommendation. Mr Foo and re: mix are always looking for younger composers and arrangers to work with, which is great! And sometimes we played in the SLO Orchestra together, but that's after we got to knew each other.
Mr Foo is very friendly and easy to work with. He has many innovative ideas about programming and performance. It’s always a pleasure to work with him and re: mix; every concert is different and uniquely thought out. Most of the time he gives me a lot of freedom in my arrangements and compositions; he always just urges me to write what I have to write, which is a luxury! As a soloist, he picks up new music very quickly, and performs with such expressivity and energy!
Lastly, a more general question about being a musician – do you have any advice that you would like to share with younger musicians or composers who are considering a career in music?
My main advice for younger musicians is simply not to be afraid to pursue your dreams. Before you know it, those dreams might just become reality, but of course not without proper guidance and plenty of hard work.
Also, be very inquisitive, and be curious about a wide variety of repertoire and genres. Oftentimes, acquainting oneself with earlier music (Baroque and Renaissance) and Contemporary Music improves one's understanding and interpretation of the Western musical canon. Branching out to other genres such as Jazz and World Music could be very enriching as well!
More specifically for composers:
1) Learn an instrument (or two) really well and perform with people either through singing in a choir, playing in an orchestra, playing chamber music, or even just trying to conduct your own music among some friends. The tangible activity of music-making in an ensemble provides a real insight into composition, and bridges the gulf between the composers and performers. Of course the additional perk is getting to know more repertoire!
2) Learn to improvise on your instrument, and constantly rethink what your instrument can do.
3) Pick up instruments that you do not already play; and find out what the instruments that you are writing for can do beyond what the regular orchestration book can offer! I find that by playing around with the instruments could very well be the source of inspiration. Finally, meet up with lots of instrumentalists to ask and hear what they can do on their instruments!