Arts & Culture

The TENG Company on Dialect Music and Remembering Heritage

Symphony of sight and sound

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Beyond preserving our heritage in the forms of architecture, fashion and delicacies, The TENG Ensemble have decided that the musicality of our roots is equally important. Priding themselves as a leading and inspirational contributor to the Singaporean sound, their decision comes as no surprise and just in time for the Singapore Bicentennial this year.

Since 2016, they’ve embarked on a research process into the music of Singapore’s early Chinese migrants, and after four years, this journey is finally ready to be shared in a one-night-only concert. The audience will experience eight original commissioned works together with visual anecdotes of their research experiences.

It will be a journey of going back to a Singapore we might not have known, with featured instruments that are found only in traditional folk ensembles. These discoveries have been made possible only with the generous sharing from a community of first-generation masters, luthiers, instrument dealers and protégés from the local Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka music traditions.

The concert is not merely about a lived past, but it is also a modern reinterpretation and, perhaps, reinvention for us to carry into the future.

B-Side interviews Dr Samuel Wong to learn more about the intentions and processes behind this documentary-concert.

How did the documentary-concert idea come about?

The idea for the Heirlooms documentary-concert came about as we were working on The Forefathers Project, a four-year research project by TENG to uncover the origins of Singapore’s Chinese music.

Many of us may not be aware that Singapore’s early Chinese music was, in fact, migrant folk music from the south of China. To trace the lineage and evolution of the craft, we embarked on The Forefathers Project in 2016 to learn about the ebbs and flows of dialect music from these pioneers and share their legacy.

We interviewed and learnt from a community of first-generation masters, luthiers, instrument dealers and protégés of local Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka music groups. Our musicians also picked up folk instruments typically used in these traditional music, such as Gaohu (Cantonese), Nanpa (Hokkien) and Teochew Guzheng.

Just like our forefathers who adapted and localised traditional music to make it their own, TENG will also put a fresh spin to these folk tunes by integrating it with contemporary styles and influences, thus creating eight new commissions that reimagine the sounds of Singapore’s Chinese forefathers. We hope that these reimagined tunes will resonate with a wider audience during Heirlooms and inspire a greater appreciation of our rich heritage.

Why not just feature the music? Why is the visual element crucial to the Heirlooms experience?

During our research and interviews with the cultural groups, we collected anecdotes from the musicians and the cultural groups on the uphill task and significance of preserving the legacy of folk music in Singapore.

To share these stories with a wider audience, we decided to present snippets of these interesting interviews and anecdotes with our pioneer masters as multimedia content. Alongside the new commissions during Heirlooms, we hope to engage with the audience through a symphony of sight and sound.

We hope that this innovative form of presentation will deepen the way the public learn about our heritage, as well as provide a meaningful and memorable encounter to encourage our audiences to explore and embrace these music traditions.

Share with us how the process has been like from research to reaching out to the dialect groups and eventually working towards the concert.

The process of the concert started in 2016 with fieldwork, following which there was an artistic process with TENG’s composer in residence, Chow Junyi, and the Ensemble went about creating and buying some of the dialect instruments. The Ensemble then went about rehearsing the new works, which were inspired by Singapore’s dialect traditions.

The fieldwork process where we reached out to the various dialect groups, instrument dealers and instrument makers took about a year. During this process, we filmed our experiences and rehearsals with this community of music makers.

Then we undertook a re-imagining process, which lasted for about a year and a half. With Junyi and music producer Bang Wenfu, we created eight unique works that were inspired by our newfound music education and our findings from the various dialect groups. Rehearsals took another year, and we had to source for the dialect instruments and adapt to performing on them.

Were there any challenges that you faced?

The nature of the project involved working closely with some of the older practitioners of this traditional folk music. While they were very open and willing to share their experiences, it took some time to build a rapport with them and for them to be comfortable enough to open up and share their expertise and experience with us.

At the same time, with their music being based heavily on oral traditions, a lot of care had to be put into making their knowledge and teachings tangible in the process of adapting them into our newly commissioned pieces.

We also had to learn how to play on some of these dialect instruments. Unlike Chinese orchestral instruments, these instruments require a different sense of touch and sensitivity. We even had to reconstruct some of these instruments, working alongside luthiers in Singapore, as some of these instruments are no longer available for purchase.

What are some fun facts you discovered about Singapore’s Chinese dialect music pioneers when you embarked on this journey?

Our Singaporean dialect music pioneers were innovators in their own right. In the early days of Singapore, the pioneers wrote pieces, adapted new styles and even invented their own instruments. The culture of innovation was embedded in our forefathers’ DNA!

20 years from now, do you think these traditions will still exist or will we have new ones taking their place?

The continued existence of these dialect music traditions is dependent on the efforts of our present and future generations to preserve and promote them.

However, just as our forefathers who adapted and localised traditional music to make it their own, traditional Chinese music also has to constantly evolve to widen its reach and resonance among the audience. By continuing to reimagine the possibilities of Chinese music through the fusion of the East and the West, traditional and contemporary, TENG hopes to raise the profile of traditional Chinese music among the public, empower them with a deeper understanding and appreciation, and keep the heritage alive for our younger generations.

We hope to be a part of the new wave of dialect music, creating and innovating new works in the future for these instruments and traditions. We also hope to grow new and younger audiences who will gain an awareness of dialect music and appreciate its nuances and heritage.

The TENG Ensemble Presents Heirlooms — Reimagining the Sounds of our Chinese Forefathers In Collaboration with Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay on 11 October 2019. For more information, read here.

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