Profile: The Teng Ensemble

Published on 2 August 2016

Groundbreaking musical group The TENG Ensemble blurs the lines between classical and contemporary.


At first glance, The TENG Ensemble appears to be a classical Chinese instrumental group. Once they start playing, however, things are not so simple. Inspired by Singaporean heritage and Asian sounds, TENG’s music marry traditional and contemporary sounds in innovative ways.


It all began in 2004: an ensemble group of Singapore instrumentalists took part in the year’s National Chinese Music Competition and bagged first prize in the ensemble category. The winning musicians formed TENG. Today, the group comprises six core artists on pipa, cello, gehu, guitar, sheng and countertenor vocals, in addition to their resident arranger.


After playing in various venues and working through trial and error, the group found their direction. “We realised that there was a demand and need for new sounds in the Singaporean music landscape,” explains Dr Samuel Wong, artistic director and pipa player for the ensemble.


“When The TENG Ensemble first started as a Chinese instrumental ensemble, there was only the Singapore Chinese Orchestra as a professional ensemble, as well as various amateur community centre Chinese orchestras. Our group was unprecedented in Singapore. Over time, we’ve evolved beyond being a Chinese instrumental ensemble to that of an intercultural ensemble, inspired by music of our time and of our past.”


Creating a sound that is indeed unique to Singapore, TENG merges popular styles with classical techniques and gives a modern touch to fond tunes of yesteryear. The latest in their repertoire are adaptations of folk songs, children’s rhymes and lullabies commonly heard in Singapore. Says Wong, “We have deconstructed them, modernised them, and made them sound completely new, yet retained the warmth of familiarity.” The ensemble intends to feature these pieces in their upcoming concert, Stories From an Island City.


“We wanted to create a set of music works that spoke about Singapore’s heritage,” says Wong. “We hope it can give an insight into our musical past, to help us make greater sense of our present.”


The ensemble looks to reach out to the broader geographical neighbourhood, with ambitions to promote Singapore’s heritage music on the world arts stage. In the pipeline are more music videos and social media engagement aimed at sparking interest in the history of Southeast Asian music and its place in the modern world.


Also on the drawing board are plans to nurture the future of local music through an academy for children and youths. Says Wong, “We hope that through this, some of the talents we have developed can start ensembles of their own and continue to evolve the musical landscape here.”

Stories From an Island City is on at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 12 August. See here for details.

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