One Small Voice: Eric Watson

Published on 28 January 2018

Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, ERIC WATSON, shares insights on creating works across cultures.

By Pamela Ho

Much Chinese music is based upon folk songs; and China has so many different regions with cultural differences that you’ll find variations in the way the musicians write their melodies, the scales they actually use, and the way they play their instruments. I can’t even pretend to have chipped at the surface.

Coming from a Western music tradition, I’ve had to navigate my way around Chinese orchestral music. For instance, I composed ‘Nanyang Gate’ for the sanxian, a three-stringed instrument that does not exist in the West, at least not with contemporary instruments. Also, many Chinese instruments — as compared to Western instruments — appear at first to be limited in their tonal capabilities. Because they’re not chromatic instruments, I’m restricted as to what I can actually write.

So I do go to the players in the orchestra and ask, ‘Is this possible with your instrument?’ There’s no point in me trying to write like a Chinese composer because I’m not one. What I try to do is capture the essence of the music. For example, there’s an ineffable quality to Nanyin music that is almost timeless, there’s a stillness about it, and that’s its essence. The essence can also be in the creative process, like the way gamelan [traditional Indonesian music] has notes that interlock with each other — that’s the essence of what the gamelan style is.

There isn’t a simple answer to how I interpret fusion. Using a food analogy, I see rojak as fusion; but then I discover there’s Indian, Chinese and Indonesian rojak! So as a Western composer, I would kind of produce Western music but there would be elements coming from various sources that get lost in the mix; and hopefully, what you get is music that is, at a very deep level, a combination of the two.

Trying to get to that point usually involves an immersion in the culture. When I wrote ‘Tapestries’ for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), the first thing I did was not to write the music, but to find out more about the Chinese diaspora — the early immigrants who left their families to go into the unknown — and to come to some kind of understanding about it. From there, the music flowed.

The SCO is a world-class orchestra partly because it pushes barriers. And I’ve learnt something very interesting in my recent travels in China: even China’s traditional customs and rituals have moved on with the times. So why can’t Singapore move on, but in a Singapore fashion? The SCO is building a repertoire which is Singaporean, and which is giving it, on the world stage, an identifiable identity.

ERIC WATSON is the composer-in-residence with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO). In 2006, he was awarded the first prize in the SCO International Composition Competition. Born in the United Kingdom and trained at Trinity College of Music in London, his experience embraces opera, musical theatre, film and television. In 1990, Watson moved to Singapore and has composed and arranged music for the 2001 and 2007 National Day Parades. He is an associate lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences and a part-time lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

NOTE THIS - How to Compose Across Cultures?

Credit: Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Start by studying other composers’ scores. Then listen to live music to watch the players.

Immerse yourself in that culture. Each has its own unique values and creative processes.

Trust your own voice and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

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