The first time the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performed a Singaporean composition on tour, it was a piece written by (now) 33 year old Chen Zhangyi. Dr Zhangyi is an alumnus of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music where he is now an Assistant Professor. He is also a past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award (2014) and the Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence (2013) which is offered by NUS Centre For the Arts each year.

As one of the rising stars of Singapore’s modern composition movement, we sat down with him to discuss where he finds inspiration and how the Paul Abisheganaden Grant influenced his creative development.

Q: You’ve been widely acclaimed for your original and creative presentations and approaches. What inspires and motivates you?
A: Nature inspires my instrumental music, but for vocal music it is everyday stories and local themes. Laksa Cantata [Zhangyi’s homage to Bach's Coffee Cantata] is about food and couple dynamics. Window Shopping is about retail therapy and self-reflection, where two characters are the same person just twenty years apart. I’m currently writing a new piece called Coffee for One. These three will form a trilogy of chamber operas that are connected by everyday local topics from which we’ve spun human stories.

Q: You have been a part of many remarkable collaborations and commissions. What has been the most rewarding experience of your career so far?
A: There’s not one single most rewarding experience, though one that is very special for me was my first real commission which was for the NUS Symphony Orchestra. The piece is called Rain Tree and it’s one of the most played orchestral pieces that I’ve written.

The composition was inspired by the poem Rain Tree by Ho Poh Fun, which describes a very common tree that we see throughout Singapore in just three or four stanzas. Beautiful lines about the shade it provides and how the leaves proliferate really shaped the different movements of the composition. For this reason it is still one of the most special pieces that I have written and it has since been performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic and the Singapore Symphony.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra tour in Europe last year was also very important as it was the first time the Orchestra had toured with a Singaporean piece. It was a national honour to be picked as a representative and the piece I created, of an ethereal symphony, will probably be expanded into a full symphony in the future.

Q: How was the Paul Abisheganaden Grant useful for your development as an artist? Could you tell us more about the experiences it funded?
A: I used the Paul Abisheganaden grant to go to take a course in contemporary music in Paris. The experience was very enlightening in terms of the different styles that were in vogue in Europe. These contrasted with my understanding at the time because I did my studies in the United States and Singapore.

While in Europe meant I also attend the Bartók Festival in Hungary, where maestro and composer Péter Eötvös workshopped our creations with an Italian group called Alter Ego. This experience changed my approach to composition and put me on the path to the work that I do now at NUS which is composition analysis and contemporary music performance.

Q: Many of our students are aspiring artists who have to juggle the arts with academic commitments. What advice do you have for them?
A: There are two musical tracks within NUS: you can do music as a major at the Conservatory, or as an elective or CCA or through CFA, which is obviously more fun! When it’s a profession, music can stop being fun as there’s pressure to perform and deliver at a certain level all the time. It can be really stressful and take away the joy that you may have had in the arts.

I always aspired to be a violinist but when I entered the Conservatory as a composer, violin playing became a hobby. It became so much more fun when it wasn’t my profession! In this way, balance is important.

If you want to do music or the arts as a profession it is pure hard work and a constant commitment. You have to tell your friends ‘sorry, I can’t go out because I have to compose’ and ‘I can’t go for that movie because I have to practise’. It’s real and it can be terribly lonely, solitary work. Yet if that’s your passion, then so be it!

Q: Do you have advice for anyone who may want to apply for the Paul Abisheganaden Grant?
A: Ultimately, it’s how you have already contributed to the music scene, and your potential to further influence your chosen field that will determine the merits of your application. I think they are the two main things: be visible in your contribution to the community and demonstrate that the project you want to pursue after you receive the grant will be of significance.

Applications for the 2018 Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence close on 29 December 2017. Aspiring artists from any genre are encouraged to apply. For more information, please download an application form.

Photo: Wasin Prasertlap