Composing our own (foreign) rituals | An interview with Diana Soh

Kupka's Piano is incredibly excited to be performing this coming Saturday night (September 2) at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. In addition to a sizeable new work by Australian composer Elliott Gyger, and our own Liam Flenady's composition braneworlds, we're particularly thrilled to be presenting Incantare : Take 2 by Singaporean composer Diana Soh. Hannah chatted with Diana a few days ago to ask her about the work and her life as a Singaporean composer living in Paris.

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Hannah Reardon-Smith: Hi Diana, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me! We're really looking forward to playing your piece at BIFEM, and would love to find out a bit more about it, but first: could you tell us a bit more about yourself? What's your back-story, and how have you got where you are today?

Diana Soh: I started learning the piano at age four and and singing in my early teens. Composing thus came very organically, because music was always a big part of my life I suppose. Also, all music students (at least in the school program that I was in) were required to do stylistic writing and a bit of composition, etc. One day we had a guest composer present some contemporary music and sounds and well, the rest is history…

HRS: You're currently based in Paris. What's it like for you there? Could you run us through a 'typical' day-in-the-life of Diana?

DS: Paris is a very vibrant city, I’m spoilt for choice here when it comes to concerts/shows/exhibitions, etc. And of course we eat well here! I quite like this city... I used to go to as many concerts and shows as I could, but these days it requires a bit more organisation with a toddler in tow. That being said, children's shows are actually very good also! 

For now, my typical day is a juggling act between mommy-duties and composing. I'm usually up by 7am and we have a good family breakfast to start the day and touch base. After which I take my daughter to daycare and then it's work work work till it's time to fetch my little one home. Sometimes I give choral workshops or composition workshops to children but I generally limit that to not more than once a week.  

HRS: Moving on to the piece, Incantare : Take 2 is sonically a rather pointillistic, percussive work. On stage it is very active, with all performers being required to move rapidly between sounding techniques. To me, it sounds as though each of the six miniatures that make up the work form their own 'constellation' of points, perhaps with part IV being something of an anomaly – a microscopic nebula of high pitched tones. Did you have any specific visualisations as you composed this work, words or images to represent in sounds?

DS: Sometimes when I'm watching live concert I like observing the body language of musicians. The little gestures like unconscious tapping of feet, twitches, eye contact, etc. provide a lot of information and contribute to the experience of the piece. (For me at least!). The breath of the musicians, some count with their teeth… it's interesting. 

Anyways, I thought why not use “that” as material to compose with. So I used some utterances, and tapping and sliding of feet as musical material. All these things that “ritualised” concert music deems as undesirable; the things we practise away can also be made into something worth listening to and observing. 

As for the pointillistic sound world, because the starting point itself was the sound of tapping, everything else sort of grew out of that. So there’s a lot to listen to in this piece but a lot to look at as well. 

While the piece is carefully choreographed, one can choose not to look at the musicians and to just take in the aural material and the piece would still work sonically. But because such sounds are so distinct, we hear that it points to live interaction and movement on stage. 

HRS: You mention ritual, and with a name like Incantare, there is an obvious reference to both ritual and recitation. Does this relate solely to the ritual of Western music performance or does it relate to other rituals or to the idea of ritual more broadly?

DS: Yes, of course. As I mentioned before, the impetus for this project is about taking all the undesirable stuff; things that you are not supposed to do, and using that as compositional material. All societies have some form of ritual, whether musical or religious or socio-cultural and they are important because they provide structural points or containers used to hold otherwise scattered details of life.

I find even daily rituals are rather interesting to observe… For functional purposes, rituals are really great. I like being rather ritualistic about my daily routine because its simply more efficient and productive. But in a concert setting, when everything is slightly coded and repetitive, we sometimes need to make second takes. I think we know what to expect only if we are steeped in that particular tradition, but how well do we really understand the significance of a foreign ritual? Or even our own? 

HRS: On the other hand, the work has a distinct sense of fun. Does this playfulness often come through in your music?

DS: I'm a 'the glass is always half full' kind of person so I think it does cut through in most of my music.

It's serious cultural work that we do, writing music, but I cannot help but infuse some of my music with positivity and "light" (as in lumière...) – it's part of who I am and I think there's a lot of pretentious suffering in a lot of contemporary music today. Yes, every artist must inhabit his or her wounds and some of my music does have less desirable "flavours" but, I mean, some music today can go into really unnecessarily dark places which I tend to filter out a little. But I am aware some people in the contemporary music world don't like that... because they think an artist must be complex and miserable. They confound the two. I think an artist needs only to be aware. 

HRS: Speaking of light, have you spent any time in Australia – the sun-burned country? What are your thoughts on hearing that your music is to be played here?

DS: Yes, my uncle and his family lives in Brisbane and I've spent some time visiting them. Great Beaches and BBQ! 

I'm really happy my music is played in Australia and that it has the chance to travel there when I can't. Honestly, I do not know the music scene in Australia that well but now I definitely will take time to at least google it! Hopefully I'll get the chance to visit and to work directly with Australian musicians in the near future.

HRS: And we'd love for you to visit! You're from Singapore, a remarkable cultural melting pot a mere skip and a jump from our southern continent. How do you feel Singaporean culture might (or might not) feed into your music today? Is there anything you especially miss about home?

DS: I've left Singapore for a while now, but I regularly return mostly for family visits. I think that growing up in Singapore made me extremely adaptable and flexible. It also made me very hungry for contemporary/experimental music because there was not much weird and wonderful stuff going on back when I was living there. And so, when my world opened up I just became very greedy and very excited about the freedom that such creation can have. Deprivation sometimes does help to propel one forward. I miss the food and my family very much. I also miss that I can walk around till late and not have to worry one bit about my personal safety. 

HRS: And finally, what's on high rotation for you at the moment? (What are you listening to, watching, reading, etc?)

DS: I just listened to some neoclassical Stravinsky. It has never been my cup of tea and I wanted to see if my taste has changed since… I am also catching up on season 7 of Game of Thrones and I re-watched Richard Linklater’s Before… series on my long flight from Paris to Singapore. It's so weird to watch his accidental trilogy and to watch how the characters age so naturally… It's like watching a video of friends! 

I’ve just finished reading a collection called Fairytales for the Disillusioned (a collection of short stories from the 'decadent' literary movement) but the highest rotation of all would be reading The Hungry Caterpillar and l’Ane Trotro Fait Dodo every night! =)

HRS: Sounds lovely! Check out Possum Magic if you want some great Australian children's literature ;) Anyway, thanks for chatting. We can't wait to perform your piece and we look forward to a future potential Australia visit!

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