Back to the Future from the Baroque

by Justin Cheong


Something really old is about to become really hip!
The 20th century witnessed a resurgence of interest in the 500 year old viol (or viola da gamba) for the authentic performance of early music. But come August, the founder of early music group, Musica Obscura, Shaun Ng, will be making a radically cutting-edge step for the instrument in a collaborative performance that sees him cross-pollinating the media of music, film, dance and poetry.
The performance is titled Suites of a Stranger Taste, Book 1, a reference to a series of works by progressive French viola da gambist Marin Marais (1656-1728). In a programme as unconventional as Marais, Ng will compose and perform the accompaniment to a film created by Tania Sng, an Indian dance by Arul Ramiah and a poetry recital by Cyril Wong. Ng's long-time friendship with Wong made for a better understanding during this unusual collaboration. "Performance poetry," Ng explains, "is something which is often done very badly, because it's too easy to get carried away and end up writing a 'song'. We decided that I should have the freedom to give his poetry a different interpretation through my music."
A love for Indian culture and music prompted Ng to improvise on a tradition Indian raga and employ the talents of dance Arul Ramiah, whose choreography is based on the Bharatanatyam school of dance. Ng feels that early music and Indian music share many similarities, especially the art of improvisation and ornamentation. He reflects: "I do sometimes imagine that perhaps somewhere in history, these two cultures have met."
The performance will involve an improvisation of the Charukeshi raag in a non-metered form within a cyclical rhythmic structure. "Its supposed form should be no different from a traditional raga. The only things that I cannot recreate are certain ornaments, which aren't easily executed on a fretted instrument. Hopefully, one will forget that I am playing a musical instrument of Western origin."
Finally, multimedia forms a central theme in the performance. Ng articulates succinctly: "In our culture of television and film, what better way is there to reach out to audiences?" Ng intends to go beyond music, sound, noise, silence and emotions in an aural and visual experience, which incorporates a film by Tania Sng on the issues faced by Singaporean women.
"We developed this theme to explore the struggles of women amidst the lessons and fears faced in life, "Ng elaborates. "The music used to accompany her creation was composed along these lines to give the audience a more intense and heartfelt experience."
Held at The Substation, the performance will take advantage of the intimate venue to educate audiences on the viola gamba's reticence and poetry. "It has already missed out the best of the 1800s and 1900s," says Ng. "I hope it will be welcomed in the 21st century as the musical instrument that best describes the 'voice' of humanity." With a young artist like Ng as a proponent of the viola da gamba in such innovative new forms, it certainly looks like this ancient instrument can achieve the very goal.
Suites of a Stranger Taste, Book 1, on 30 August at The Substation - Guinness Theatre.