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The Twain Shall Meet - Shaun Ng's bass viol knows no bounds

by Greg Cahill

For Shaun Ng, discovering the viola da gamba proved a life-changing experience. "I personally believe that there is a missing link in our musical heritage," says the 22-year-old Malaysian musician and composer, "as there is no bass instrument—other than the viola da gamba—that expresses this kind of tonality. The larger cousin of the erh-hu [the two-string Chinese violin], to my knowledge, does not exist anymore. The modern reproductions of it are closely related to the cello and the double bass. This is why perhaps many people here possess a special affinity for the cello. But the viola da gamba has many more possibilities than a cello.

"Imagine what one can do with seven strings instead of four!"

Ng, a student at the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music, has been exploring those possibilities in some interesting ways while winning rave reviews. As the founder of the Singapore-based ensemble Musica Obscura, which specializes in medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, Ng is introducing the viola da gamba (also known as the bass viol) and early European music to a larger Asian audience. As a solo artist, he has performed and recorded works by Bach and Telemann, among others. But he also performs contemporary material in a duo with harpsichordist Shane Thio.

As a composer, Ng is helping to bring this ancient European instrument into the modern world. He recently told music writer Rachel Jacques that his mission is "to penetrate the souls of the listeners and to excite their emotions (to use the words of Leopold Mozart), and make accessible and familiar the raw energy and humanistic allusions that thrive in the nature of this music.

"We want to serve as an alternative to the more staid and established classical music conventions and institutions already prevalent in Singapore," he added. "One needs to understand what music is really about. People in Singapore need to be subjected to raw and honest emotion without the glitz and glamour of concert halls."

As a teen, Ng traveled to Europe on a scholarship and has since studied early music with Richard Boothby and Lucy Robinson of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Mieneke van der Velden of the Amsterdam Conservatory, and Philippe Pierlot of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague.

"I discovered the viola da gamba in 1997 when I met José Vázquez, the professor of early music at the Musikhochschule Vienna, while studying modern violin there," Ng says. "The initial attraction was naturally its sound. The viola da gamba possesses a kind of sound that evokes certain emotions—a kind of melancholy that complements such Asian instruments as the Indian sarang and the Chinese erh-hu. That is no surprise since these instruments share many similar technical attributes."

As an associate artist at the Substation, Singapore's first independent arts center, Ng is exploring the boundaries of that instrument. Last August, Ng premiered his own multimedia avant-garde performance piece, Suites of Stranger Taste, Book 1, a reference to a series of works by progressive French viola da gambist Marin Marais (1656–1728). The work employed the viola da gamba in compositions based on Indian ragas and teamed Ng with filmmaker Tania Sng, Bharatanatyam choreographer and dancer Arul Ramiah, and award-winning poet Cyril Wong of Singapore.

"The response was great," Ng says of his growing Malaysian following, an audience that obviously appreciates the bold cross-cultural approach he brings to his works. "As with Suites of Stranger Taste, Book 1, as often as possible I like to reach out to poets, composers, musicians, and dancers in my work. And I'm finding there are many others here who like to experience this form of experimental art."