An award-winning composer who founded the TO Ensemble, Tze Toh helped paved the way for other classical artists in Singapore who dare push the envelope through experimenting and fusing different sounds together. Here, he discusses his group’s upcoming performance at the 2016 Singapore International Festival of Music (SIFOM).
How did you get your start in music? Is it true that you were self-taught?
When I was 10, my mother asked if I wanted to take classical piano lessons with my sister. I‘ve always been curious and inquisitive as a kid, so I thought why not. Those lessons didn’t last very long, though; I was already asking our teacher if I could play her something that I had composed. *laughs*
Yes, I’m pretty much self-taught. I’ve been composing and improvising on the piano ever since I was 10; I guess that’s why my perspective on music is very different from everyone else’s. Everything in this universe is mathematical, and there’s always a logic to things, so that’s how I was able to work out my own audio-visual approach to the instrument.
How did the TO ensemble first come together to make music?
I initially had two groups that experimented with fusion music – one combined Jazz with Indian music, while the other combined Chinese with other forms of improvised music. I eventually combined both groups to create Tze n Looking Glass, the ensemble’s original name that was partly inspired by the otherworldly journeys of Alice in Wonderland.
Violinist Lazar T. Sebastine and saxophonist Teo Boon Chye are the two key members of the group. I don’t think that music can happen unless you really connect with another person, so I’ve been very fortunate to have played music with them these past 10 years. Over time, new key musicians and soloists have also joined us, including violist Benjamin Wong and violinist Christina Zhou, who is now our assistant music director.
You won first prize in a prestigious UK songwriting competition in 2011. What did that experience teach you about being a Singaporean musician?
That whole experience was great because it helped put our multi-cultural way of life on the world map. I’m Chinese, but I actually won the competition with an original fusion piece that combined jazz and South Indian music. That reflects how comfortable we are as a society, with everyone immersed in different cultures, from the food we eat to the traditional festivities we celebrate.
What changes have you seen in Singapore’s music scene over the years?
We started performing original fusion music at the Esplanade around eight to nine years ago, and I have noticed that our audiences here have grown more open-minded when it comes to new and experimental music.
Back then, if people came across one of our outdoor performances, they will leave after 10 seconds if they don’t think that they can understand our music. Now, people will sit and listen for a while to give the music a chance. I think that’s fantastic, because when you have a society that’s open-minded, that’s when anything is possible.
What’s your approach to creating music? Describe the creative process.
When I create new work, I usually write with the musician performing it in mind. Christina and Benjamin, for example, are wonderful interpreters of music. When I compose music for them, I know that my musical narrative will come through. Lazar and Boon Chye on the other hand are incredible improvisers; they add this unpredictable and exhilarating texture to my music with their Carnatic and jazz bebop improvisations.
You’ll be performing at the Singapore International Festival of Music this October. What can audience members expect at your show?
We are presenting our new audio-film work “… And There was N0th1ng”, which is a concert of live music accompanied by sound design and video animation. It explores a complicated relationship between Man and Machine, and is inspired by Mamoru Oshii’s animated film “Ghost in the Shell” and Issac Asimov’s “Foundation and I, Robot” series.
We are definitely excited and particularly proud to be presenting our music in Singapore. I think it’s going to be fun and interesting because I don’t think many people will be expecting a fusion of jazz and Indian at a classical music festival. *laughs*
What message do you want to convey through your music?
I do hope our music is a reminder that as human beings, we are one single race. Regardless of our nationality, race or religion, we all share more in common than we often realise. Music is a perfect example.. If we focus on our similarities rather than differences, I think we are one step closer to creating a better world and realising our potential as a race.