Exclusive Interview with Dr Samuel from The Teng Ensemble

Singapore is home to many talented music artistes, with familiar ones such as JJ Lin, Stefanie Sun, Ado and Tanya Chua. There is also a steady rise of homegrown musicians worth listening to, such as The Sam Willows, Daphne Khoo, Nathan Hartono, and BECKA.

To end off our month-long celebration of all things Singaporean, let’s get to know another local group that has been growing, and living up to its reputation of being exciting, moving and enigmatic. Enjoy this instrumental medley of Chinese Period theme songs while you read:

The logo of The TENG Company, is the calligraphic structure of 鼟 tēng, an ancient Chinese script for an inconceivable sound—similar to that of a drum. It is the most complex word in the modern Chinese dictionary.

The TENG Ensemble is a critically acclaimed group which aims to be “a leading and inspirational contributor to a Singaporean sound that is current, innovative, visionary and urban—guided by Asian aesthetics”. The ensemble bridges the traditional and the contemporary with the use of technology. Their works are often inspired by Singapore’s heritage, and are representative of the Singaporean culture and the Southeast Asian musical language.

We foster exceptional Singaporean musicians and provide them with an eco-system to experiment and create original music. As (a non-profit) arts company, we are focused on the development of a Singaporean musical identity, while promoting Singapore as a regional centre for the development and presentation of the performing arts. From performances to workshops and research, we offer both an entry point and a deeper understanding of Singaporean music to all.

— The Teng Ensemble

Since 2009, The Teng Ensemble, which is the core ensemble of The Teng Company, has been appealing to a wide audience beyond the circle of Chinese music enthusiasts. They have produced 14 videos of their own, and have been featured in local and even overseas media. They are able to introduce people who do not usually listen to Chinese instrumental music, to the Chinese instruments through their music; these professional musicians merge sounds commonly heard in the present with those of the past, and popular styles with classical techniques. Here’s a wonderful example of that magic:

Think you know what Chinese music is all about? Then read on for our exclusive interview with Dr Samuel Wong, the Artistic Director and pipa player of The Teng Company (this phone interview has been edited for clarity and continuity):

The Teng Ensemble’s video, Evolution of Disney Princesses (East-West Instrumental Cover), hits us right in the feels. What inspired the group to create an East-meets-West medley of our favourite, magical Disney tunes?

Well, I think the first thing to note is The Teng Ensemble is an East-meets-West ensemble. It is a combination of four things; East and the West, and it is also a combination of the traditional and the contemporary. Within the six instrumentalists in the ensemble, there are two traditional Chinese instruments (the pipa and the sheng), and there are two traditional western instruments (the cello, and sometimes the voice). But there are also two urban, I would say, popular instruments which are contemporary instruments (the keyboard and electronics/synthesizers, and the electric/acoustic guitar). So all our work encapsulates all these. Doing an East-Meets-West is very normal for us, because all our work and all our pieces, and all our music are like that. But the truth to do Disney, was largely because a lot of us grew up with Disney as well. And we had the ability to arrange, and to make twelve of the Disney Princess’ theme songs weaved together into one giant song.

A lot of us are very trained musicians. All of us have studied in music schools, and were all on scholarships before we came back to Singapore. I was on a Hokkien Huay Kuan scholarship where I was sent to the UK to do my PhD in music before I came back to Singapore. The sheng player, Yang Ji Wei, he’s very prolific. He’s a Singapore Youth Award winner, and he’s also a National Arts Council scholar. He was sent to China to study this Chinese instrument called the sheng. Because of the skill levels of all the musicians, we thought that it’d be nice to outreach to a lot of our younger audiences, especially a lot of our students, because we know they like Disney too. We grew up with Disney too; all of us grew up with Disney, so we thought that it’d be a nice way to put the pieces together. Besides Disney, we have done a lot of other pieces as well, which focuses on Singapore’s heritage tunes, old Singapore tunes, old songs that people tend to forget. We’ve also done other evolutions (such as Adele’s because we like Adele a lot). The ensemble has the capability to do this, because everybody in the ensemble is really such a highly skilled musician. And each person in the ensemble is a teacher who has many students as well.

Everyone looked like they were having fun in the video! What has the process been like, from the music arrangement, to the filming?

We usually spend quite a bit of time on the music arrangement part, because we understand music very well, and we want to provide a very high-quality experience in terms of music. It goes through me first, because I’m the Artistic Director, and I would commission a composer to write it, and I would work with the composer to create this piece. Following which, we would bring it to the musicians, and they would try to jam out this piece, and then find ways in which we can probably improve the piece. After the piece is done, we would rehearse it. And this whole process, the shortest probably takes about a month and a half to two months; the longest it has taken us is six months. Sometimes the pieces take longer to create, because it might be a little bit more difficult, or some things just don’t blend that well. Then we fine-tune it. Then we record the piece, and we bring it to a film director (we work with multiple film directors). The film director listens to the piece, and decides what the treatment is. Then I talk with the film director, and we create the visual experience; how we want to present the piece. Following which, we film the piece. The filming takes about one to two days. The musicians basically sit down and put on makeup and clothing, and film at a go, so that’s like 10 hours a day. And then it goes into an editing process, where the editor takes the footage and edits it, using colour grading and stuff like that. Lastly, it will come to me, and we will make sure the edits are in time, and everything’s perfect, before we release the video.

This is the process we go through for every single video. We do a video almost once a month. There’s a multitude of videos that are backlogged which are happening. Some of the videos was a way to outreach to younger audiences, especially those who don’t go to concert halls to watch us. We could become a portable kind of experience. Through the videos, we could do a lot of things that our performance could not allow us to do, let’s say for example, effects, certain feelings, certain angles, lighting. So things like that will make the entire music piece an experience.

I was listening to songs in the playlist on YouTube, and I really like the Evolution of the Chinese Period Theme Song!

We create evolutions to outreach to new audiences, who don’t normally listen to Chinese music. So we might have a stereotype with regards to Chinese music, or think that ‘Chinese music is really ching-chiong cheena, and very old. The evolutions help to change their perceptions of what we can do, or what we can sound like. The beautiful thing is that, every single one who is performing is a Singaporean to be grouped together. About two years ago, we were mentioned in the National Day Rally, by the Prime Minister, and he was the one who called us ‘the Singaporean sound’. He said that we created something that was uniquely Singaporean.

How did The Teng Ensemble get started, and how has it progressed to be a critically-acclaimed group of current?

In 2005, we started The Teng Company to promote Chinese music. There were a lot of ensembles and Chinese orchestras around, but there were not enough companies which provided workshops or education that pertain to Chinese music that was done in English. So we wanted to do that. However in 2009, a friend of ours, who is the Artistic Director of the Singapore Night Festival, asked us if we could perform. At that period of time, we had no intention of performing, because all of us had already been soloists when we were young. If you look at our bios, all of us had already travelled the world, and we won all our competitions when we were 16 or 17. By the time we came together, we were in our late 20s already. The Night Festival said it would be great if we could do one or two pieces, and it would be fun if people could see you play. And so what I did was I gathered a group of friends, basically who was available. And all these friends I knew were excellent musicians. We thought we would play the performance, and then after that, get the money, split the money and then that’s it, we will never perform again. Our purpose was not to form a full-fledged ensemble; our purpose was still education because a lot of us still identified ourselves as professors, conductors, teachers, lecturers. We didn’t think that we would want to be performers because we thought that our prime was over. When we were young, we were all classical musicians or performers. Everybody was performing internationally. When I was young, I was performing in Copenhagen, London and I was representing Singapore. My students at that period of time had won some competitions already. I didn’t think that I would want to revisit this whole performing experience.

In 2009, at the Night Festival, we played two versions of Chinese folk songs; we just jazzed it out a bit. The brief that was given to us was that it was meant to be a mass appeal thing and not meant to be classical; it just needed to be hip and happening. So we created and put some electronics in traditional Chinese pieces like Flower Drum Song, which honestly is a bit old sounding, but we put new life into it. What we didn’t expect was the audience’s reaction, because there were 3000 people in the Night Festival, and all of them loved it! They were having cameras flashing non-stop as we were playing. We didn’t realise what was going on because this was not a concert hall which we were used to; it was an outdoor stage, which we never really used to perform in. The next thing we know, SPH came to look for us, and asked if we could play for the O-MY Blog Awards. We didn’t have any songs because it’s just an ad-hoc ensemble, so we just played the same two songs. After that, Keppel asked us to play for the launch of one of their ships. I said “Huh? You want to hear this on the launch of one of your ships? Okay.” And so things went back and forth, it became bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I wasn’t worried about the musician quality because the musicians are already top grade. I was more worried that we have nothing to play, because there are no songs of the ensemble. It doesn’t make sense. The purpose of this ensemble was an accident. It was a very organic type of experience. We wanted to form it, and then disband it. But because there were so many performances, we couldn’t disband it. In fact, Esplanade came to ask us if we wanted to grow it. They wanted to give us a whole concert in the Esplanade by ourselves. And we were like ‘Okay’. We did our first concert, one in the afternoon, one in the evening, it was sold-out,–full-house. The year after, they said, “Why don’t you do another concert?” And then we did a second concert, and we tried to release a CD, all for our fans. We really did it just for fans, people who like our music. What we didn’t expect was that the CD got 4.5 out of 5 stars in The Straits Times. We were like “Oh, this is really going somewhere”. We started getting more and more support, and a lot more people started recognising what we were doing. We felt that it was very unique to Singapore. So it was only in 2015 that we decided to become a full-time arts company. You can imagine, from 2009 to 2015, these few years, we ourselves were laughing at the ensemble; we didn’t think that we could make it. But we did. It was like a happy accident. So now the issue is how to grow this ensemble, and how to make it more international.

In your opinion, how/what does technology do for the Chinese music industry? How do you intend to bridge the gap between traditional and modern?

I need to explain to you, on many different levels, how technology has improved, or worked for Chinese music. For example, the instrument that I play, is the electro-acoustic pipa (which we created at The Teng Ensemble). You can plug it in, into an app, and you can play metal. Not like your normal, traditional pipa. There are electric pipas out there, but we have our own version of it, and that is one way in which technology forms our instruments. Subsequently we work with a lot of electronic beats and synths. Electronic beats and synths are not created by any instruments but by the computer programmes itself. So these synths are triggered by the synthesizer as well as a Macbook in which the synthesizer player Huang Peh Linde plays.

What do you think is the Singaporean musical identity?

I don’t think there is one concrete Singaporean musical identity. There are many different identities. It’s like you’re trying to typecast and basically stereotyping “This is definitely it, you know. It’s like that.” For example, ‘All Thai food are spicy’. But there are Thai food that are not spicy; would you say that’s not Thai food? So in the same way, the Singaporean musical identity just needs to be created by Singaporeans, and needs to reflect the Singaporean thought-process. We will have many, many different identities. You would want to go to the food court, and not eat the same thing all the time. You would want to go to the food court, and choose from different stalls. We need to have multiple identities. Because this enlivens and enriches our society, and makes it all the more worthwhile. What is pop music? There are so many types of pop music: Britney Spears is pop music, but Katy Perry is also pop music, and so is Justin Timberlake. And so is Madonna. They are four different artistes, but are they an American music identity? Yes, in a way. They are all part of the American music identity. It’s just that they have carved a brand for themselves. In the same way, we can put this perspective back to Singapore: Charlie Lim is Singaporean, iNCH Chua is Singaporean, Teng is Singaporean. We are all made in Singapore, creating musical identities. It’s whether the audience like the songs; it’s like some people like bak kut teh more than ice kacang, but they still buy it.

What would you like to say to all our budding musicians, young or old, in Singapore?

You need to have a lot of passion, and you need to have a lot of perseverance because going down music is not a very carved path. You really need to persevere and have passion for what you do. Another thing that I noticed with a lot of young students nowadays is that they place very little emphasis on technique. They just want to play but they never train on how to play; they never train their voice, they never do scales. It is very dry, and it’s very boring, but it helps you to think better, or to make music better. Technique is very important. That’s the only thing that will make you last. When times washes away your music, the technique will ensure that you will have the capability to constantly create new music. You find that in America, there are many one-hit wonders; they just create one song and after that you never hear of them again. This technique needs to be harnessed, it needs to be trained. In this aspect, I find that besides the qualities of passion and perseverance, technique is the thing that will save you, when everything else fails.

A big shout out to all teachers, Happy Teachers’ Day!

A good teacher,

like a good entertainer,

first must hold his audience’s attention,

Then he can teach his lesson.

Thank you Dr Samuel for this interview! If you ever need help on your musical journey, remember to come by Bloom School of Music & Arts and chat with us:

Here’s a last piece of music by The Teng Ensemble, to remind us of who we are, and what we can achieve. Let’s keep our dreams within reach, and remember that practice makes perfect. Onward Singapore!