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Performers(‘) Present 2023 | YST Conservatory 
A ‘New Nanyang Style’? 
From Bunga Mawar to Kampung Spirit

CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter

VAL CHONG, soprano


Bunga Mawar (1997) was the first Singaporean opera written in English, with music composed by the late Leong Yoon Pin and libretto by Prof. Edwin Thumboo. Premiered in 1997 by Singapore Lyric Theater, its Peranakan inspiration brings to the forefront a narrative that illustrates an attempt to forge a Singaporean identity through the opera idiom. Leong’s musical style was described by himself as an ‘eclectic approach of influences’, and in many instances represented the musical exemplification of the ‘Nanyang Style’, a South-East-Asian artistic movement that was rooted in visual arts. 


About a quarter century later, Kampung Spirit (2021), with music by Chen Zhangyi and libretto by Sara Florian, was inspired by Liu Kang’s iconic ‘Nanyang style’ painting of a kampung - ‘Life By The River’ (1975). Through ekphrasis, a reimagined tableau vivant brings the characters from the painting to life in the chamber opera Kampung Spirit. It premiered as two episodes of an online opera film through the Singapore Lyric Opera and National Arts Council's Arts in Your Neighbourhood series and was subsequently premiered live at YST’s Voyage Festival 2022.  


In tracing the roots of Singaporean opera with research into Leong/Thumboo’s Bunga Mawar, Chen/Florian’s Kampung Spirit was in a way a creative response to the ‘Nanyang Style’ approach – with a more contemporary take, which may be described as a way forward with a ‘New Nanyang Style’. 

27 Oct 2023

Composing Time: A Symposium | YST Conservatory 

Buying Time in Nicolaus A. Huber’s ‘Aus Schmerz und Trauer’
CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter
This presentation takes a closer look at the manipulation of time in Nicolaus A. Huber’s solo work for alto saxophone Aus Schmerz und Trauer (Of pain and sorrow). In this work, Huber works with the simplest of musical materials such as repeated notes, note durations, articulation, dynamics, timbre, etc. However, it quickly becomes difficult to assign a meter for certain measures when the composer begins to “buy time” by incorporating short glitches that interrupts the flow of a regular pulse. This fluidity of rhythm is further explored through the use of grace notes, subtle motivic transformations (rhythmic modulation), and the polyphony of rhythmic layers. Huber even ventures into a hint of polystylism with the marking of ‘jazz-phrasing’. The presentation will also explore similarities between Aus Schmerz und Trauer and Vor und Zurück (Before and After), composed in 1981, in which the ‘after’ leaves the listener with an enriched experience of time.

5 Nov 2022

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International Conference at Gnesin Russian Academy, Moscow.
Opera in Musical Theater: History and Present Time
Eclecticism and Hybridity in Leong Yoon Pin and Edwin Thumboo's Bunga Mawar (The Rose) 
CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter

Bunga Mawar (The Rose) is the first Singaporean Opera written in English, with music composed by the late Matthew Leong Yoon Pin, and libretto by Edwin Thumboo. The work premiered in 1997, and was commissioned and produced by the then Singapore Lyric Theatre. It’s Peranakan inspiration brings to the forefront a narrative that illustrates an attempt to forge a Singaporean identity through the opera idiom. Textually, the libretto features poetic soliloquies, recitatives, duets, and chorus numbers, and the pantun, a Malayan poetic form ubiquitous within Peranakan culture.


Within a typewritten document archived along his manuscripts of the opera, Leong penned down his answers to the question of whether the opera projects a ‘Uniquely Singaporean Form,’ or a ‘Hybrid of Influences.’ Musically, Leong describes his own eclectic method of composition and lists a variety of musical idioms that he assimilates in Bunga Mawar - a) Gamelan music of South (East) Asia,  b) Modes of ancient Greece and Rome,  c) 19th and 20th century European Romanticism, and  d) Asian Pentatonicism.

Panned at the premiere, this paper re-evaluates this landmark opera created by two of the most formidable artistic voices of modern Singapore. With access to archival materials, the paper will re-examine how the hybridity of Peranakan culture intersects with the hybridity of artistic forms. 


22 Nov 2021

YST Forum Series
In Search of Singaporean Sounds – Navigating Musical and Cultural Confluences. 

As Singapore’s arts scene matures, musicians are moving away from older models of emulating the West, and increasingly engaged with developing an individual voice. Born and (not completely) bred in Singapore, Churen Li and Chen Zhangyi have pondered over the role that their Singaporean-ness plays in their approach to the art form that they are trained in, which, historically, operates under a Western paradigm. With reference to Yayoi Uno Everett’s taxonomy of musical transference/synthesis/syncretism, they explore possible resonances between Singaporean music and the dynamism of Singlish, while discussing some of the issues relating to identity, diaspora and syncretism through a lecture-recital centred on Singaporean piano music.


Drawing on their embodied knowledge as insiders to this musical and cultural phenomenon, YST faculty explore some of the issues relating to identity, diaspora and syncretism through a lecture-recital centred on Singaporean piano music.

27 OCT 2020

Telling Stories: Performers(') Present
International Artistic Research Symposium 2019  
Intersections in a Triple Concerto for erhu, ruan, and percussion
CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter
with LIKIE LOW (erhu), EMILEA TEO (zhongruan) & YURU LEE (percussion)

My Concerto for Erhu, Ruan, Percussion, and Ensemble 《三人行》(travelling trio) was an exploration of the group dynamics within a trio, the interplay of instruments from diverse traditions, and interweaving threads of musical narratives. Written for the Yong Siew Toh (YST) Conservatory Orchestra for a tour programme titled “Intersections”, it was juxtaposed with music by Vaughan Williams and Walton
in light of the bicentennial commemoration of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in Singapore (1819).

This paper presentation examines the unique circumstances that made this composition possible within the Singaporean musical landscape, and an auto-ethnographical approach reflects upon the collaboration and the contexts of cultural and musical confluences. Conversations and interviews with the conductor and soloists shed light on the collaborative process, examining the intersections of the various spheres of musical interaction between composer, instrument, soloists, conductor, orchestra, and musical cultures.

23 OCT 2019

A different version of this paper was also presented at the

International Conference on Musical Intersections in Practice 2019. Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

Presented by the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble
Reimagining Nature through Music
CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter

As the confluence of cultures within Singaporean and Asian contexts has informed much of my dramatic music, the theme of nature has been a rich resource of inspiration within my instrumental music. Climate awareness, connection to poetry and the presence of identity are some of the sub-themes that arise from a number of these works, ones that take inspiration from nature.


Written to raise awareness for climate change, global warming, and their potentially catastrophic ramifications, Clima (for solo piano) was based on the uncharacteristic cool weather brought about by the monsoon surge in 2018 - a rare occurrence in equatorial Singapore.


Turning to text, poetry about nature, flora and fauna serves as another important interdisciplinary connection to music creation. In Rain Tree (for orchestra), Ho Poh Fun’s poem provided images of the ubiquitous and tropical tree and scenes of Singaporean weather. Kitaro’s Koi, a poem by Hongkong-based Dr Eddie Tay, gave me the creative impulse in creating the percussion concerto A Carp Emerges. In a choral setting of a translation of the Tamil poem Water by KTM Iqbal, the poet ponders the upon the various guises of water, appreciating its clarity and beauty as well as appreciating its powerfully grave potential to take lives.

Finally, as a reflection of identity through Singapore’s national flower, Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, my violin concerto Vanda features a musical fusion of the two parent orchids. The hybrid Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’ was named after the horticulturist, coincidentally resonating with Joachim the dedicatee of Brahms’ violin concerto.

4 DEC 2020

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The Art Song Platform – Art Song out of the Concert Hall
(Goldsmiths, University of London)
'I Possess No Address’ – The Cycle of Song.

Reflecting on recent and forthcoming art song settings of poetry by Singapore-based writers, Chen Zhangyi (composer) and Shridar Mani (co-founder of The Opera People) explore intersections of the creative, collaborative, and performative aspects of curating art song presentations in light of current issues. 


In March 2020, days before all live performances were cancelled in Singapore, The Opera People (TOP) presented ‘In Our Manner of Speaking: The AIDS Quilt Songbook’, a song and poetry recital shedding light on the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS, which included the premiere of Chen's setting of Cyril Wong’s Viral Lode. Under the looming COVID-19 crisis, Viral Lode resonated with people’s new fears and their surreal sense of being in a public space. 


During the lockdown, we saw the transformation of the home into a performing space. TOP's online series ‘Kopi and Song’ presented 10 live-streamed mini-recitals featuring some of Singapore’s most prominent singers. One of these webisodes featured Chen's setting of Sara Florian's Fisherman’s Pantun, where the collaborative process of creation and performance was designed entirely for a digital experience. 


TOP’s 2021 edition of ‘In Our Manner of Speaking - Re-claimed Lands’ will be a return to live performances. It aims to use the genre of art song to address the issues of migration and alienation that emerged in the wake of the pandemic. Newly commissioned for these performances, Chen’s Songs for Mukul seeks to empower the voices of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, who were particularly affected by the outbreak due to the often overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions that they are subjected to. It presents an opportunity to respond to the urgency of a moment of crisis and shed light on social issues through song. 

12 FEB 2021

Beyond Performance_ Embracing Creative a
SEA Music Academy Online - Teaching Music Goes On(Line) 2020
Beyond Performance: Embracing Creative and Collaborative Elements in Music Teaching

17 NOV 2020
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Asian Composer’s League

Eclecticism in an Chamber Opera Trilogy 
CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter
20 OCT 2018
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SNU International New Music Conference & Workshop

Musical Inspirations of Nature, Vernacular Culture and Exploration  
CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter
22 FEB 2018
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Yale-NUS College, Urbanisms Conference 2016 

"Rojak-ness" in Singaporean Music

CHEN ZHANGYI, presenter

A local delicacy that involves an eclectic mix of fruits, vegetables and fried foods, Rojak is often used to describe the cultural diversity that is quintessentially Singaporean. It also serves well as an analogy relating to local concert music, which is marked by the diverse musical idioms and sound worlds. I argue that Singaporean concert music of the last 50 years broadly deals with three issues: traditional culture of various ethnicities, urbanism unique to Singapore, and international influences. This paper will explore a cross-section of the local music literature to demonstrate the range of local concert music, supported with additional musical illustrations from my own work.


The musical works of pioneer local composer Leong Yoon Pin had forged a strong sense of local identity in his iconic choral works such as Street Calls, Dragon Dance, and Lenggang. As a student of Nadia Boulanger, Leong was encouraged to find inspiration within his own culture and background. However, the current musical landscape in urban Singapore offer composers the liberty to pursue and create individual paths without being tied to a single “Singaporean style.” The wide spectrum of “Singaporean styles” is what makes concert music in this pluralistic city sound.

1 APR 2016

Chen, Z. (2023). Composing A Singapore Trilogy through Laksa, Shopping, and Kopi. In S. Weiss (Ed.), Is There Such a Thing as Singaporean Performance? Graz Studies in Ethnomusicology. Institute of Ethnomusicology, University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz, Austria.  

Khoo H. L., Chen Z. Y., & De Jong, K. (2022). Getting to the heart of why students struggle: Motivation in conservatory music students. Asian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(2). 138-151.

Filmer, A, & Chen, Z. (2021). From Intersections to Crossroads: Navigating Interactions between Performers, Researchers, and Composers. Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College, Cambridge University. Retrieved from

Chen, Z. (2019). Intersections in a Triple Concerto for Erhu, Ruan, and Percussion. Conference Paper delivered at International Conference on Musical Intersections at Churchill College, Cambridge University.

Chen, Z. (2016). The Viola as Ariadne? From Choral Work to Viola Concerto. The Journal of the American Viola Society, 32(1), 45-52.
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