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Music

Phoon Yew Tien

Composer, arranger and educator.

Calendar

Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

Nowadays, it takes more courage to write in a conservative manner than to be avant garde. In that sense, I prefer to be true to a language I feel for. As a composer, I am always faced with self-doubt over the quality of my work, but the point is [in] the process of getting over it. I always learn something new when I take on different writing opportunities and commissions.

Born in a pre-independence era on 21 August 1952 in Singapore, Phoon Yew Tien straddles with ease the divide between Western classical and Chinese orchestral traditions. His musical style—based largely on a Chinese idiom but inflected with contemporary tones—has earned him numerous commissions from the likes of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Today, he is the nation’s most-recorded composer. A 1996 recipient of the Cultural Medallion, Phoon is also an active collaborator with artists from different art forms, who use his music as the backdrop to dance or theatrical productions. Phoon’s major works, many of which have been performed and recorded by orchestras around the world, include Han Shi (1983), which draws upon classical poetry for inspiration, and Variations on an Ancient Tune (2000), which fuses Eastern and Western musical vocabularies.

Growing up in the turbulent years of modern Singapore’s founding years, Phoon Yew Tien learnt music the hard way—by transcribing popular tunes by the likes of Zhou Xuan after hearing them on the radio. The first instrument the young Phoon picked up was the dizi (Chinese flute) while in school, but his ear for music meant that he was selected for the Singapore Chinese Youth Orchestra at age 19. Under the tutelage of the late respected musician Leong Yoon Pin, Phoon was introduced to Western classical music. Initially slated for a career as a professional flautist, Phoon realised his talent was in drawing from the inspirations of Chinese music, Malay folksongs, and other regional tunes rather than in perfecting breathwork. "The flute was a struggle for me. I realised there were so many things to learn and so many mistakes to correct," he said in an interview with Tutti magazine in 2012.

With this fortuitous twist of fate, Phoon soon became a prolific composer. His oeuvre of work, including Ping Diao (1984), Meditation of a Poet (1987), Memories of March (1985), Kaleidoscope (1992), Memories (2003), Ringtone Medley (2007), Chinese Music for All Seasons (2006) and many others are a vivid reflection of Singapore’s socio-cultural landscape, which in turn had inspired the works. In 2000, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra premiered his Variants on an Ancient Tune as one of a series of new works commissioned for the orchestra’s 20th anniversary. A joint presentation by the governments of China and Singapore also saw his solo work performed by the Beijing China Film Orchestra at the Beijing Concert Hall. In the same year, Phoon was asked to re-arrange Singapore’s national anthem.

More than just a lover of music, Phoon is a man devoted to cultural pursuits. He is a frequent collaborator on interdisciplinary projects. Transparent and spare, with judicious and masterful use of tone colour in his compositions, Phoon’s music is an evocative backdrop to works by dancers Lim Fei Shen, visual artist and poet Tan Swie Hian, dancer-playwright Goh Lay Kuan (Nu Wa) and playwright Kuo Pao Kun (Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, The Evening Climb, Lao Jiu). In addition, Phoon has also written music for television, including the successful Mandarin drama series, Grandpa Meat Bone Tea.

On an international scale, Phoon’s works have been published and recorded extensively on different labels by the Russian Philharmonic, the Shanghai Philharmonic, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, the Taipei Municipal Chinese Orchestra and the Kaohsiung City Chinese Orchestra.

Phoon has lent his expertise as a committee member of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts for the National Arts Council. He also served as associate conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, and as Head of Music at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

The music master is also no stranger to accolades. As a young adult, he won the Distinguished Prize in the National Song Writing Competition for three consecutive years from 1977 to 1979. Later on, while on a Singapore Symphony Orchestra scholarship at the Queensland Conservatorium, Phoon received the Dulcie Robertson Prize in composition three times (in 1980, 1981 and 1983) for best composition. On his return to Singapore, he received the prestigious Yoshiro Irino Memorial Prize for Composition, awarded by the Asian Composers League, one of the highest awards to be given to a young Asian composer.

In 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2004, he received the top Local Serious Music Award by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore. And in 1996, Phoon received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music.

Today, Phoon continues to compose, arrange and teach music privately.

Timeline

21 Aug 1952

Born in Singapore.

1958 to 1968

Enrolled in River Valley Primary School.
Enrolled in Kim Seng Secondary School.
Enrolled in Queenstown Secondary School.

1968 to 1969

National Theatre Chinese Orchestra.

1970 to 1973

Sectional Leader, National Theatre Chinese Orchestra.
Deputy Leader, Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra.

1974 to 1979

Professional Member, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

1977 to 1979

Received the Distinguised Prize in the National Song Writing Competition for three consecutive years. For the composition Our Song in 1977, Nanyang University in 1978, and Song for Workers in 1979.

1979

Acting Conductor, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

1980 to 1983

Received Singapore Symphony Orchestra Scholarship to study at Queensland Conservatorium of Music.
Enrolled in Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Australia. Received the Dulcie Robertson Prize in composition by Queensland Conservatoriium of Music in 1980, 1981 and 1983.

1983

Commissioned by the Queensland Conservatorium of Music to compose a Fanfare for Brass and percussions for the 1984 graduation ceremony.
Graduated with Bachelor of Music in Composition and Flute (double degree), the Queensland Conservatorium of Music.

1984

Received Yoshiro Irino Memorial Prize for Composition by the Asian Composers’ League.
Symphonic work Ping Diao premiered by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Full-length Incidental music for the play Oolah World commissioned by National Arts Council and premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival.

1984 to 1992

Assistant Conductor, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

1984 to 1999

Lecturer, Harmony and Composition Techniques, Music Department, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1985

Symphonic work Variations on Dayung Sampan premiered by the Singapore Youth Symphony Orchestra.

1986 to 1994

Member, Performing Rights Society, UK.

1987

Chamber work Meditation of a Poet premiered by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1988 to 1997

Committee Member, Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts.
Member, Arts Resource Panel, National Arts Council.

1988

Full-length dance drama music Nu Wa commissioned by National Arts Council and premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival. Chamber work Variants on Kuan San Yue premiered by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

1998 to 2008

Panel member, Arts Bursaries, National Arts Council.
Panel member, Shell Scholarship for the Arts.
Panel Member, Rotary Club Scholarship.
Panel Member, Zubir Said Scholarship.

1990 to 1992

Associate Conductor, Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

1992

Chamber orchestra work Kaleidoscopes commissioned by National Arts Council and premiered at the Singapore Arts Festival.

1993 to 1996

Head of Music Department, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1994

Recorded with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Conservatory Symphony Orchestra (Ping Diao, Han Shi, Homing Fish and Nuo Dance).

1995 to present

Member, Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.

1996

Received Cultural Medallion for contribution to music.
Received Top Local Serious Music Award by Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.
Orchestra work Overture – Bu Bu Gao commissioned and premiered by Singapore Chinese Orchestra during the orchestra’s inauguration concert.

1997

Received Top Local Serious Music Award by Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.
Recorded with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow (Variations on Dayung Sampan, Dialogue for Oboe and Orchestra, Variants on Kuan San Yue, Meditation of a Poet and ASEAN Anthem).
Chinese Orchestra work Nu Wa performed and recorded by the Kao Siung City Chinese Orchestra, Taiwan.

1998 to 2008

Arts Advisor, National Arts Council.

2000

Rearrange the Singapore’s national anthem Majulah Singapura at the request of the government.
Variants on an Ancient Tune premiered by Singapore Symphony Orchestra one of a series of new works commissioned for the orchestra’s 20th anniversary.
Solo composition concert, Beijing Concert Hall, China. Featured performances of his works by Beijing China Film Orchestra.

2001

Received Top Local Serious Music Award by Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.
Confucius – A Secular Cantata commissioned by National Arts Council for the Singapore Arts Festival.

2003

Composer-in-residence, Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Symphonic poem Memories commissioned and premiered by Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

2004

Received Top Local Serious Music Award by Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.
Jatinder’s China Dream (for Indian drums and Chinese orchestra) commissioned and premiered by Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.
Chinese orchestral works recorded by Singapore Chinese Orchestra for the CD Chinese Music for All Seasons.

2005

Orchestra work Village Pasir Panjang commissioned and premiered by Singapore Chinese Orchestra on their England and Hungary concert tour.

2007

Appointed by the Singapore Government to compose and rearrange symphonic music and marches for the National Day Parade.

2008

Judge (Singapore), ASEAN Anthem Competition.

2009

Received Meritorious Award by Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.

2012

Received Top Local Serious Music Award by Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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