July 21, 2014

Composer profile – Tze Toh

“Then there’ll be a pot of gold beside you,” he joked, when I mentioned I was wearing a rainbow coloured top. Up-and-coming young composer Toh Tze Chin, or Tze (pronounced ‘Zee’ when Anglicised) as he would like to be known, was meeting me for the first time to talk about his works and upcoming concert.

Tze, who has a computer science degree, turned to music after working for 2 years and coming to the realisation that he didn’t want a desk bound job relating to his field of study. He then enrolled in Laselle-SIA college of the arts to pursue a music diploma, and has been composing and performing seriously since 2007, and his compositions have won awards and have been performed locally and overseas at international events.

Listening to his first album from 2011, Stories from Wonderland, his compositions come across as a blend of mostly jazz infused with local elements, a sort of ‘fusion’ music, and he likens his music to the local culture: unique, diverse and yet harmoniously co-existing side-by-side. He describes his music as diverse, from the melodic and lyrical, to descriptive and evocative soundscapes; from traditional/Indian music to jazz or classical influenced parts.

The Looking Glass ensemble had its beginnings as a trio (piano, saxophone, drums) with Indian violin, or with erhu (a Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument). In his search for an identity for a Singaporean’s music/a Singapore sound, he founded Tze n Looking Glass, inspired by the diverse cultures here and Singapore’s unique identity as a gateway between east and west, a melting pot of sorts, and started exploring with Indian and Chinese fusion. Tze decided one day to try putting both ethnic stringed instruments together with the jazz trio, and the rest, they say, is history. Of course the combination of Western, Indian and Chinese instruments was not without problems: all three use different tuning systems, different modes, and read different types of notation. The differences were eventually ironed out with a lot of time jamming together, listening, learning about each other’s cultures (in ethnic instruments, culture and even religion is inextricably linked with music) a bit of transcribing.

Because he was trained as a jazz pianist and mostly self-taught as a composer, the way he creates music is different from other classically-trained composers. He first imagines the sound world, then uses the instruments and textures to recreate what he imagines. His compositions are diverse but can be separated into two separate paths, fusion jazz and film music.

Tze counts video game music composer Nobuo Uematsu and film composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ennio Morricone as his primary influences. He is fascinated with the minimalist style which Sakamoto employs and the layering of textures in his music. He enjoys the challenge of writing music to fit a specific time limit, emotions and action. “In film music you have to be concise. It’s all about capturing the moments and feelings in the scene within the length of it. If it’s 15 seconds long then you only have 15 seconds to work your magic,” he explains. He has written for numerous animations as well as films; his most recent being the original score for filmmaker Royston Tan’s short film, Popiah.

When not writing for films, each of his compositions usually lasts longer than 5 minutes. He likens an experience when listening or performing music to a journey, an exploration into a ‘wonderland’ where the unexpected and impossible can happen. He expanded his Looking Glass Ensemble into an orchestra for the next album, Return to Wonderland. He had in mind an ‘epic’ sound which he wanted to create, and decided to try writing for an orchestra. There was one problem: he had no idea how to do so! He then got his hands on all the resources on scoring, orchestration and instruments he could find and read late into the night. The result was a highly successful Return to Wonderland concert and recorded album featuring the now expanded Looking Glass Orchestra directed by Tze, released in 2012. His upcoming concert, Alternate Worlds, sees the addition of a chorus into the mix. Since then, with the fluid nature of the ensemble and their appearance in many guises, Tze decided to shorten their name to Looking Glass, appearing as TLG, or Tze n Looking Glass.

Tze strongly believes in the transcendence of music across cultures, boundaries and genres, and that opportunities should be given to anyone who wants to try making music together. The TLG is a platform for classically and traditionally trained musicians to be able to experience other kinds of music, such as jazz, Indian music, Latin, and to learn how to improvise collectively. It is also a space for musicians of different backgrounds to interact and learn from each other. As such, he regularly holds music-jam sessions, and welcomes budding musicians who would like to join him.

In this upcoming concert, Alternate Worlds, musicians move out of their familiar territory to explore different kinds of music: the string quartet gets to explore funky blues, the wind quartet, video-game-soundtrack-inspired music, and the audience is in for a treat – to experience different musical worlds all in one concert from choral, film, jazz, latin to improvisations and more.

Come and watch Tze and the Looking Glass Orchestra in their concert Alternate Worlds | もうひとつの世界 happening next Saturday, 26 July 2014, at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Get yourself lost in the convergence of the different musical worlds as they explore jazz, tango, film, anime,  and video game music. Also presented will be a special performance of the film score for Royston Tan’s Popiah. Email TLGO.Singapore@gmail.com to purchase tickets.

Meanwhile, here’s the trailer for their upcoming concert:

and the highlights from their Wonderland series:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *