Reflections on Weaving Western and Eastern Textual and Musical Elements in Lux Luminosa

A Singaporean Composer in Scotland

My formative experiences in music revolved extensively around choral music. Despite starting piano lessons at age seven, I never really found the impetus of practicing alone. It was however, in context of singing with other people, that I found a great affinity in music making. My experiences singing in choirs across Singapore granted me the exposure to a wide range of the repertoire, spanning Renaissance sacred polyphony, the Mozart Requiem, the fantastical part-songs of the Romantic era, to contemporary works by composers across Asia. In the concert space, Francisco Feliciano, Ko Matsushita, and Zechariah Goh’s music were as frequently programmed as Ēriks Ešenvalds, John Rutter, and Morten Lauridsen. My time in the Victoria School and Victoria Junior College choirs, and later the National University of Singapore Choir and Victoria Chorale, was fundamental to my development. These experiences not only deepened my understanding of choral music but also influenced my own compositions. The eclectic mix of East and West that characterises Singapore’s choral scene has profoundly shaped my approach to composition, leading me to strike a balance between tradition and contemporary innovations.

Singapore is an island state in Southeast Asia, with a population of 5.92 million people in 2023,1 making it similar in population size to Scotland where currently I live (5.44 million people in 20222), but possessing a land area 107 times smaller than Scotland. Singapore is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European cultures, creating a dynamic societal landscape. The music programming across the country resonates with this diversity, featuring a calendar replete with classical concerts that pay homage to Western traditions, alongside vibrant festivals celebrating Asian heritage and contemporary sounds, weaving the varied cultural legacies into a cohesive and vibrant tapestry.3

In what follows, I offer some brief insights about how my recent thirteen-movement composition, Lux Luminosa, reflects the harmonisation of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition with that of Asian textual and musical elements. In writing the piece, the goal was not to eradicate Western influences from my music, but to integrate the influences with personal cultural expressions and my choral education, what Lim Swee Hong argues is a blending of ‘composers who seek to define their identity as Asian Christians while accepting the missional heritage of their faith’.4 A key aspect of the discussion focuses on the middle section of Lux Luminosa, where I attempt to symbolically bridge diverse worldviews and complexities. I do so by incorporating an early High Malay Bible translation in the text-setting, whilst using musical techniques from Southeast Asia to set the Latin text. My aim is to invite conversation about the transformative potential of inter-faith dialogue and cross-cultural narratives, thereby enriching our understanding of theological themes and promoting unity amidst diversity.

The use of text in Lux Luminosa

In selecting the text of Lux Luminosa, the goal was to integrate diverse texts to reflect a mosaic of linguistic and cultural heritages. Consequently, the material was primarily drawn from three areas – the advent Great O Antiphons in Latin, the King James Version (KJV) New Testament in English, and the Keasberry New Testament in Malay. The texts were then set for choir, organ, and percussion, with solo singers emerging from within the choir. The pilot performance of selected movements was given by the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir in November 2023, directed by Dr Katy Lavinia Cooper.5

The Keasberry translation is one of the earliest authoritative translations of the bible in Malay, the vernacular spoken in modern-day Singapore and Malaysia. In 1843, Benjamin Keasberry founded the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church in Singapore, where he was soon commissioned by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to produce an authoritative translation of the bible in High Malay used in the Straits Settlements.6 Although there were extant Malay translations of the bible by Melchior Leydekker under the auspices of the Church in Batavia under Dutch administration, the edition was marred by poor grammar and idioms that did not translate well into Malay.7 Keasberry thus engaged his longtime Malay teacher, Munshi Abdullah, who was a prolific scholar involved in translating school textbooks into Malay,8 and previously served as a scribe to colonial officer Sir Stamford Raffles.9 The endeavour almost did not come to fruition due to opposition from the funders from the LMS, who were concerned that Munshi Abdullah, a Muslim scholar, was involved in the translation.10 The project was also derailed by the later closure of the LMS mission in 1847, which put into question the longevity of the translation project.11 Nonetheless, Keasberry pursued the translation as an independent missionary, and successfully published it in 1852.12 Keasberry passed away before completing the Old Testament translation.

The historical narrative of conflict with the funding agencies, the unprecedented collaboration between Keasberry and Munshi Abdullah, and the eventual completion of the translation, resonates with the intended thematic essence of Lux Luminosa, where the dualities of eastern and western cultures, the ancient and contemporary, diversity and unity, can find harmony in spite of their differences.

Figure 1: Opening bars of the 5th movement in Lux Luminosa.

Musical Examples from Lux Luminosa

While in the first four movements of the work, I explore aspects of quasi-monophonic textures that reflect on medieval chant and early 20th Century choral anthems accompanied by organ. I bring the listener to a markedly different sonic experience at beginning of Movement 5 (see Figure 1): a baritone solo sings over a long melismatic “O”, but this is inflected by sounds generated by the choir. The bird-singing of the Asian Koel, which often finds voice at the crack of dawn across Singapore, joins the baritone soloist near the end of the phrase. The koel continues to sing as onomatopoeic elements are sung by the choir, imitating the layered sounds of a gamelan ensemble, and gradually reintroducing the Latin text over the texture of cyclical patterns (see Figure 2).

[O Radix Jesse. Link https://kenntay.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/05-Lux-Luminosa-O-Radix-Jesse.mp3]

 

Figure 2: Onomatopoeic syllables forming the accompaniment for the melody in treble voices.

Since the mid-19th century, Western music has largely conformed to standardised intonation practices, with equal temperament becoming the prevalent tuning system.13 Contrastingly, the gamelan tradition celebrates a rich diversity of tunings, varying distinctly across regions, with tuners and musicians often bringing their unique interpretations of intervals.14 Each gamelan therefore possess its own “dialect”, or sonic signature, based on its geographic roots.15 In writing this movement, similar to Neil Sorrell’s approach in Missa Gongso for choir and Javanese gamelan, my approach was to allow the choir to sing in whatever tuning they were accustomed to, namely the “dialect” of Western concert tuning. In one dimension, the decision was practical, given the premiering choir had only two Sunday rehearsals to familiarise themselves with 9 of the 13 movements. In another, the context of learning and performing in the familiar “dialect”, rather than a rigid adherence to an indigenous model, resonates with the inherently fluid nature of gamelan music interpretation and performance.16

 

[Segala Lembah-lembah. Link https://kenntay.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06-Lux-Luminosa-Segala-Lembah-lembah.mp3]
Figure 3: Adapted joget rhythms in “tra-la-la-la”, serving as accompaniment to a quotation of Handel.

In Movement 6, I use Keasberry’s translation of Luke 3:5, a passage where Luke echoes the prophetic verses from Isaiah 40, famously adapted by Handel in his renowned work Messiah, specifically in the tenor air Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted.  To further underscore the intertextual play, I inserted a direct quote from Handel in the middle of the piece (Figure 3), with the choir echoing Handel’s familiar opening aria (Figure 4). This intentional musical allusion not only pays homage to Handel’s masterpiece, but also aims to enrich the narrative connection between the texts. The composition also interlaces adapted rhythms from the traditional Malay joget dance with concise chromatic motifs. Additionally, it incorporates my interpretative melodic word-painting to depict hills, mountains, and valleys, employing sharp, angular melodic lines to evoke the contours of these landscapes. Drum-like onomatopoeia adds rhythmic diversity alongside the auditory illustration of the text’s topographical elements (Figure 5).

Figure 4: The opening of the tenor line in Handel’s tenor air for Messiah.
Figure 5: Jagged and angular melodic lines in Soprano and Tenor voices.

Concluding remarks

Lux Luminosa reflects the diverse choral traditions and the vibrant cultural mosaic emblematic of my native Singapore. The University of Glasgow Chapel Choir’s rendition of this work was a testament to their dedication and adaptability, showcasing their remarkable ability to master a substantial repertoire within a condensed timeframe. Their performance was not merely an exhibition of musical excellence, but also a profound act of intercultural exchange and understanding through a new composition.

Author

  • Kenneth Tay is a composer and PhD candidate at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in partnership with the University of St Andrews. His ongoing research and musical interest is in the writing of sacred music through the syncretisation of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition with Asian spirituality.

1. Singapore Department of Statistics. “Infographic - Singapore Population 2023.” Accessed 10 January, 2024. https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/media/files/visualising_data/infographics/population/population-trends2023.ashx.
2. National Records of Scotland. Scotland’s Census first results. September 14, 2023 Accessed 10 January, 2024. https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/news/2023/scotland’s-census-first-results.
3. For example, the Tapestry of Sacred Music Festival held regularly in Singapore brings together practitioners of different faith communities in sharing of their cultural expressions in secular spaces.
4. Lim Swee Hong, ‘Just Call Me by My Name: Worship Music in Asian Ecumenism’, The Ecumenical Review 69, no. 4 (2017): 507.
5. The performance and its recordings can be accessed at https://kenntay.com/compositions/lux-luminosa/.
6. Robert A. Hunt, ‘The history of the translation of the Bible into Bahasa Malaysia’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 62, no. 1 (1989): 38.
7. Ibid., 41.
8. Hadijah Rahmat, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi: His Voyages, Legacies and Modernity, vol. 1, Singapore: World Scientific, 2020, 26.
9. Ibid., 24.
10. Leona O'Sullivan, ‘The London Missionary Society: A written record of missionaries and printing presses in the Straits settlements, 1815-1847’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 57, no. 2 (1984): 85.
11. Robert Hunt, History of the translation of the Bible into Bahasa Malaysia, 41.
12. Ibid.
13. Michael Halewood, ‘On equal temperament: Tuning, modernity and compromise’, History of the Human Sciences 28, no. 3 (2015): 17.
14. Neil Sorrell, ‘Issues of pastiche and illusions of authenticity in gamelan-inspired composition’, Indonesia and the Malay World 35, no. 101 (2007): 32.
15. Ibid.
16. Neil Sorrell, ‘Gamelan: Occident or accident?’ The Musical Times 133, no. 1788 (1992): 68.
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