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Zechariah Goh: an interview with the Singaporean composer

Singaporean composer, Zechariah Goh, was commissioned to write 'The Spirit Rejoices', the compulsory set piece for the final of the inaugural World Choral Conducting Competition, which took place in Hong Kong in July 2019. MUSIC:ED talked to him about his work as a composer and the choral scene in Singapore and Asia.

Singaporean composer, Zechariah Goh, was commissioned to write The Spirit Rejoices, the compulsory set piece for the final of the inaugural World Choral Conducting Competition, which took place in Hong Kong in July 2019. MUSIC:ED talked to him about his work as a composer and the choral scene in Singapore and Asia.

MUSIC:ED: Thank you for talking to us, Zechariah Goh.

Zechariah Goh: It’s my pleasure.

How did your commission for the World Choral Conducting Competition come about?

Two years ago, I was a jury member for the Hong Kong International Children’s Choir Competition. Leon Tong [the President of the World Youth and Children Choral Artists’ Association (WYCCAA), the organiser of the competitions] told me about this new conducting competition, and mentioned to me that they would like to have an original compulsory set-piece for the last round. Since the event would be happening in Asia, Leon felt it would be good to have an Asian composer writing this piece. I’m very honoured that he asked me to be the composer.

How long did it take you to write?

Usually, my process is six months to write any piece of music. The initial stage for me is to hear the voice of the choir. In this case it was very hard – I didn’t know the choir! I have to play back in the voice of the sound of the choir in my head when I compose. Every choir is unique – the voices are unique, the timbre is different, the tone colour is different, the size is different. I must have a sound in my head to work with so in this case, I knew this was a chamber choir, I knew that they were very virtuosic young singers, in their early twenties and thirties, so I think that helped me have an idea of their sound in my head when I was composing.

I had to think about something suitable for the event and for the competition. It took me a while to get a good text because I was told not to use too many Chinese words because this would be one of those rare events where a European choir will sing Chinese song. There are more choirs in the East singing European repertoire than Europeans singing Asian repertoire.

So I chose a text and then started research into the background of the text, which angle I’m going to use, and how I’m going to bring the audience into the sound world created by the text.

I spent maybe one or two months on research and study and reading and thinking, with the whole process of conceptualisation probably taking about to three to four months. The actual writing was not so long, maybe two months. So that’s roughly the process that I go through taking on a new piece.

Julia Selina Blank and Utopia & Reality Chamber Choir
Winner of the 2019 World Choral Conducting Competition, Julia Selina Blank, directing Utopia & Reality Chamber Choir in a performance of Zechariah Goh’s commission, The Spirit Rejoices © Chili Production

Is it the same process for any kind of piece?

It depends on the skills of the performers. If it’s an orchestral piece or a larger work, I will have to start way earlier, one year ahead for an orchestral piece or even more, two years ahead. So I am at different stages with different pieces – some are at the research part, some at the writing part and some actually negotiating, talking to the choir and thinking about what they want as well.

What’s your physical process – do you write by hand, use software?

I memorise the text first, or at least 70%, and then I take long walks, like Beethoven did! I find this the best way to compose – it helps with the flow of the music, because what you can come up with in your head when you compose and play back from the start of the piece while you’re walking, only those parts that matter stay. But if you are the computer typing away, the computer remembers all of the music for you. It’s not so fluid. So part of my composition process is when I walk and think about the music and think about the text, and then I feel that this is more from within me. After this, I will experiment at the piano with sounds and effects and ideas, and create sketches. I write a lot of sketches.

After that, I’ll start composing at the computer, which is a tool for me as well. I believe that the inner hearing part of a composer is more important than the physical, immediate response from the computer.

So that’s my process for choral pieces.

Do you always compose a cappella?

I rarely write with accompaniment. Maybe 10 of my 60 works are accompanied. I like a cappella very much. Most competitions are a cappella and the majority of my works are commissioned specially for competitions.

What kind of organisations commission you to write pieces?

In the beginning, it was choirs from Singapore who commissioned me to write for overseas choir competitions. I’ve written about 60 choral works – maybe more than two-thirds were written for competitions. So there’s a certain angle that I write that will showcase the choir – the virtuosic aspect, the diversity, the contrasting sections in the music. But it all happens in a short span of three to four minutes, so I have to make things work in four minutes.

Later, I had commissions from the Diocesan Choral Society in Hong Kong, a very strong choir singing in Hong Kong and around the world. They have been commissioning me since 2011 almost one or two pieces a year for the past 10 years. I’ve started working with Taiwan choirs as well. There are many choral foundations running choir activities for different kinds of choirs – women’s choirs, children’s choirs, mixed choirs. All under the umbrella of the foundation. There are various foundations working in Taiwan and they’re commissioning me to write music as well. So far, commissions have come from Asia. I have not been commissioned by a non-Asian choir yet.

Is that something you’re looking to develop?

I’m keeping it open. It gives me a different kind of creative inspiration when working with different choirs, different ethnicities, different regions of the world. This competition is a good way to get to know people from other parts of the world – I’m not so familiar with countries outside Asia.

Do you self-publish or do you have a publisher?

I self-publish but now some of my folk-song arrangement pieces are published by a Singapore publishing company called Muziksea. They publish works by Singaporean, Indonesian, Philippine and Malaysian composers. Other than that, I publish my own works.

What’s the composition scene like in Singapore?

There’s a very healthy composition commissioning scene in Singapore. On average, maybe 10 works a year by young composers. In the 80s, the government and National Arts Council of Singapore had a Choral Commissioning Grant which choirs could tap into to commission composers to write music for choirs. It has since stopped maybe 10 years ago because the organisation felt that the choirs were able to find their own funds. But it also helped to improve the awareness of the choirs to think about commissioning and finding money to get composers to write music. It is now something that is going on all the time. This is very healthy and is growing. We have also events such as reading for young composers where a choir, for example of Singapore Youth Choir, SYC Ensemble Singers, led by Jennifer Tham, did a reading session for five or six young composers. We are having a choral composition competition in Singapore as well.

Is there a strong network across Asia of different composers and composers’ societies?

We have our own Singapore composers’ association, Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS). I’m a director of the association, which has 2,000 members. It’s not just classical, it’s the whole range of composers of all different backgrounds – popular, classical, traditional.

It’s a very active scene in the composers’ association, not just the classical music part of it, but generally across different styles.

In Singapore, is there a hierarchy of different styles of music?

There are different people with different ideas, of course. My personal take is that Singapore is a very eclectic society with influences from all over. Singapore is a multicultural society so we are born into diversity, so I will say that we like differences. Of course, we have composers who are of writing ‘art for art’s sake’ music as well, but generally most composers write music that most audiences are able to digest but at the same time, we encourage cutting-edge new works as well.

You also teach at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts – how do you work with your students?

I have 13 composition students. They stay with me for five years and, of course, choral writing is one of my emphases. Training in choral writing is not something that every conservatory has to provide for students, but I feel it is something I do well and also what the world needs now for choral music! I have supported students with guidance and provided opportunities to have their music read as well.

We also did something called the Choral Folk Song arrangements course. This is part of the search for identity in choral music. Choral music is the most direct because of text – it is very directly linked to our roots, so to speak.

In the modern Singapore, everybody dresses the same way – you cannot tell what ethnicity they are from – but through working with my students, I find out more about their background. I ask them to look for a song that their grandfather would have sung, because we are looking for oral transmission, and then they research and arrange the work for choir.

So they will have to tackle issues such as what kind of romanisation text they would used for non-native speakers. Romanisation includes different styles like the Han Yu Pin Yin (汉语拼音) for some of the Chinese pronunciation, or the Giles system, also commonly used in the early 20th century.

So we discuss such things and we discuss tonal inflection. In a lot of the Chinese languages, there are pitch elements.

How are Chinese language tones reflected in the composition?

In Mandarin Chinese, there are four tones and a fifth tone which is a variation of the way we speak. So for example, yesterday [during the final of the World Choral Conducting Competition], the choir who sang my work also sang the tones without learning the language. The pitches came out of the words.

I think exposure [to Chinese language repertoire] is important. 20 years ago, we sang hardly anything from Latvia or from Scandinavian countries, but now it’s quite a common thing for Singaporean choirs as well. We are very adventurous because we are a multilingual, multi-racial environment – this allows us to try new things including singing different languages.

How much time in your working week do you spent composing compared to teaching and other activities?

24/7! It’s hard to not think about composition while you’re working – you cannot be separated.

I think of it all the time but once I start work, I cannot stop because there is a certain momentum… once you stop, you disrupt that. So for example, I just finished a choral work for Diocesan Choral Society (past pupils from Diocesan Boys’ School and Diocesan Girls’ School in Hong Kong) called Dixit Dominus for the 150th anniversary of the school. I chose the text for this because it says whatever we do is in vain unless God watches over us, whether it is building the school or carrying on its tradition (it’s a Christian school). This is my first Latin text.

Now I’m working on a mixed ensemble piece for Chinese and Western instruments for a [Beijing] Central Conservatory concert in November and that’s what I’m writing now (the deadline’s today actually!).

I stagger different kinds of compositions along the way but I can only write one piece at a time. Some people can do two, but I cannot, I have to finish one before I start another one.

About Zechariah Goh

Zechariah Goh at the World Youth and Children's Choir Festival 2019 in Hong Kong Cultural Centre © Chili Production
Zechariah Goh at the World Youth and Children’s Choir Festival 2019 in Hong Kong Cultural Centre © Chili Production

As a Senior Lecturer in composition at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore and a composer of music ranging from choir, symphonic band, wind ensemble, chamber music to large scale orchestral works, Zechariah Goh Toh Chai has carefully fused South East Asian-Chinese with Western traditions.

In 1999, he received the David and Gunda Hiebert Scholarship award to work on his Master of Piano from University of Kansas, during which he was appointed as a graduate assistant by the university to teach undergraduate music theory. Subsequently, he worked on his Doctorate degree majoring in composition under the guidance of Dr Charles Hoag. Zechariah Goh was also awarded the prestigious Anthony Cius Prize for outstanding student composer from the University of Kansas for the academic year of 2001 and 2002. Before embarking on his studies in the United States, he was a familiar face on the local Singapore music scene, teaching bands and choirs in Singapore. He has been a lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts since July 2002.

As a composer, Zechariah Goh is frequently commissioned to write music for symphonic bands and choirs. Since the 1990s, his choral works have beReminiscences of Hainanen premiered in Singapore as well as winning many international competitions. Dr Goh has conducted numerous folksong arrangement and choral improvisation workshops for choral directors and composers across the Asia Pacific region, including cities such as Bandung (2017), Kuala Lumpur, Kaohsiung, Taichung, Taipei, and Tianjin, China (2018). Additionally, he was invited to lecture and give workshops at Oklahoma State University and the University of Kansas, USA.

He adjudicated the World Children and Youth Choir Competition in Hong Kong (2017), and the Bali International Choral Competition in 2018 and the Malaysian Choral Eisteddfod, 2018. His commissioned work, “纪元晨光”, performed by the Diocesan Boys’ School Choir (Hong Kong), won the Best Male Choir at the Music Competition at the World Choir Games in South Africa, 2018. Performances of other choral works, Reminiscences of Hainan, In the Bamboo Forest (performed by the National University of Singapore Choir) were awarded the top prize at the Llangollen International MBlossomsusical Eisteddfod 2018, and Assassination, performed by Diocesan Choral Society, won the Grand Prix award at the Tokyo International Choir Competition 2018.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered Blossoms for Large Orchestra in 2017. Zechariah Goh collaborated with Ding Yi Music Company on a multi-disciplinary production with Chinese chamber music, documentary film and ceramics entitled Songs of the Dragon Kiln in 2017.

For his artistic excellence in the field of music, Zechariah Goh was conferred the Young Artist Award (Music) in September 2003 by the National Arts Council, Singapore. The award was presented by the President of the Republic of Singapore at Istana. Zechariah was awarded the Artistic Excellence Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore in 2013. Zechariah Goh was also presented with the distinguished Alumni medal from NAFA in 2014.

Website: Zechariah Music