Taking Singapore classical music beyond its shores: An interview with Diana Soh
Described as “a composer to follow” by French media, Diana Soh is considered one of Singapore’s most successful classical musicians abroad. The 38-year-old, currently based in Paris, kicks off our new interview series that explores the journeys and aspirations of local classical musicans making their mark overseas.
Born in 1984, Soh’s first musical training came in piano, voice, and composition, all done at home in Singapore. She graduated from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore in 2007 and moved to New York to complete her doctoral studies in Music Theory and Composition at the University of Buffalo.
By then, her talent had already long been recognised. With interests lying in writing music that explores “performance interactivity”, she spent two years at the highly selective IRCAM Cursus programme in France studying computer music programming. In 2012, she was appointed Composer-in-Residence at the Conservatoire D’ivry sur Seine. In 2015, she received National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award.
Despite her youth, she has received numerous commissions from prestigious institutions, festivals, and ensembles around the world. She has worked with renowned groups like the Arditti Quartet in the United Kingdom, Austria’s Klangforum Wien, and Denmark’s Athelas Sinfonietta.
The A List spoke to Soh to learn more about her journey, her upcoming plans, and what it is like to be a classical musician representing Singapore abroad.
What is something about being a musician — especially one based away from home — that many people don’t know about, or don’t see?
We spend a lot of time on trains and planes and living out of a suitcase, and also we never get to truly visit cities that we go to for work. We feel like nomads, and so we get incredibly excited if locals back home even want to talk or work with us. (At least for me, it is the case!)
Homesickness is real and there will always be a certain sort of longing for validation from our homeland and family no matter how successful we might become abroad. That, and when visiting a new city, the first thing I Google is “Singaporean / Malaysian restaurant”.
How has being in Paris and other parts of the world overseas shaped and helped you develop and grow as a musician and composer?
Paris is actually a very good place to be for a contemporary composer or musician as there is a proper system in place and a supportive industry such that writing music itself can be my bread and butter.
That is not to say that it’s not difficult to get to such a point where it is possible. It is very competitive in a lot of ways and, in the beginning, I had to supplement my income by conducting choirs, giving workshops, etc. But I think the only way anyone can grow artistically is from exposure, competition, and the necessary time and space for self-reflection. Exposure to other sorts of artists and art forms as well, and a city like Paris, provides that.
I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to write so much and to be constantly practising my craft and testing weird ideas out with my musician friends. In doing so, I learn to be brave, [grow in my craft], and keep learning and creating meaningful experiences first for myself, and hopefully for others.
Can you tell us about some work you’ve done that you’re especially proud of, or have deeper impressions of?
Tu es magique for female youth choir SSA (Maitrise de Radio France) this year was especially important on a personal level. It was crafted just after the COVID-19 lockdown period – I hadn’t seen my family for a while, I had just given birth to my son, my grandma passed while I was away and even professionally speaking I was in quite a pickle. I felt isolated and disempowered.
So I’m especially proud of the positive message in that work despite the circumstances in which I wrote it. I was so pleased it really resonated with the girls in the choir as well.
The piece speaks about freedom, the courage to be unabashed about who we are, and the power we all have within us. The young ladies from la Maitrise de la Radio directed by Sofi Jeannin worked so hard on it and it was beautifully premiered during Festival Presence. You can still stream it here (around the 43” mark).
Can you tell us about some of the greatest challenges in your journey so far, and how you have dealt with them?
It was challenging in the beginning because my family was completely against me being a singer/musician and worse… a composer! Their concerns were that I would not make enough money, that it was not a normal life, and that I would never return. All valid concerns, I suppose, but time itself dealt with that one.
Then there came a point where I had to juggle between work and being a mum. We had minimal help from our families as both my in-laws and parents lived far away. So we had to be very disciplined and schedule all aspects of our lives because life as an artist is not always very compatible with having children.
The systems in place are usually for parents with nine-to-five jobs, and [as it is] it is so difficult to have a career and raise children on a typical work schedule. [Along with] the guilt that society places on working mums and [the guilt we place] on ourselves… it’s madness!
But I’ve been very fortunate to have help from my agent in organising my projects and producers who are very understanding. I’m still dealing, of course, as our children are still very young, but being protective of my personal time has really helped to improve the work/life balance.
The greatest challenge however will always be the internal battles and the fear that you are not enough, i.e. the unhealed traumas that we pick up along the way. It can also be very challenging when the decisions you must make, to [stay aligned] with your values, are in contradiction to what the world wants you to do
If you could sit down to dinner with a musician, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Probably Bernstein, because he seems like the kind of person that knows how to have a good time and probably has a lot of stories to tell…
Can you share about your upcoming projects and any upcoming performances of your works in Singapore?
My upcoming season includes two operas: Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, which will be premiered at Festival Aix en Provence in July of 2023 and is nominated for the Fedora Prize; and The Carmen Case in May 2023, a co-commission from Queen Elizabeth Music Chapel, ensemble Ars Nova, the Gulbenkian Foundation, Théâtre du Luxembourg in collaboration with ensemble Lucilin.
As for performances in Singapore – I do have one chamber work I am writing, of the spaces between, premiering in May 2023, that will be performed by a group of very talented musicians, all thanks to the Creation Grant by the National Arts Council.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a Singaporean musician/composer in the global scene? Or what do we, Singaporeans, bring to the global scene of music?
Honestly, I’ve never given much thought to this. Maybe because I believe that being a composer is a lot about the individual journey. But of course, the sights and sounds of my childhood and the musical education I received from an early age will always remain crucial influences and references for my artistic output.
What must be said is that classical music education in Singapore, right from its earliest stages, is of an incredibly high standard and we have produced so many wonderful performers, it’s quite remarkable. So that’s kind of an advantage that we already have if we venture overseas. The question is: how do we make an international career and/or live an artistic life sustainable for as many Singaporeans as possible?
What would you say to aspiring composers in Singapore hoping to follow a similar path that you’ve taken?
Always make sure each work that you write is the best that you can produce at that point in time, and don’t give up. Don’t quit.
(Photos: Daniel Campbell)