The meeting of worlds through literature
Neo Hai Bin (above) teams up with Jodi Chan, Jo Kwek and Siti Khalijah for a multicultural performance, Tones of Poetry. (Photo: Neo Hai Bin)

The meeting of worlds through literature

Cross-border leisure travel has yet to resume in this time of a global pandemic, but a new work of art by a group of Singaporean artists hopes to transport people.

Tones of Poetry, by theatre practitioner Neo Hai Bin, is a reading of poems and short stories in Chinese and Malay. The different texts are woven together by a shared soundscape, designed by Artwave Studio. The online performance features actors Jodi Chan, Jo Kwek and Siti Khalijah Zainal reading everything from a poem about writing a letter, to prose about a person’s longing for a friend.

This episode, which is available on Lianhe Zaobao’s website and Facebook page, comprises a total of 14 literary texts such as Tasik Rindu by poet Isa Kamari and 信 by Fei Xin, selected by Neo. The performance is part of the online concert series An Afternoon with Lianhe Zaobao, which gathers artists and performers from different fields to present four episodes of Chinese chamber music, a vocal recital and Western classical music.

Neo drew inspiration for the show from the innovative work of Singaporean literary scholar and poet Khoo Seok Wan. Khoo wrote a series of poems, including Bamboo Branch Verses of Sin Chew, that bring together different languages, incorporating, for example, Malay words in Chinese poems.

The poet’s fearlessness and willingness to “adapt, cross boundaries, and build bridges across cultures” deeply impresses Neo. He says: “Even though I don’t understand Malay, I can appreciate the musicality of the text when it is read, the way the tongue moves as it rolls and chew on words. Spoken words are in fact very tactile.”

For Neo, the cross-cultural quality of Tones of Poetry is more than just about pushing the boundaries of aesthetics. “The act of reaching out to each other and communicating through storytelling is almost primitive, a desire to connect,” he says.

If you are inspired, after watching Tones of Poetry, to explore works that marry music and text, here are three songs that Neo recommends:

We Did Not Sleep and Spent the Night Travelling to Visit Eric Clapton by Cheer Chen
In this lively piece, which combines music with spoken word, Taiwanese singer-songwriter Cheer Chen recounts her imaginaryjourney to visit famed English musician Eric Clapton.

Endless Dreamless by Aspidistrafly
This inspiring song by Singaporean electronic duo Aspidistrafly is a combination of text, music, environmental sound effects and singing, which creates a holistic sensory sensation for listeners.

Tasik Rindu by Isa Kamari
If you enjoyed Siti Siti Khalijah Zainal’s reading of Tasik Rindu in Tones of Poetry, be sure to listen to Singaporean poet Isa Kamari singing his own poem here.

Watch Tones of Poetry here or stream all four episodes of An Afternoon with Lianhe Zaobao here.

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