Program Note to SingBites by Nicholas Ho

I met Nicholas at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, later again at CCM in Cincinnati. He was a brilliant player – still is – and was writing his own music. Last year, I re-discovered his song set and had Janani listen to it. I thought it was beautiful, and Janani also liked it!

Singapore River, photo credit @Adhitya Andanu

“Hey, Nicholas – ”

I asked him about his mother tongue. I confess, I thought he would say something else other than “English?” Still, I had a feeling that it should be different than American or British English. (It turned out that was true.) So I asked him if he could write a song on Singlish text. Several months later, he sent me 4 songs.

Here is the program note written by Nicholas Ho.

SingBites, Op. 12

I recall my last meeting with the late Singaporean conductor Adrian Tan, over Japanese food at lunchtime, in June 2021. I had not met him for over half a decade, and Singapore was just coming out of another COVID lockdown — it was a great excuse to meet and catch-up.

We talked about many things about music, including the set of 12 piano études I was composing at that point. I admitted to him that my musical language up to that point had been largely Western-centric, and I had not attempted to incorporate any Singaporean influences in my compositions.

He unfortunately passed 3 weeks later from an unexpected cardiac arrest. The musical community in Singapore mourned a great loss.

When Yeon-Kyung approached me with the opportunity to write “Singlish” songs came about, I immediately agreed. Singlish, an English-based creole language spoken locally, can almost be understood as “broken” English with many words borrowed from Malay, Mandarin and it’s dialects, and Tamil — vernacular languages of the four main ethnicities in Singapore. Unfortunately, the body of Singlish poems was small, and I thought that outside of Singapore, these art songs would not as appreciated. I thus shifted my focus towards a song cycle with the rough theme of “sights and smells” of Singapore. As a longtime overseas Singaporean living in the Midwest, I oftentimes missed Singapore, where I spent so much of my formative years.

I approached Janani, who graciously contributed the poems for this song cycle.

Score of Chicken Rice: text by Sridhar, music by Ho

Chicken Rice is one of the National dishes of Singapore. It is perhaps one of the most chicken-y dishes possible, since all its essential components has chicken in it: the sliced poached or roasted chicken of course, the flavored rice (made with aromatic spices and chicken fat), the clear broth (in which the whole chickens are cooked in), and even the dipping chilli sauce (some recipes even call for chicken fat!). Also one of the most affordable meals growing up, chicken rice remains a treasured part of many Singaporeans’ hearts.

The Uwu Bird is a whimsical take on the infamous Asian Koel, a species of bird common in Singapore. After arriving in the 1980s, they multiplied like bunnies. Singaporeans both love and hate this bird — its “uwu” cry is adorable when we childishly mimic it, but these birds… start their mating call at 5 A.M. in the morning!!

The Bus Stop depicts many a Singaporean’s struggle in catching the bus. Running after while flagging busses down at bus stops and its complex web of emotions, especially in the sweltering Singaporean heat, can be just agonising. 15 more minutes of anger and sadness!

The heart of the song cycle lies in Singapore RiverThe chorus of arguably the most popular Singaporean National Day song, Home, starts with these lines:

“This is home, truly

Where I know I must be

Where my dreams wait for me

Where that river always flows”

There’s something truly nostalgic about the Singapore River to an overseas Singaporean. It represents a story of change — a lifeline to generations of Singaporeans, it contributed to the success of the modern city-state. Surrounded by important cultural centers, such as the Victoria Concert Hall, the Victoria Theatre, the Esplanade… Singapore River depicts the poet’s walk down memory lane, along the banks of her beloved Singapore.

Nicholas Ho, February 2023

Janani and I will premiere the set at the concert ‘Songs of Our Lands’ on March 10th in Dayton and again on March 11th in Cincinnati.

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