Traditional” Chinese music (defined here as music bearing minimal Western influence) emphasises melodic nuances, style and individuality. Harmony is a foreign concept, and heterophonic textures dominate ensemble playing.
Developed in the 1950s, the Chinese orchestra comprises mostly Chinese folk instruments and a few Western ones. Modelled after the symphony orchestra in numerous aspects (including the use of Western composition techniques and harmony), it places high demands on precision, standardisation and homogeneity.
Despite dilemmas arising from the differences between Chinese tradition and Western aesthetics, the Chinese orchestra remains the most popular type of Chinese instrumental ensemble. Arguably, Chinese orchestra music satisfies the current general Chinese public’s listening habits (which are highly influenced by Western musical genres) more than traditional ensemble music does.
By combining East and West, can the Chinese orchestra embody the spirit of contemporary urban Chinese societies? How can we navigate, overcome or reconcile the differing aesthetics to elevate this art form?
WANG Chenwei is Composer-in-Residence of Singapore Chinese Orchestra, adjunct faculty and composition supervisor at the National Institute of Education (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), and council member of the Singapore Chinese Music Federation. As Head of Research and Education at The TENG Company, he is the main co-author of The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra (2019), a 624-page book on instrumentation and orchestration.
After graduating from Raffles Institution’s Gifted Education Programme with seven academic awards, Chenwei obtained his Magister Artium (five-year Master of Arts) with distinction and an Honorary Award (Würdigungspreis) from the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna, where he studied composition and audio engineering under a scholarship from the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
At the age of 17, Chenwei composed The Sisters’ Islands, a symphonic poem which won the Singapore Composer Award at the 2006 Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. This piece has been widely performed and recorded in various arrangements, most notably at Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural National Day concert in 2018.
Chenwei has received composition commissions by numerous organisations including the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Taipei Chinese Orchestra and the Ministry of Education of Singapore. He was commissioned by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to compose four set pieces for the National Piano and Violin Competition 2019. Three of his compositions were commissioned as set pieces for the Singapore Youth Festival. His works have also been subjects of academic theses authored by three Taiwanese professors.
Additionally, Chenwei served as an adjudicator for Singapore’s National Chinese Music Competition 2020 and the Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation 2021 Guzheng ensemble category.
Chenwei’s efforts in composing, conducting, playing 12 musical instruments and writing in 12 languages was featured in Extraordinary People, a half-hour documentary broadcast on Singapore television on 12 May 2009. For his contributions to the music scene, Chenwei was conferred the Young Outstanding Singaporeans Award in 2011.