Interview: Tian Yoon Teh

Written as an assignment in early December

It was late November, and 21-year-old composer Tian Yoon Teh was feeling the Ohio cold. She
unwrapped herself from multiple layers, including a marshmallow-esque blue
jacket and many scarves, before she sat down, grinning wide.

Oberlin’s
first annual freshman composers’ concert is not usually an event people feel
they missed out on should they not attend. It’s lengthy, it’s typically at a
busy time, and each piece must be for one instrument. Recently, the new class
presented works for violin, guitar, cello, and bells, among other things –
another year, another first module.

No one expected to be plunged into
another plane of existence, but Tian took us there. Last on the long program,
she performed Manifested Silence, her
work for “human body“ incorporating vocalization, movement, and body
percussion. The house lights dimmed. Dressed in a simple white tank top and
black leggings, she crouched with her back to the audience, arms raised and
pointed at the ceiling, exploring the reaches of her voice as she slowly turned
around. Just as she faced us full on, something snapped and she fell to
the ground over and over again, letting the sound of her own body’s impact echo
through the room. Her clear, sweet voice was in constant flux, from prayer-like
chants to guttural drags to high yelps and all the spaces in between. Though it
was the longest work on the program, it seemed to be over in a flash. It was
raw, original, and self-aware on a level rarely breached in the work of veteran
composers, let alone first year undergraduates.

Tian shook her head when asked how
her work is so far advanced from those of her fellow first years, chalking it
up to more time on the earth and therefore more time to study. (She attended a
local college in her native Malaysia for composition and voice before starting
at Oberlin; she continues to sing here as a member of Collegium Musicum.) “I have taught, and took a gap
year to work as an admin in a music school, and I was also involved in theater
productions,” she explained. “As for why I came here, there aren’t many places
that offer a college as well as a conservatory. I was looking for music within
a university and I only found that in the USA. Everything else is straight to
professional track.”

The professional track’s loss is Oberlin’s gain. Tian defines
herself as a “jack of all trades and a master of jack,” but the thought she
puts into her compositions and performances shows otherwise. Her previous
projects include a solo recital about seven facades of a person, the last of
those being “the emptiness and nothingness that allows creation to happen.”

And she has some big plans. “I do believe that when we get
different people and talents together, something can work out. We’re fighting
against TV, which is multi-stimulus,” she said. “I’m looking into a project
revolving around veils and voices, especially those that aren’t always heard.
Veils would be incorporated through dance, through art – veils can be concrete
but also abstract, the covers under which everyone hides. I see that sometimes
a composer’s role can be to provide the platform, the canvas and outline to bring
different people together.”

As personal influences, she cites Mongol, Tibetan, and
Chinese music, and Sanskrit chants. “I am by no means a representation of the
tribes themselves, or the culture, or where they come from. It’s a
re-contextualization,” she said. “I take penmanship: I don’t take ownership of
my work.”

“Ideally, I would sit down and
compose at the same time every day,” she said when asked about her work
process. “But I am not the only one at work here, and I rely on the messages of
what I tune into in my environment to know where to go and what to manifest.
Sometimes an idea will come and I’ll just drop everything and follow it.” She
laughed. “Last time that happened I staged an hour and a half show in two
months. I’m not sure I want to do that again.”

Tian’s next creation will be
performed at Oberlin on December 13th.

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