Why did you form TO Ensemble?
For me, to satisfy my desire as a human being and to know more about myself, and find my place in the world, I need to create things I believe in. I need to create in a way that I can fully express myself. That brought me on this journey to the fusion ensemble.
The ensemble is quite big now?
My friends are amazed. We started with a few people and now all these people come and they are so enthusiastic about the projects. When you see the ensemble, you see that everyone loves music. That is fundamental to our philosophy.
The music is amazing and I think it is the energy. It is an extraordinary group of people. I know I’m not in control anymore. I like that feeling. When something takes on a life of its own, I think that’s when you have fully succeeded.
What is it like playing with the ensemble?
When I play with these musicians, I get to touch truth. In life, we wonder what we are doing here. What is our purpose? What do we actually want? When you create music, you feel this incredible connection with another human being, with all these human beings, with the audience. We can literally hear people in the audience hold their breath. It’s really crazy.
I think there is something amazing about our group. It’s become one collective, one mind. When you play the music, you can’t help but be pulled towards these people, like Lazar. Lazar is like a source of energy. He pulls you along, “come, let’s do this.” And Boon Chye too. We all become stronger and it becomes larger than the sum of the parts. The energy is amazing and it transports people to another place.
You sound like a family.
Lazar is a fatherly figure to me. He has this calmness. He is a great musician and he understands the philosophy, the sacredness of music, this idea of what life is. There are times when I feel down and I feel discouraged, I will talk to him and I always feel better.
Sometimes I feel like I’m trying everything and nothing seems to be going well. He’ll say something simple like “don’t worry, you have done so well. You always work so hard on the music. Maybe now it’s time you wait.” It’s true. In life you can’t always expect things to come when you do it. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you rest. When you rest, you wait, and you see what life brings you. Life never disappoints.
How do you approach the next project?
I never know what is going to happen. I never know where it is going to fail. This is not to say that it has succeeded perfectly each time. People naturally fear the unknown. If you are used to it, it makes you comfortable. It’s almost like Batman right?
The emptiness and the space also means that possibilities are endless. If I start with nothing for each project, I can always be anything that I want to be and there is a part that will always be who I am. You don’t have to fear losing yourself. If you fear losing who you are are every time you create that means you don’t know who you are.
Once you are very comfortable with yourself I think it’s very important you go to this space where you let go. To me, that is the essence of a breakthrough and you become something, more than anything you imagined for yourself.
The human potential is limitless. I think you have to first come to terms with your own life and then you realize you can achieve anything you want. The only barrier is yourself. You have to remove distractions. It’s like that zen thing where you are here but not here. You can hit me but you cannot hit me, because I am not here. If you are in the state of mind where you are not caught by anything around you, you become invincible.
What inspires you to write?
I draw a lot from nature, when I compose. If we are aware of our surroundings, with heightened awareness, we will always be inspired. The universe is always coming to us. I think of the rustle of the leaves, how does that sound? And it’s all the colours and how would I touch the keys.
When I wrote this journey of life for the Alternate Worlds II, I was thinking about what every one of us goes through. You want to do this and that and you do it and then you realize you are following something that you know to be the right path.
When you create a journey, you experience it with the audience and it’s almost like you are re-living a life. I tell my friends that it’s like I have lived one lifetime, after each concert. It is hard to describe. If you say it’s an immersive concert, it sounds like you are trying to sell something but it is something sacred we want to share with you and we leave it to you what you want to take from it.
I care a lot about the experience I have and the experience people have. It’s not to say I need to wow them. I want them to feel that we all were here for something very purposeful. I think that energizes all of us.
The music takes a life of its own as well. I’ve always believed that the music is not mine. Sometimes, after I have written something, I realize that I actually don’t know this chord progression. There is no way I should know it. But I just played it, and I cannot explain it.
At some point, we have to accept that we do not create it, and I realized that it really does not matter who created it. We are privileged to be the vessel. I’m not going to question it. It’s like you don’t question why you are on earth every day, right? It’s pretty crazy when you think about it – how did we go from apes to spaceships, right?
The Alternate WorldS II concert was amazing. How did you feel?
For concerts I’m 200% there. Once I played the first three notes [in Alternate Worlds II], we knew we were in for a journey. That was a crazy performance.
Afterwards I was so exhausted. I was thinking and I realized I have nothing but I have gained everything. I feel that I gave everything away but I got so much more in return. I don’t mean compliments. By giving it away, I understand more about everything around me. It’s a very fascinating feeling.
Tze Toh is a Singaporean Jazz pianist, composer for film and contemporary dance, and the founder of TO Ensemble, a unique contemporary fusion group.
An integral part of Singapore’s contemporary music community, as both composer and improviser, Tze is inspired by Singapore’s unique identity – a melting pot of diverse and distinctive cultures from east and west that co-exist harmoniously. This led him to explore music creation as a coming together of diverse elements, be it musical, cultural, social or personal. Within this very idea of harmony itself is his own belief that life and music are a constant journey.
Described by The Strait Times as “an extraordinary musician whose idiom straddles comfortably between genres of classical, jazz, world and film music” and “possesses an original voice” Tze is a self-taught pianist who discovered composition and improvisation as a child. After graduating from National University of Singapore with a bachelor degree in Computer Science, he started working full-time as a freelance composer writing for film, animation, and contemporary dance.
TO Ensemble will be playing 7PM Sunday October 16 2016 at the Play Den Arts House in Singapore. And There was N0th1ng. Completely new. Original music, concept, and story by Tze and performed by Teo Boon Chye (sax), Lazar T.Sebastine (Indian violin), Christina Zhou (violin), Benjamin Wong (viola), and Tze Toh (piano). CGI by Anzo studios.
Tickets available at Sistic.
Cover image Tze Toh and the Red Piano by Wei Yuet