Classical vs self-taught

Put two very different musicians together and their first jam session should be cacophony, but from the moment classically-trained Jason Lai and self-taught jazz guitarist Kelvin Tan meet, the conversation is a smooth harmony scored for bromance.

Lai, 41 this year, unmarried, a British citizen and Singapore permanent resident, moved here in 2010 to become principal conductor of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra. He is also associate conductor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, a composer and cellist, and has appeared on broadcast television several times. He can be seen on Okto channel on Wednesdays at 10pm in the new series Project Symphony, which documents how he turns amateur musicians from Singapore into a community orchestra.

As Lai glides into the National University of Singapore's (NUS) University Cultural Centre on his scooter, songwriter Tan, 51, eyes him like a kindred spirit.

"You studied the cello? I love the cello," says the Singaporean musician after introductions, shyly adding that he is self-taught. He leaves out the fact that he has released more than 130 albums, including the experimental guitar-and-drums compilation The Prophet Transcends; An Exploratory Eulogy For MM Lee earlier this year, and is justly acknowledged as Singapore's most fertile independent artist by local critics.

The guitarist for home-grown group The Oddfellows, Tan first made waves in the 1990s here as a prize-winning playwright and set up independent arts group the Aporia Society. At the Singapore Writers Festival later this month, he will read from his groundbreaking 1992 novel All Broken Up And Dancing, about coming of age in Singapore, and the inspiration behind a graphic novel as well as an art exhibition at library@esplanade in 2010. He teaches film studies at the Puttnam School of Film at Lasalle College of the Arts. His partner runs bicycle tours.

Both Tan and Lai are multihyphenates passionate about music, so the conversational tempo moves in seconds from ambling andante to an excited allegro presto. This interviewer mostly sits back holding a recorder as the two rattle on about opera, films and their surprisingly similar experiences of growing up as outsiders.

Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

Lai: You've recorded 130 albums?

Tan: I got into it by accident. I was in NUS to study literature, which led to philosophy, to writing songs. I'm very different from you, I'm virtually self-taught. I've never learnt to read music.

Lai: It's like me and literature. I'm not good at words. You try and read things, James Joyce, and fail miserably. You try and understand philosophers and their writings, it's a challenge for me. It must be the same for you. Listening to (German composer) Stockhausen demands great understanding and patience from the listener.

Tan: How did you get into music?

Lai: I watched a film, it had a cellist in it. Before that, I had no hobby as such. Then I discovered music and became fascinated with how composers wrote it. I loved the music of Bach so I did a little pastiche. Like you, I had the desire to find out more and listen to more composers.

Tan: Did Chetham's School of Music change your life? I'm fascinated with that because I never had that kind of education.

Lai: I came from a school that excelled in sports. I didn't fit in because I'm not a sporty person. When I went to Chetham's, I was one of many who loved music and it was fantastic. I felt normal there. You'd have dinner and then go play a quartet with your friends.

How come you were completely self-taught?

Tan: Classical music is an incredibly dense discipline. I tried, but was never able to get into it.

Lai: There was this one singer I worked with who didn't know how to read music, she had to listen to it. She was a very fine opera singer, but she learnt by listening to it and understanding what was going on. Maybe you learn better like that. Maybe you not being taught is the best thing that happened to you.

Tan: Maybe. It teaches you some things, but you also wish you could do it. I didn't have the discipline to do it because I didn't have the intention of doing music, it just happened by osmosis. I'm 51 now, so when I was growing up in the 1980s, there wasn't any acceptance of artists, no support for them.

Lai: Just business, commerce and presumed serious occupations?

Tan: Absolutely. I was watching this incredible performance of Bartok and Brahms at the Singapore Arts Festival one year and I was the only person in Victoria Concert Hall. I was freezing in there. I got into jazz, but that (audience) was even smaller. The country has evolved only since the 1990s, and maybe Noughties, so I've always assumed the role of an outsider.

Lai: I was picked on as a kid. At that time in England, we were in a part of the country with not many non-white faces.

Tan: You're kidding.

Lai: No, we meet racism everywhere. People just have prejudices, they don't understand cultures, they don't want to understand. If they just took a little bit of time to understand we're all the same, all skin and bones and blood.

You say you're an outsider, but you're teaching film studies at Lasalle?

Tan: That's still an outsider because we sometimes deal with very dark themes.

Lai: I think it's the best time to be a student, on one hand, but on the other - when I was a kid I used to go to the music library, now you have access to everything online you could possibly want, but the students don't listen. They are frozen. Why? Is it because it's too easy?

How is the new generation of Singaporean film-makers?

Tan: Getting there, but they'll see a film like (Anthony Chen's 2013 Cannes Camera d'Or-winning film) Ilo Ilo and try and make something like it. One of my favourite musicians, John Zorn, said the problem with the music business is they like to sell records, so they create genres and people listen only to what critics write about. This is what's happening in Singapore. It's important to discover things for yourself, but because of the Internet, youth are being swayed by what they read.

Lai: Yes, it's true. Adele sounds like Amy Winehouse. There's no variety. It's a different face, but the same kind of sound. Do you think we've come to a dead-end in the arts?

Tan: Possibly. It's like the Matrix movies (1999, 2003), there's no need to go out anymore.

Lai: And if you try, you don't fit into the Matrix.

Tan: How do you see yourself as an artist?

Lai: I'm in an industry that's dying a little bit every year in some countries. What I like about the Government here is that it is injecting money into the arts, so in 20 years, maybe you'll get even better film-makers, poets, musicians. Maybe it'll relax some of the censorship here because that's one of the blocks. Artists should be able to express themselves freely without being chastised too much.

Tan: You've said you wanted to compose an opera. What would the theme of your opera be?

Lai: It seems to me that librettos these days, if they don't have rape, sex, or something disturbing, they won't put bums on seats, which is a shame, really. Why can't they be operas that are just a bit more sedate? Maybe because they wouldn't grab headlines, and headlines sell.

Tan: Of all the operas, which are your favourite?

Lai: Gosh. One of Wagner's Ring cycle will be on the list. Gotterdammerung is stunning. I would put Mozart on there, maybe Don Giovanni. I love La Boheme, though I know people look down on Puccini.

Tan: Yes! La Boheme is very deep.

Lai: Yes, it's about love, making a living. It's more about love than death. What disturbs me is that opera directors these days seem to be turning these great works into something really awful, having people in S&M masks on stage. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I can't get my head around it, annoyingly. It should be about musical considerations, but the directors want a person on a ladder, holding a cup of tea and running up and down. Excuse me, but have you tried doing that? Then the audience isn't listening to the music anymore.

The way music is constructed, it can give a real architecture. Like in the film Gladiator (2000), Hans Zimmer wrote the music for a battle scene and the director Ridley Scott was so impressed he cut the film to fit the music.

Tan: What are your favourite films about music?

Lai: Amadeus (1984). We're not sure at all that (Italian composer) Salieri tried to kill Mozart, but the music is of good quality. The Ken Russell films about composers such as Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970) and Mahler (1974). I'm not a fan of his style, but I really love the music.

What about you? What about novels and poems about music? Is there anything you particularly like?

Tan: The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot because it's about disillusionment and when I was growing up, I was in this period of disillusionment. A book of philosophy by Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia. He inspired people to look beyond music and think in terms of sound. That inspired me on my journey. When I began listening to (American jazz saxophonist) Coltrane, I realised it's not just about music, but also about how you use the medium of sound.

What are your favourite books?

Lai: If we're talking fiction, then Jane Austen. Her novels still resonate today. They're about the idea of class and, in British culture, there's still this class divide.

You've written a novel, tell me what that's about.

Tan: At the Singapore Writers Festival, I'll be reading from my book, All Broken Up And Dancing. It's a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a Singaporean youth. I've been trying to go back to writing again, but that's very hard. My last book was in 2001. Is there anything you'd like to work on?

Lai: I'd love to see a full-time chamber orchestra in Singapore to tackle some of the smaller repertoire.

Tan: Hey, I've always had this fantasy of having an improvisational orchestra with all sorts of instruments, so it could do Indian music, Balinese music, Chinese music.

Lai: Sort of a rojak symphony?

Tan: Exactly.

This article was first published on October 20, 2015.
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