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You know what, this blog is moving away from its original purpose where I would dissect songwriting. And instead it has become my arts blog. Whatever man.
So this appeared on my feed.
I can attest that bringing a play, transforming it from your imagination until it becomes something on the stage is one of the most exciting experiences. I’ve experienced it once being a pleasant dream. And I’ve also experienced it once being the biggest fucking nightmare ever.
The “too long too long” part is true, and is a mistake first time playwrights always make. They think that the script is like prose on a page. When your eyes scan through a paragraph of text, it is really fast. When it’s spoken out, it is really slow. Dialog is not written text.
I’ve had the experience of the basic structure of a play materialising before my eyes in 5 minutes. I’ve also had the experience of a play having multiple rewrites, different endings tested and tried all the time. Guess which one had a better result? Once the basic idea is there, once it is set, don’t touch it. You can mess around with the details but not the main structure. Imbue every element with its internal logic and listen to that internal logic. In that way, things will flow naturally. Creation is always more about listening rather than speaking. Don’t rewrite your play to death.
Maybe there’s a lesson in all this. Creative activity should be a hobby, not a job. I dread the day it becomes a job. Even when I’m in my job, I obey the rules of creativity. I don’t mandate inspiration to come to me. I never go looking for inspiration. I sit and wait for it to come to me. I set up a few baits to lure it over and wait for it to bite. I understand that it is my subconscious mind which is doing most of the work and I never interfere with its work.

Lately I’ve been asked by a few of my friends – they kinda noticed that I’m not shy about talking about music. They’re guys who have taken music lessons when they were kids, because we’re all Asians and that’s what Asians do. But they’ve reported – and this is also consistent with my own experience – that music education in those days was boring and laborious. You were just taught what to play, it was drill baby drill, and they lamented they never understood what they were doing that well.

Well I had a slightly better music education, since I spent a few years in the music school’s equivalent of a gifted program. But I also had a lot of the boring stuff. So before we begin, just so that we’re clear on that, music education can be really boring and laborious, and you are about to embark on an arduous journey that will test your endurance and patience. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I suppose there were a few of us chosen to go on a different branch of education, and I think we were selected on the basis that we had better hearing and maybe better technique (but I don’t think I have great technique). Which brings me to the other point I want to make right from the start: good hearing skills are very very important when you’re learning music. Just like good physical co-ordination is vitally important for certain sports. Your pair of ears will be your most important teacher and if you don’t think you can learn from them, if you think that music is really about just reading scores, if you think the written form is the music, go and learn from somebody else.

This blog was set up for the purpose of discussing ideas that I’ve come across while writing songs. But it’s really hard work to transcribe so that I can talk about ideas, and maybe I’ve discontinued it. I’m also a little bit leery about being a music teacher, so that I can take your hard earned money and steer you towards an economically unrewarding path.

Obviously when I am trying to answer “what is the meaning of music” in one single blog post, there will be very few details. The purpose here is to list down what are the big questions surrounding music, what are the big issues, so that you know what are the right questions to ask so that you can go look for the answers yourself. Firstly, I want to ask, what is the task? So I’m not going to immediately narrow it down to playing an instrument, but I want to consider the whole process of music production.

What is music production?

I want to answer the question, what is a musician, but first I’d thought that I’d provide some context by outlining the music production process.

  1. Composition.

Sometimes you call the guy a songwriter, if you’re talking about folk music and melodies. The composer is the guy who handles the melodies and the harmonies. He comes up with the notes. There are also the wordsmiths who come up with the lyrics.

  1. Arrangement

Sometimes you can’t draw a fine line between the composer and the arranger. The arranger decides which instrument will go with the notes. Sometimes he even orchestrates the whole thing, and that ‘s a lot of work because you might have to write out upwards of 20 parts for each piece of music.

  1. Playing

These guys are the ones who play the instruments – the pianists, the guitarists, the drummers, the horns, whatever. Also involved in these is the bandleader. Usually, whenever there is an ensemble, there is a bandleader.

  1. Production

During live music or recording sessions, this is the guy who supervises the recording or oversees the sound checks for the concert.

  1. Other extra-musical stuff

Music does not exist in a vacuum, and I’m going to mention all the people who touch everything else. There are people who are managers, people who organise recording sessions, tours. There are the philosophers who espouse some kind of vision that goes along with the music. There may be fashion designers who build a whole world around the music. Wu Tang Clan have a whole clothing line to go around the music. Velvet Underground were the house band of Andy Warhol’s factory. Personally, I care more about the music, but I have to admit that when I was browsing through album covers, the Pink Floyd album covers and the David Bowie album covers stood out for me. (Although I will not understand why David Bowie lost his ability to make great album covers from the mid 80s onwards).

There is a tendency in classical music to give numbers to works, and apparently this takes away some human element from the works and makes them more “respectable” and classical. It’s pretty unfortunate and I have nothing else to compare this to other than


Now, some caveats. The division of labour that I outlined above is reasonably accurate for classical and pop music. With some other genres, these things get mixed up.

In jazz music, the arranger and the player are usually the same guy, and he’s also doing some of the composition work. Wayne Shorter said that the difference in jazz is that some of the decisions are left to the very last. In classical, usually the composer writes down every note explicitly. In jazz, you start with a rough outline, and fill in all the gaps while improvising.

In hip hop, there is very little composition. Perhaps there is also very little playing of instruments, because it’s also possible to cut and paste other peoples’ music (this is called “sampling”). In hip hop the arrangements and productions are the most important aspects. The instrumentalist would probably be the MC, and you know, many people look down their noses at rap music, but very few people can actually rap. They are different skills, and a good singer is not necessarily a good rapper, and vice versa. But my impression is that rapping is more difficult than singing.

Given that we’ve outlined the process of creating music, it becomes easier to answer:

What is a musician?

  1. Composer (does the “composition” part)
  2. Arranger (does the “arrangement” part)
  3. Instrumentalist (plays the instruments)
  4. Producer (recording / sound check for live performances).

What are the elements in music?

The elements of music are four aspects of the music. Personally, people may name different elements when asked. I usually talk about melody, harmony, rhythm and texture.

Melody is the most prominent part of the music. Usually, it is a thread of music, played mostly one note at a time. If there’s a singer, he sings the melody. A guy taking a solo in jazz would be playing melody. Melody usually emphasises the pitch of the notes.

Harmony is usually a variation on chords. Usually, at any one time, there is a chord underlying the music, and the harmony would in its way reinforce the idea of that chord.

The relationship between melody and harmony is usually the relationship between figure and ground in visual art. In a choir or in a string quartet, the upper registers / sopranos usually sing the melody, but not always. In rock music, the lead guitar plays melodies, and the rhythm guitar plays harmonies.

But sometimes the relationship can be inverted in interesting ways. Bass lines are interesting because they can also embody certain properties of melodies.

Rhythm can be thought of in two ways. One is the rhythm pattern of the melody, ie how the notes are spaced out in time. Or it can be the rhythmic figure of the drums / percussion.

Texture relates to the timber of the instruments that play the note. It will affect which instruments you choose to play the music. Remember that backing vocals also count as instruments. Also some thought has to be given to which textures are mixed together.

When you listen to the different genres, you will learn that all musical traditions come with their own unique set of rules. But all of them will have these four elements (at least 2 or 3 in any case), and you can take them apart one by one and analyse them jointly and separately.

Classical music emphasises melody, harmony and texture, but not rhythm. Especially in orchestral music, timbre is important. Hip hop emphasises rhythm and texture, maybe occasionally harmony, but very little melody, unless there is a sing-along chorus. There are people who criticize hip hop for that, but they’re fools who are making categorical mistakes.

The analogy between figure and ground for melody and harmony is interesting when we consider the French impressionists. In painting, the French impressionists messed around with the traditional figure and ground concepts, you never really knew what was the background. And in the music, also, there was no clean line between the melody and the harmony.

Also, when you consider say the gamelan ensembles of Bali. You know that gamelan are basically huge clunky xylophones and you are playing notes. But at the same time they are almost treated like percussion. Are they playing chords? Is this whole thing a sonic backdrop? Is gamelan music one whole nice sounding sonic texture?

Continuing education in music for adults.

What kind of education is suitable for adults who are looking to continue what they learnt as kids? I’m not a music teacher, so I haven’t really had all that much time to think through all these things. Hopefully music education has improved since I was a kid, but then again I think that classical music has been around for hundreds of years, and still the quality of the teaching is highly variable.

Here are some issues to consider.

  1. What do I really want to get out of this?

I’ve previously blogged about my own experiences in musical education, so I won’t repeat that. I found myself shunted into a certain kind of education when I was young. And then I was left on my own to explore things when I was older, and I’ve learnt a lot about music either way.

Music teachers will usually aim to teach you to play an instrument. There are several reasons for that. First, playing an instrument is the one musical skill where you really need to have a teacher to guide you through things. Much of the rest can be self taught. So this is a way of expanding the market for their services.

Second, it’s a real time consuming enterprise, and so you get locked into weekly lessons, and it creates work for music teachers. And let’s be frank, being a music teacher is just about the only thing that a musician can find steady employment in. The great majority of musicians are not going to enjoy the amount of clout needed to generate money spinning tours, so it’s basically teaching music if you want a vocation that revolves around music.

Third, learning an instrument is one of the best ways to learn about music anyway, so you might as well do it. Music theory is worth approximately nothing on its own. 30+ years ago, when I was just starting out, I would have said that singing and playing an instrument is the heart and soul of music. However, during my lifetime, other means of music production have developed, and so I’d now say instead that the generation / production of music is the heart and soul of music.

But in the eco-system that I’ve outlined previously, there are so many other skills to be learnt. You could be a music producer, or just a songwriter. It’s really for you to know where you stand so you don’t end up trying to be a square peg in a round hole.

  1. What genre of music do I really want to learn?

I’m just going to classify this as classical music education vs the rest. I actually don’t really like it that much, but I think that music theory revolves around classical music. It is a great point of departure, in that you can apply the knowledge to a lot (but obviously not all) of other genres of music. Unfortunately classical music will come with some philosophical baggage but hopefully you as an adult can see past that.

By the time you’re an adult, you should know what music you like. I’ve found that people are mostly going to like only a few genres of music, not all of them. Your musical education should obviously be geared towards what you like.

Personally I’ve never really gotten the hang of classical music. There are many things I like about it, and in many ways, it is the most sophisticated music out there even after all these years. However the main thing for me is that it was very good at teaching many fundamental rules of music.

Classical music thrives on rules. With rock or jazz, you’re going to have to teach people rules, and then you need to tell them that this or that sounds interesting because it breaks certain rules. Like a blue note is between a major or a minor third. Like this guy’s singing is interesting because he flattens certain notes or bends others. Or his singing is interesting because he’s behind the beat. Or this rhythm is syncopated because all the beats land where you don’t expect them to land. You know what? Fuck that, just go learn classical music for the rules and then go break them own time own target.

Some parts of music appreciation are subjective, others are not that subjective. There is such a thing as a list of great albums, because by and large fans of rock music can agree about what it means for a rock song to be well made. But which genres of music you gravitate to happens to be pretty subjective. There will always be people who, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to appreciate jazz music or whatever. I didn’t realise this when I was a teenager and I used to be a pain in the ass, always forcing my opinions on people, and being judgemental about their suspect taste. I’m a little more forgiving these days but I still have standards.

  1. What are the main elements in music theory?

Here are probably the questions that you will be asking yourself.

Basic concepts:

  • notes, pitch, scales, bars, measures, rests, time signatures, key signatures, tempo, dynamics. After that, you’ll know music notation.
  • Scales? Major / minor / blue / Dorian or whatever exotic stuff.

Melody issues

  • Can you identify the melody when you hear it?
  • Are there counter melodies and can you identify those?
  • The bass, do you know what it’s playing?

Harmony issues

  • Do you know what key it is in? (Keys are named after the tonic)
  • Do you know what are intervals? Chords?
  • What are the basic chords? Major, minor. But also augmented, diminished 7th, major 7th, all that interesting stuff.
  • What are the inversions of those chords?
  • What is the relationship between the melody / bass / counter melody and the chords?
  • What chords usually transition to what other chords? Which transitions are expected, which are exotic, and which ones are downright wrong?
  • Which intervals are harmonious and which are dissonant?

Rhythm issues

  • When you are listening to music, do you know where the measure starts and ends?
  • Do you know that the composer has sneaked in a change of time signature in order to fuck with you?
  • Do you understand syncopation?
  • Which beats are being accented?

Texture issues

  • What are the strings, the woodwinds, the brass and percussion?
  • Which goes with what? What are the quality of sounds? Harsh? Bright? Soothing / mellow? Designed to annoy parents and neighbours?

That’s the music theory.

  1. The more abstract aspects of music.

Music theory, I’ve come to realise, is what is taught to classical music students, because those are the facts of music, and there are features about the music about which are objective. But much of music is subjective. And there are other questions that you could also ask about the music.

  • Do I like this piece of music?
  • How does the music make me feel?
  • Which parts did I like? What worked, and what didn’t?
  • What were the main artistic decisions that were made, and which ones were successful?
  • In what way did this piece of music exert any influence on what came after? Or how was it influenced by what came before?
  • How does this fit into the tradition? (ie if this were, say R&B, what parts are typical of other R&B stuff and which parts represent a departure?)
  • How is this bigger picture related to the issues that were discussed in the previous section, under “music theory”?

And after that, you start thinking like a songwriter.

  • How do I nick this chord progression? How do I write something similar but different enough that I don’t get sued?
  • How did this guy write this melody, and what do I like about it?
  • There’s something I call the principle of partial differentiation. In calculus, partial differentiation means you hold everything else constant, and you vary only one variable. It’s used a lot of music. You play the same melody, but harmonise it with different chords. You play the same chords but a different melody over it. You take the same melody and transpose it a few intervals up and down.
  • All the stuff that music critics write about.

Strangely enough, these were not questions that were asked or talked about too much in music class. But I was in the advanced class, and I ended up writing my first song at 8 years old because it was homework: go write a song. Almost without exception, the stuff you come up with at 8 is rubbish. But when you get started early, you are motivated to ask questions about a lot of songs that come your way after that. When I was 21 I wrote my first song that I didn’t think was rubbish.

Now, after having listed down as much as what I remember of the rules of music, here’s one thing you always have to bear in mind: in music especially, rules were made to be broken.

  1. Resources

I don’t really know how to look for teaching materials, but just do a google search, and after all, I’ve already written down a few avenues of inquiry.

Also, apparently Coursera has a series of courses. Or you can go youtube and look up people who are willing to talk about stuff like that to you.

There’s also no substitute for listening a lot, and forming opinions about music. That’s how you learn. It’s not just practicing and playing the same old shit over and over again.

Another way to learn is that some of you ppl have kids of an age who may be starting out in music. And sometimes they would require the parents to sit in during the first 1-2 months so that they get to participate in their kid’s musical education. In my opinion, that’s a great way to get yourself some free music lessons, so make sure that you’re paying attention to the teacher during those 1-2 months.

Music publications are also very useful. I used to rely heavily on music critics to teach me about rock music, but now I can use my own judgement to decide. People will tell you why they like or do not like the latest album, and you’re going to read their judgements, and wonder if you agree or not. I was very lucky to be growing up in the 90s, when there were a lot of music developments to follow: grunge music, golden age of rap, flowering of the alternative scenes, madchester, rave, jungle, trip hop, britpop, DJ based records. Around that time hip hop and sampling developed from being quaint novelties to full fledge art forms, and landmark album after landmark albums were put out. Rather unfortunately, for various reasons, the scenes have faded out during the 21st century, although there will always be flourishing left field albums being made all the time: that is a given.

Your most important resources are to be found on your left and your right – they are your ears. There are three musical receptors, the heart, the head and the ass. The heart is the most talked about, because music is supposed to move the soul. But other than that, it is also about highly intricate patterns and the beauty is mathematical – that’s the head. There is a lot of fun to be had, when you hear something, and it’s a big mess of noise at first, and after repeated listens, you find out what it’s really all about. Last of all, rhythm is just fun, and it’s just nice to let it all hang out. You will note that certain genres of music emphasise one or two of the musical receptors and not all three, but that’s probably fine.

Pet Sounds. There’s so much to say about that album, yet at the same time, probably everything that needs to be said about it has already been said. It took quite a while to sink in that the Beach Boys were serious musicians. You always associated them with good time surf music and fluffy stuff. They didn’t seem to take themselves that seriously. That’s the problem when you have a band name with “Boys” in the title. In spite of their artistic achievements, it was hard to take the Beastie Boys, the Dead Boys seriously.

One of the Pet Sounds reissues came out in 1990. I got it on cassette, and by that time I was probably 1-2 years of my full scale immersion into pop / alternative rock music. It was already a full blown addiction, I probably already knew the contents of around 100 albums very well by then.

I’ll always associate it with some memories when I first heard it. Singapore had just been done hosting the SEA games, and we thought our football team was going into the finals against Thailand, but instead we got knocked out by the Myanmese via Lim Tong Hai’s infamous two own goals. But we attended the closing ceremony anyway, and probably that was the closest thing I had ever seen to a National Day Parade, with all the lights and spectacular visuals and everything.

The other thing, and this is probably a coincidence, we were also attending meditation classes. Or at least I just went in for two sessions. So I suppose I was in a very serene mood when I started absorbing “Pet Sounds”. And that’s the thing about that album that somehow people don’t really talk about: it was nicknamed “Teenage Symphonies to God”. God. “Pet Sounds” is spiritual music, sacred music. It is about a teenager growing and suffering, but somehow also getting in touch with his spiritual side.

And listening to the album will also bring back memories of a trip to New Zealand half a year earlier, with all its wondrous scenery and natural splendour. In a way Pet Sounds is the perfect soundtrack if you’re going to a beautiful place with snow capped mountains.

But it would always remind me of a nice happy moment in my life. After all, “Pet Sounds” may be about disappointment, but it is also about the possibility of a deep and profound happiness – if you can keep it.

Personally, I found secondary school a struggle at first, and only started to turn things around, maybe just in time for me to be able to leave that place with my head held high. Things were coming together. My schoolwork was less of a disaster, and I was learning not to screw things up all the time. I still wasn’t a star in my ECAs, but there were a few small little prizes to be picked up here and there. I had made one or two close friendships (although maybe I was blissfully unaware that they were at that time on the verge of unravelling.) I had gone on two excellent vacations. I was never the best scout in my troop, but I was pleased to learn that I was capable of withstanding some pretty rough treatment. I had assembled one hell of a record collection. I had gone some way towards figuring out the meaning of life.

And maybe it was in that peaceful calm and happy state of mind that one month later, in what I considered to be my crowning achievement of my secondary school days: I wrote a school play. I had grown up a little, and I knew that I had progressed quite a bit from a few years earlier when I was a complete emotional wreck. Basically I was realising that when I left my secondary school, there would be happy memories to look back on. I’d say that period of time was probably in anticipation of a bountiful harvest.

(Of course, if you know the Singapore school system at that time, there was one more hurdle to be cleared, albeit the biggest one of them all: the “O” levels. )

I was probably in a reflective mood, which is kinda funny because that’s in contrast to “Pet Sounds”, where Brian Wilson was looking forward to a happy adulthood – which he basically didn’t get. On the other hand, I was looking back at what I consider on balance to be a happy childhood. That school play, once you unravel all the meanings and layers, was in its way a goodbye to childhood, and a loss of innocence. Being a teenager is pretty poignant because it’s nested in between two very different states, there’s a lot of looking forwards and a lot of looking backwards too.

It will be forever a blessing that I came across this album while I was a teenager, and I was able to relate to it. Brian Wilson was in his twenties when he wrote that stuff. Certainly, it just wouldn’t do to listen to it for the first time while on the wrong side of 30. It is very much a growing pains album. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is about a teenager wishing he were older so that he can live in whatever romantic fantasy he lives in. “You Still Believe In Me” is about redemption through romantic love (that may be real or imagined). “That’s Not Me” is an expression of vulnerability. “Don’t Talk” is about the first flush of romantic love. “I’m Waiting For the Day” is about yearning for that perfect love affair. “God Only Knows” blurs the line between romantic love and the idea of a God that watches over you: it’s not entirely clear who he’s addressing, but it’s clear that there is some parallel between the two. “Hang On to Your Ego / I Know There’s An Answer” is a little edgy because it may or may not be about the fraught relation between the Wilsons and their cousin Mike Love. And some people think it’s about LSD. But towards the end of the album, there are hints that this fragile bliss will eventually disappear like a puff of smoke. “Here Today” is a warning that the romantic love that you are dreaming about may not materialize, or may end in tears. “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” only hints that Brian Wilson’s grip on reality is tenuous. “Caroline No” is a paean for shattered dreams.

In between, the two instrumentals and “Sloop John B” lighten things up somewhat, but it’s pretty heavy going emotionally, veering between elysian bliss and the unsettling knowledge of your own vulnerabilities.

Now the album is famous for its quirky instrumentation, but what impressed me the most were the quality of the songs. Every piece of music there is absolutely top notch. There is no mediocre stuff anywhere on the main album. Even if all of the material had more conventional arrangements, it would still be one of the greatest albums of all time.

Anyway, that was a pretty long-winded preamble. I thought I’d put up here a link to a short transcription of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”. It’s in shitty MIDI, and it doesn’t sound anywhere as great as the original, but at least you can see what’s going on.

This is going to be a bit long as a photo essay, so I apologise in advance. There will only ever be one of this, unless, and this is unlikely, I ever return to theater.

I should probably talk about this in chronological order. I had been involved in drama way before sec 3. I was in some drama club in primary school, wrote a few skits for school. Played a bit part in the Buckley house Drama Feste. It wasn’t an entirely happy experience, because the sec 4s wouldn’t allow a sec 2 to have any input. But I did hear the judges single out one Kenneth Yap for praise because what he had written was “unusually mature”.

The prototype

1992 was a very special time for me. I had spent most of sec 2 in a funk, which was quite a shame because that was the year that I was part of a very special class. But I just couldn’t pull myself together. When I finally did, at the beginning of sec 3, it was a good time, and it was a special time and I told myself, “you will excel at creative writing, mathematics and music”. In fact, you could say that was the mission statement for the rest of my life.

First significant thing for me was Valentine’s day, 1992. It was a strange day. The three schools of the GEP were collaborating to stage 2 plays. There was “News at Nine”, a Monty Python style comedy. There was also “Mahjong”, which was written by Kenneth Yap. There was something magical about that night, other than me being out on town for the first time and seeing that it was Valentine’s day, and everybody was going about in pairs. City Hall MRT is near to Capitol Theatre, where a lot of people met up for a night on the town. There was the refurbished MPH, starting its ill fated foray into the music CD retail business. I had just purchased “ChangesBowie” and was trying to make sense of it. I went in and saw CD copies of the Bowie catalogue for the first time. Ziggy. The Man Who Sold the World. Then I crossed the street to the National Library (which got fucked over, of course) and then to the Drama Center.

“Mahjong” was a great play, or at least I thought. I was pretty bowled over by it, but it was the first time I got really impressed by a school production. The idea behind Mahjong was simple. There were 4 women, and they were meeting for mahjong, each of them were miserable in their own way, each of them had the mistaken impression that there was something to envy about the each other’s lives, but all of them were equally miserable. I was so impressed by that. You saw the stuff that drama is made of, the dramatic tension when people are lying and fibbing to each other on stage. I saw possibilities. The main thing I learnt that night was that you could be bowled over by a stage production. Just because you were that young, it didn’t mean it had to be half baked. Suddenly, instead of drama production being a dreary experience you had to sit through in order to get ECA points, I started seeing in it the possibility of fulfilling artistic ambition. It was both a way to touch the hearts of others, and a sport to see how good a show you could put up.

And it occurred to me that two years down the road, I’d have a shot at it. It wasn’t a burning ambition, just a nice thought. I felt like Audrey Hepburn singing “wouldn’t it be lurverly”. And of course, later that night, I walked across the road to Fort Canning and to ACPS where I was already nostalgic for my happier days in Primary school.

It was one of those evenings when a lot of the things you will see over and over again are introduced to you in a flurry, like in the overture of an opera. The next day, of course, was the 50th anniversary of the surrender to the Japanese. Another weird coincidence that tells you that there’s some magical shift in the alignment of the stars.

The Long Fallow

The next step, of course, would be my participation in the Creative Writing Program. Nothing much came out of it, but I did bump into some guy called Alfian, as well as a girl I would later on have a brief relationship with. I didn’t earn myself a mentorship. In a teenager’s feverish imagination I was hoping for a transcendental experience that didn’t quite materialize, but it was a good program, because it got us to confront some home truths about the creative process: what is art, how do you create it. I think that experience probably foreshadowed that I was probably not the greatest artistic collaborator in the whole world. Later on, Dawen would write and direct the Buckley house drama feste. I maybe did a small part, the sound or something. I couldn’t remember much. But that wasn’t the main story.

The main story was what I ended up doing with my spare time in the interim. Because I had started a habit of acquiring music, I spent a lot of time digging through cassette racks. I spent a lot of time reading magazines in bookstores. I didn’t have a very specific ambition, but I just somehow hoped that one day I would produce a great work of art. I didn’t even know what form it would take. But in the process of reading reviews, and evaluating the artistic merits of music, some things took shape in my mind. I started to understand what made a good work of art good. I read movie reviews, and they would always talk about why something was great, and why it was crap. It made me think a lot about how the media circus works, and that would also come in handy later on.

Literature education would be important for me as well. But though their analytical frameworks like theme / character / literary devices are useful, it wasn’t front and center in my methodology. With all due respect to my literature education and after all I still consider it a highlight of my time at RI, I learnt more about creative writing by leafing through the pages of, say “Rolling Stone” magazine and reading movie reviews. And I learnt something that was somewhat different from what they teach you in “O” levels, because it gets repeated over and over again: storytelling. Plot. Narrative. Excitement. Drama. I had already made up my mind. Playwriting had to be more about going from point A to point B, and not so much about wanking my erudition and cumming onto the faces of my audiences. I may have come up with my first play in a flash of inspiration, but behind that flash of inspiration was a long period of study.

I once told somebody, “a drama production is like an engineering project. You have to make sure that the system works and the pieces fit.” She made a face at me and left. I was 17, she was 17. But probably she had stars in her eyes, and I didn’t.

Our Literature Education

That leads me to the first problem with our literature education. We are made to only study works that are presumed to be exemplary and we don’t actually ask ourselves, “what makes this a great work?” So you can go and memorise all the quotes from Shakespeare or JB Priestley or whatever you want. But I wouldn’t feel anything in the heart. It was quite unsatisfying. I didn’t give a shit about the “Merchant of Venice”, I didn’t give a shit about the “Inspector Calls”. Maybe a few of the “Touched With Fire” poems meant something to me. It taught me something, no doubt. But it’s certainly not enough to make you understand the creative process. Perhaps we weren’t at a level where we were allowed to judge whether something’s good or not.

The second great problem I have with literature education, we break things down analytically. When we make arguments about works of literature, we give reasons why this is so. This is very useful when understanding works of fiction, and this is part of a great education. But it is only one small part of a great education. Understanding something with the heart, unfortunately, is not taught in “O” level literature. It’s very easy to break the text down over and over again. But it doesn’t teach you about the process of creation, where you have to step back and see the whole picture.

I like what Scott Adams said. Don’t follow your dreams. Don’t follow your passion. Build a system and use that system to achieve what you’ve always wanted to do. Personally I had a few parts of the system up and running for a few years, and I figured out that the system would not work out in the long run.

The Genesis / Inspiration

The following year, there was a call for plays. There would be three selected to stage. I had taken note of that, and had half a mind to submit something.

This first play will always be my masterpiece. There were some things going on in my head. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here, but anybody who’s seen what happened to Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee will find what happened in there familiar. I still remember sitting in the Hullett library in RI Bishan, looking at the spiral stairs in the middle, and thinking, what if it were a secret doorway to some magical hideaway? Suddenly, and quite rapidly, the idea for “Caped Crusaders at the Kampong Treehouse” was born. I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down the main ideas for the plot. After a while, I was like the guy who opened up the mah piu poh and gagged on his char kuay teow because he had just found out that he was the toto winner. I realised quickly that I was on to something good. This was 1993.

I had help from a friend, but other than that it was a solo effort. It was Christopher Ong who gave me the last piece of the puzzle: the part about manipulating the media. Also, one of our favourite cartoon shows on TV was Batman the Dark Knight animated series. That gave me the idea of people donning a cape not for the superhero powers but because the character you inhabit is an extension of a (possibly disturbed) state of mind. Those guys were basically asylum inmates. This would be the type of superhero that the Caped Crusaders at the Kampong Treehouse was.

It’s a play that’s one part Tiananmen Square (because of the uprising part and the tank guy), one part Ziggy Stardust (because of the death of a rock and roll star narrative and because of the part about manipulating the media to your advantage), one part Chee Soon Juan (because of the false messiah narrative – I even wrote in a part about somebody cheating on a hunger strike). It was one part Don Quixote because of how he’s tilting against windmills. It was one part Batman the Dark Knight because you get into the psyche of what makes a man want to be some kind of a superhero?

One of the biggest pieces of inspiration, and this occurred to me as I was reading the book again years later, was “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles. We studied it for literature. I had borrowed 3 elements: first, there was this idea of a childhood haunt as an Eden that would eventually be destroyed as you grew up. In “A Separate Peace”, the threats to that Eden were the Second World War, and the graduation from the School. In “Caped Crusaders”, the threat to that Eden was the developers who claimed the land and would clear it for construction work. The people were in some way fighting to save that Eden, and in some way stay true to that Eden. For “A Separate Peace”, it was the childish games, and for “Caped Crusaders”, it was the launch of a media campaign. Second, people were cast out of that Eden because of some Original Sin which smirched the memory of that Eden. For “A Separate Peace”, it was Gene’s betrayal of Finny. For “Caped Crusaders”, it was the protagonist letting his newfound fame get to his head and impair his judgement. Third, the destruction of that Eden was brought about through some childish game that somehow jarringly got juxtaposed with some harsh reality. This piece was important because all the pieces would fall apart if there wasn’t this emotional arc to tie it all together.

However unlikely it seems to bring together a kampong, a construction project, a protest movement and a sudden death, you had to have some dynamic that tied everything together. That dynamic was that this was some kind of coming of age story. It wasn’t merely about innocence lost (although it was). It wasn’t merely about a person attaining maturity through facing down some challenge in his life and overcoming it (although it was). It was important that there was some kind of Freudian link. The boys wanted to hold on to the kampong because the kampong was a symbol of their idyllic childhood. And when they were protesting it was a symbol of a newly assertive adolescence. And when the protest failed and one of them died, it was a symbol of a very adult tragedy tearing their lives apart. You had the three stages of life, and they were locked in a deadly struggle with each other.

Even the part about a guy dashing out in front of a bulldozer was a nod to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I had stolen some little thing from all these great stories.

A bunch of kampong boys would be protesting plans to develop the land that their kampongs were built on. They would dress up as superheroes and become a media sensation, and for a while, having the rest of the nation egging them on. Then they would stage a hunger strike in order to up the ante, except that some of the younger kids were allowed to cheat. Then when the bulldozers come, one of the kids realizes that they’re going to find the secret stash of food. He rushes over and tries to hide it, and gets run over by the bulldozer. The caped crusaders gang breaks apart over a bunch of recriminations.

It was anachronistic in two ways. First, this was the 90s, and we were way too late to have people complaining about kampongs being cleared. All that stuff was already done in the 1970s. And second, the political climate in the 90s was so conservative that the idea of an uprising happening in Singapore was unthinkable. Amos Yee was born after 1993. In fact, I decided not to say anything about the government being the bad guy here, and I made it look like the leader of the caped crusaders was responsible for this. But when I see the Amos Yee and Roy Ngerng sagas play out, I think in some small way they resemble my characters from that play.

If you have heard of the word McGuffin, the destruction of the kampong was a mcGuffin. It was a nod to my father’s family who grew up in a hovel. But it was the pursuit of that thing that drove the plot forward.

Then again, no matter how clever your plot is, there has to be an emotional core for the play, otherwise it doesn’t work. That was my last year in the gifted program. My last year of having a privileged existence. My childhood was about to be over, everything was busted. I would soon be an adult, saddled with anxieties and responsibilities that I would never fully resolve. That was why my play was about somebody who comes into a crazy situation, the whole world is going bonkers, and he’s barely able to cope. In other words, you had Eden / kampong / childhood / friendship / superhero media sensation getting quashed by property developers / adulthood / responsibility / death and destruction. Obviously, that’s the stuff that great drama is made out of.

Once I put together the main plot, I knew that I had to write the play. I felt like I had hit the jackpot, I had never come up with a yarn as good as that (possibly I would never come up with that again). Everybody has one great story in them, and that was mine. With a backbone this good, even an amateur playwright like myself could make some decent product.

The Frantic Dash to the Finish

Problem is, this was 1-2 weeks before the deadline. So I told people that I was going to write this. Some people laughed, probably they didn’t understand that I had a winning idea, and I had already won half the battle by then. My parents were like “this is an ‘O’ levels year, why are you doing this?” The only other guy who had any clue what was going on was Chris Ong. I pulled 2 consecutive all-nighters and wrote my first major play. I actually submitted it one day late.

I also defied convention as far as I could. I remember the house play – not Dawen’s but the one we did in Sec 2, the one which touched on gay topics and who won a special prize for that. I am sympathetic towards LGBT causes, but I didn’t want it to be too politicised. Thus my guys were protesting the destruction of their kampong, which was the least political issue I could think of. I knew that people associated high art with symbolism and being dark and serious. In that LGBT house play, the director wanted all association with comedy expunged. I didn’t like that idea, so I made this a comedy, at least in the beginning. I hated the idea of plays taking themselves too seriously, so I deliberately made it look lowbrow. To be sure, it wasn’t lowbrow. It had aspirations to being great art. But I just thought, “take all that arty farty-ness and stuff it up your ass”. Non linear story telling techniques – out. Heavy handed symbolism – out. I didn’t want it to be driven by ideas. Yes, it touched a lot of ideas, but it revolved around plot, not ideas. Everybody wanted things to be dark and deep and “meaningful”. I gave them something that looked like garish 80s Hollywood. I gave it a jokey title, because why? Fuck you. And at the end of a play with a jokey title, I kill a little boy. Why? Fuck you. It was an act of defiance – against my classmates, against my parents, against the prevailing artistic norms of theater, against my own image as a maths geek, against modernisation (but I typed it on a word processor), basically against everything. Very teenager. Fuck all of you, fuck everything.

But also I’m a hybrid of a mathematician and artist. I liked to think of structure and form and function. I didn’t like high falutin arty-farty concepts. It wasn’t about the glitz and glamour. It was more about “well that was a pretty good experience”. If I had been a half competent self-promoter, you’d have heard of me long before I started writing my memoirs.

Also, I was a fan of MASK and Transformers, like a lot of kids my age. I tried to do that “illusion is the ultimate weapon” / “more than meets the eye” thing. The audience was led to believe they were watching at superheroes skit at first. It was not, it was about revolutionaries and social issues. The main character was supposed to be a hero at the beginning. He was not, he was an anti-hero. Almost a villain. They were led to believe it was a comedy. No, it was actually a tragedy. I did something that is almost never done: I killed off a cartoon character. Why? Because fuck you that’s why, I’m the playwright and I do what I want.

I wanted it to be the kind of play which sets your expectations up one way and then it turns out to be a totally different beast. Like I was watching “American Beauty” and I thought it was going to be one of those “suburbia is hell” shows, but it turned out to be a meditation on spirituality and life. Sorda.

The competition judge understood this. He wrote me, “your idea is I give you something that makes you laugh, and the audience laughs, and then after that I do something that makes you really sick. I like that.” Not a lot of people grasped that, and the reaction – to the extent that there was any at all – was most definitely not unanimously positive. But it won’t be if you’re genuinely trying to be different, so I guess I’m fine with that.

I still remember dashing off to school on a Saturday, and I was completely bleary after working non-stop for the last 12 hours. I have plenty of great memories from RI, but this one was the most magical, and typically, I was all alone, locked up in my bedroom, bashing away at something I only half expected to be successful, keeping it a secret and, of course, murdering one of my main characters like some bored deity. When I finished it, I had a feeling more powerful than the best orgasm. I took it to school, met no-one, dumped it into somebody’s pigeon hole. On the way home, I bought myself an ice cream at the BP station that used to be at the junction of Bishan and Braddell. Best ice cream I ever had.

Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography about watching Charlie Parker and Dizzy play for the first time. He said “that was best feeling I ever got with my pants on.” Submitting that play was for me the best feeling I ever got with my pants on, since you don’t walk around RI on a Saturday without your pants on. It was good enough that I half expected it to be chosen. Either that play was going to be staged, or 3 plays that were considered better than mine were going to be staged. Either way, I would be watching what happened, if they didn’t select mine and it turned out that those plays were lousier, I’d have wanted to go up to kaopeh kaobu. As it turned out, they forgave me my one day of lateness and it was chosen to be staged.

The Reveal

One month later, my literature teacher (you know, the one who likes to say “slap your face”) was ranting at all of us, and pointing to a few of us, one by one. “you’re not that interested in literature, neither are you, you and you.” And then she looked at me, and said, “you may be really good at maths, but you’re not much of a literature student”. I looked at her with this funny smirk on my face. One month after that, she handed me the fat envelope and said, “congratulations, your play is going to be part of GEP 10th anniversary celebrations”. Haha, not much of a literature student.

I still remembered the time when she said that even the Kenneth Yap missed out on an A1 because he was too much of a smartass and didn’t write the exam to the rubric. I was thinking to myself, are you kidding? If you gave me a choice between an A1 for Literature and the opportunity to stage a school play in public, it’s a no brainer which one I’d choose, so long as my literature grade doesn’t disqualify me from my choice of a JC.

It might be easy to say that I defied everybody – my classmates, my teacher, my parents and succeeded against the odds. But that’s stretching the truth. The truth was that for whatever reason – I had a lot of trust issues at that time. There were very few people I trusted enough to tell them about what I really wanted to achieve. And of course, at that time I just did what I felt like doing and I myself didn’t know what I really wanted to achieve. I cut out just about everybody, so apologies are in order. But seriously, what do you expect me to tell the teacher? “I go to the shopping centers 3 time a week and I wander around there for the whole afternoon”?

But from conception to finish, it was barely 1 month, there wasn’t any time to get anybody involved. In retrospect, way before that 1 month, I did all the right things in order to succeed at a creative venture. I read up a lot, I absorbed and learnt a lot, I spent a lot of time wandering alone in my own thoughts. Almost the perfect creative fallowing process.

I knew that play was far from being the complete product. Unfortunately, and I ought to be ashamed of this, I didn’t do very much to improve it. I could have done some research on what real life in an actual kampong was like, I didn’t. I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I was well aware that I was about to take the audience on a great adventure and a crazy story that almost nobody would ever believe, and I knew that it wouldn’t work unless I established an emotional connection, and I never did.

When I was writing it up, it was always on the back of my mind that I had to have a section at the beginning of the play, where I showed them why the kampong was some kind of idyllic paradise, and it would explain to them why the boys wanted to preserve it at all costs, and it would also heighten the tragic element at the end. I didn’t have enough time to do it, during those 2 all nighters. And perhaps, given my limitations as a playwright, I just wasn’t capable of doing it. But thinking back, I didn’t need to put in a separate story for that. Getting the audience in for the ride would have done the trick.

The Production

The execution left much to be desired. I had left RI by the time the play was to be staged, and as a result, very few of my peers are aware of the existence of this play. I’m proud to say that all three winning entries came from RI. Our reputation as not being particularly artsy is not borne out by reality. So that’s another fuck you to the world, to ACS and RGS for thinking that you’re more arty than us. Other than myself, one from Musa, and one from some guy in sec 3, one from me. So the sec 3 guy got RI to put up his play, Musa got RGS, and since my play was about guys, I got ACS.

I was quite guarded about the teacher put in charge for staging my play. I had heard that she just did whatever she felt like doing. During my first few months in JC, I could have joined any ECA and established myself in it, but I decided to go watch them like a hawk and make sure they didn’t mess around with my favourite play.

Unfortunately, there were creative differences. Perhaps they don’t matter – I suppose teenagers are way too sensitive about things that don’t matter. But quite a few of the things that they changed, they were going to change the meaning of the play. They were going to edit out the aspect where people were rebelling against the property developers, and they were going to downplay the nostalgia for kampong life, which they thought was stupid. They wanted to play up the superhero aspect and play down the revolutionary aspect, which was the opposite of what I wanted. I fought them as hard as I could.

I have to put my hand up and say that I did a poor job of explaining to them how the play worked. And to be fair, you also have to wonder: to a person of an authoritarian mindset, he would simply loathe the idea that he’s acting in a play about social protest, since that basically goes against everything that he believes in. I wasn’t close enough to the cast and crew to go back and talk about why they hated the original draft of the play. But I can tell you I was hopping mad. If I could go back in time now, I’d explain a few things to them:

First, on the most superficial level, you saw that the play was about a bunch of cartoon superheroes. That’s the first impression I wanted to convey, the MacGuffin, the premise that would eventually be whisked away. Second, it was about the kampong, and preservation of the old way of life in Singapore. But I didn’t want to dwell to much on it, and in a way this was the aspect that I paid the least attention to. So it was probably a mistake to mention the word “kampong” in the title. Third, it was about media and hype and the shallowness of modern life. It was about how they could suddenly become famous for 15 minutes, and then fade away just as quickly. You must remember that this play was written in 1993, and that was in a pre-internet age, although by then Andy Warhol’s infamous warning (about everybody being famous for only 15 minutes) was already known. I’m not ashamed to say that in some way, and at the grand old age of 16, I anticipated the age of social media. Fourth, it was the mentality of the rebel, what made him tick, and what made him scheme his hair brained schemes. That part was based on Chee Soon Juan, but the person my character was most similar to was Roy Ngerng. And finally, as explained in a previous section, was the emotional heart of the whole matter: it was about adolescence. If I had been a clear eyed about what the play was about, I would have explained it to them, and hopefully they would have understood, or at least they would have respected my choices. As it was, I was almost exclusively operating on gut instinct that somehow I had come up with something pretty good, but I couldn’t really explain it.

Singapore theatre comes from a tradition of social realism. People naturally expect that social commentary is a part of theatre. When you mention a kampong, they’d think that it was the center of things. The way it turned out, the kampong was not the center of things. The beating heart of “Caped Crusaders” was the mind of the rebel. And contrary to the social realism tradition, I wanted to say something about what it meant to be a rebel, about the instinct to be a rebel without a cause, and yet practical realities of being a rebel catches up with you, and shit happens. Perhaps this was due to an overexposure to American culture, but I wanted it to be universal enough that even Hollywood could adapt it (they wouldn’t necessarily want to)- it couldn’t be that specific to Singapore. Where I did fail was I didn’t research into period detail. Eventually maybe people would judge me on that and fail me on that.

In the future, I would get retribution for the way that I dealt with my cast and crew for “Caped Crusaders”. Perhaps I should have paid less attention to preventing them from messing around with my work, and paid more attention to how productions were made. Then again, it wouldn’t have been easy to work other peoples’ inputs into the script. It is difficult to write a play by committee because usually what happens when you compromise somebody’s artistic vision is that the quality suffers. In fact Musa had chosen to hang out with Raffles Players, and when he saw his play, he wasn’t happy about one or two things he felt he might have intervened in.

The Letter

One of the judges was a prominent playwright in Singapore, not going to say who, maybe he knows. He signed up to being a consultant. I wrote him a letter, “help, my cast and crew are staging a mutiny, what shall I do?”

He wrote me a letter – 10 fucking pages! – you can imagine why that letter would be the first thing I would save from my house in the event of a fire. You can see very clearly that he writes on top of the letter, “this is between you and me and nobody else”. So I’m not going to reproduce it in full, and I’m not going to name him. But I’m going to assume that he said that because he – very reasonably – didn’t want that letter to be part of a political battle. And neither did he want that letter to be used as a testimonial. So let’s assume that it’s neither of those things. Let’s assume that he’s come to see the fact that I didn’t get a mentorship as a mistake. (It was, but to be fair, the portfolio I submitted 1 year earlier was not that impressive). Here are the main points, which are pretty uncontroversial other than the last.

  1. Being an artist is one hell of a hard slog. You are expected to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop.
  2. There will always be disagreements with the cast and crew and you have to work with the director closely to come up with a compromise. (I assume that he’s is very very good at this because he’s worked with the same director for, what, 30 years?)
  3. I really enjoyed reading your play.

Obviously after reading the last point, I was over the moon.

Did I think that what I did was praiseworthy? I thought I had written a pretty good play. But that’s totally different from saying that I was a good playwright. I did the architecture well. I read something that Michael Mann said about his movie “Collateral”: the first draft wasn’t very good. The dialogue was stilted, there were too many cliches. But he could see the potential, the interplay between a Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise. It had an ugly skin but a beautiful skeleton. I would say that about “Caped Crusaders” as well.

Most people who saw “Mahjong” would have liked it. For “Caped Crusaders”, it was either you loved it or hated it, depending on what you trained your sights on. I thought that while it may have been superior to something like “Mahjong” in one or two respects, I had a lot to learn as a playwright. (In fact, I may not have learnt those things by the time I quit. That was one reason why I quit – I wasn’t sure how far I could develop in that direction.)

The other obvious flaw – and strongly related to its greatest strength – was that it took on so many things that it wasn’t possible to wrap everything up neatly by the end.

The production

Let’s just say that it would have been a little difficult to produce something that matched the splendid visions I had in my head, but it wasn’t half bad. That hundreds of people would be congregating in a dark room, half of whom are probably thinking “what the fuck is this Caped Crusaders at the Kampong Treehouse shit?” Those are the things that I live for. I felt like I had punked all of them.

Kenneth Yap? He was there too, and I got a thumbs up from him, which is nice because good as “Caped Crusaders” was, I don’t think it matched up to “Mahjong”, an extremely tough act to follow. Many years later he would write the Law IV production, and that play was about Tiananmen. I’d like to think I had something to do with that.

After the play got performed, a friend of mine came up to me and said, “you know, what’s good is that you tried, and you took a shot at it. I wonder what would have happened if I had tried.“ Also, during the last 2 weeks when I was writing my play, my sister briefly considered turning in a script too. (She’s really competitive.) But in both cases, they underestimated how far along the road I had already travelled – this is partially because I had been in stealth mode. I already had a product that was good enough that I expected it to win. I’m not an entrepreneurial person. I’m not a risk taker. By the time I get off my ass to do something, I’m already 50% sure it will succeed. It was like a cross country race, where everybody sees you crossing the finishing line, but they’re all wondering how you got there, because they didn’t see most of the race that you ran.

The End of the Beginning, and the Beginning of the End

That was the incident that more than anything else taught me something about what success looks like. I was on my own, armed with nothing more than the courage of my convictions. I do it because you want to do it, not because somebody sets it for me as an assignment. I wasn’t explicitly looking for success, but there was something that I just liked doing, and in the end, it morphed into a concrete achievement. Later on in life, I would be the type of person who may not be very good at getting work done within a system, but the lack of a support system is also not any kind of an impediment at all.

People will usually be tempted to say that this play was a fluke. In a way it was, because I was lucky to have the opportunity to put something up like that and performed in public. I didn’t have to slog away for years. I spent 2 weeks putting the idea together, then 2 nights writing the play itself proper. But I had plenty of conversations with my collaborator. I had spent a lot of my time watching TV. I had spent a lot of time standing in front of magazine racks, rummaging for anything they failed to shrink wrap, and reading all the opinion pieces on art. Many of my classmates considered me lazy and I did nothing to change their opinion. I had some notion of what true art is all about. There’s absolutely no such thing as a completely naïve artist. Some people called that play “thoughtful”. Yes, I had thought it through, that’s for sure. Back in the day I definitely wasn’t trumpeting it to everyone and asking everyone to go watch it. But I kinda regret that now: after all that work, it shouldn’t be forgotten.

There haven’t been a lot of articles of the form that I stated I was going to do. That’s because transcribing and annotating music is a heck of a lot of work. And anyway it’s not that easy to persuade people to read all the stuff you’ve ever wanted to say about a piece musically. People don’t write about music because music’s the hardest thing to write about. They’ll write everything relating to the music, other than the music itself.

Luckily, some great guy has managed to transcribe Weather Report’s “Birdland” for me, and it’s great. It’s a old piece, from the 70s instead of the 60s, so it’s somewhat past the golden age of jazz, but still very interesting.

Joe Zawinul has always done a lot of interesting things for “jazz”. With him, you have to put jazz in quotations, because it isn’t exactly that. He’s classically trained, got into jazz, playing for Cannonball Adderley. And then he helped Miles Davis steer Jazz in the fusion direction. I don’t think two people as headstrong as Miles Davis and Zawinul can stay in the band together for long, but he was there during Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. And then he founded Weather Report, which was all over the place with elements of jazz, ambient, hip hop, and world music. He probably called the band Weather Report because there has always been something elemental but unpredictable about that band, as though it were a force of nature that could not be tamed.

Between him and Shorter, they have two great composing talents. Shorter is also himself known for innovative and boundary pushing compositions. So much of traditional bop basically works this way: theme, sax solo, trumpet solo, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, theme, end. And you have to bear this in mind when you grapple with “Birdland”.

There was this notion when I first heard it: it was too commercial. Too melodic. The lines were too simple. The solo improvisations were too simple. There was no Coltrane, filling in every gap and space with dazzling displays of virtuosity and reminding you that he practiced 15 hours every day.

But after a while, it dawned on me that this was a whole new ball game. And to illustrate, let’s just go through all the musical ideas that are introduced in a flurry.

First, is this bassline:

Birdland 01

Then this figure as a counterpoint over it, and this would be the main melody, or rather a hint of it. Let’s call this part section A.

Birdland 02-1

Birdland 02-3

The first curve ball, the first diversion. (Section B)

Birdland 03-1

Birdland 03-2

After that, we have some sort of a vamp. Let’s call this section A’, since it’s harmonically similar to section A.

Birdland 04-1

Birdland 04-2

A word about the vamp. What is it? It’s the musical equivalent of treading water, where we take the tension down a notch. It’s some kind of a foreplay, where nothing seems to be happening, but actually it’s the calm before the storm, and it’s just there to prepare you for an impending climax when it comes. So this is the first stage. Then we come to the second stage where you’re stroking the proverbial shaft a little faster:

Birdland 05-1

Birdland 05-2

And a little faster still….

Birdland 06-1

Birdland 06-2

Birdland 06-3

So you see, this follows the principles of good sex. Like you only release it when you’ve built up to it properly, if you know what I mean. This vamp (section A’) is in a way a rehash of the beginning (section A) and it hints at what the beginning was leading up to. I would probably call “Birdland” modal since it doesn’t use chords as a basis for improvisation.

This, which I call section C, is the big release, what the previous cranking up of tension was leading to. And probably this is the main point of the whole song.

Birdland 07-1

Birdland 07-2

So you see, this is what we’ve been spending the better part of the song building up to. All that teasing, all that hinting is only to build up to this, and it is this main theme, or some variation thereof, that you’ll be singing over and over again.

For some people, it is pretty direct. They’ll follow the verse chorus verse pattern. So I like to highlight this piece to show something more indirect, something more meandering, and therefore something more surprising and unexpected.

And wait, there’s more. There’s a coda to all this, another vamp where you have this descending melodies / basslines to finish off the whole thing: (Section D) If any of you are fans of Thelonious Monk, as I am, you’d recognise that this “descending chromatic scale” is a favourite trick of his (check out “Skippy” and “Humph”). Maybe Zawinul just decided to borrow it.

Birdland 08-1

Birdland 08-2

So if you look at it, Birdland is a fairly rich collection of themes. There are around 6 or 7 parts that are coming in and going out, and only one or two of them are really prominent. The rest of them are hints or they’re there to lead into the main parts. When you put them all together they tend to bounce off and reinforce each other. When you listen to one part of the melody, in the background your mind is playing back something else that was played before.

In a way, this is similar to what jazz does: you have the same chords, or at least, the same modes, and you play a more fancy solo over it. But what “Birdland” does is a little different: these are not solos. They are mini-melodies, mini-themes in their own right. They are not really improvised on the spot, but they serve the same function as the improvised stuff. In fact, what do a lot of different but loosely related melodies reminds you of? An overture. So is it any surprise that this is also the album opener for “Heavy Weather”? If you notice, “Mysterious Traveller” opens with “Nubian Sundance”, “Black Market” opens with “Black Market”, “Tale Spinnin” opens with “Man in the Green Shirt”. All of them open the album with the most overtly melodic piece.

So the first main point is something that I’ve probably already said before: there’s a lot of traction to be gain from repeating yourself, but playing the same thing slightly different from the last time. If you’re stuck, you can always play back what you already have, but in a different way, and it works great until it becomes too boring.

Sorry for the overtly sexualized depiction of the music, but there are reasons why “jazz” and “jizz” differ by only one letter. It’s not the same thing but the elements that lead up to a good fuck are also the elements that lead up to a good piece of music. Tension, release and climax are crucial to your understanding of good design principles for music composition.

So the second main point: understand what you’re building towards. You could build things up slowly and gradually, and understand how to crank the tension up until you have a climax. Obviously, perfectly horizontal music is also possible, but then you’d have to make it artistically compelling in some other way.

There was a time when Joni Mitchell raised a big stink with an interview where she threw some shade on Bob Dylan. Maybe Bob Dylan is the untouchable in the imagination of people. And perhaps he used to belong to the generation of Baby Boomers who have regarded him as some kind of a demi-God.

There are a few common perceptions which are basically bullshit.

First, there is the perception that Bob Dylan has more musical range than Joni has. In a way, that’s true. What Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have in common is that both of them started out as folk artists. Bob Dylan’s map is country, folk and blues. Joni Mitchell’s map is folk and jazz. Other than the folk music, there isn’t that much in common.

Both of them have surrounded themselves with the best. Dylan has had the Al Kooper Mike Bloomfield band, and also the Band. Joni has played with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny.

Perhaps I don’t really get those styles of music that much. I’m looking at this from the perspective of a jazz musician. For my money, Bob Dylan has never done anything musically that made my jaw drop, the way that Joni has, on several occasions. Bob Dylan is a fine artist, and he has plenty of musical originality. But musically he’s not in the same league as Joni, he’s not been as inventive. Joni, on the other hand, let’s just say that there are a few sequences of chords which are so distinctive that they can be called Joni chords. There has never been such a thing as a Bob Dylan chord. But I’ll have to admit that Dylan’s pretty handy with a guitar.

There was this article which actually compared what Bob Dylan was doing with John Coltrane’s improvisation on “Kind of Blue”. First, John Coltrane did a fine job on “Kind of Blue”, but that’s hardly his defining work. That was him, putting in a shift as a team player, and helping to create a masterpiece by Miles Davis. I say “a masterpiece” because calling “Kind of Blue” Miles Davis’ masterpiece is pretty unfair to him.

And second, comparing Bob Dylan to John Coltrane, musically, is like saying your five year old can paint like Picasso. Simply put, I don’t really value the musical opinion of a person who gets impressed when you start a chord sequence with a IV minor.

Second, there is the perception that Joni Mitchell is primarily a folk artist.

I don’t really think that Joni Mitchell has gotten her due as a musician. There’s a sense that she’s a little misunderstood. Joni Mitchell compiled her boxed set herself, and it wasn’t awarded a 5 star rating. It was awarded 4 stars instead, on the grounds that she left out a lot of music from her folk years. Perhaps there is a tendency to see her as a folkie who veered into jazz by accident.

After listening to enough of her stuff, I’ve come to the conclusion that Joni Mitchell is primarily a jazz musician. I used to wonder why jazz was so dominated by men, other than vocal jazz. At least, we have in Joni, at least one jazz great who does the instrumentals. Joni appeared in blackface on “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter”.

To me, Joni Mitchell is the male version of Joe Zawinul. They’re white folks from another country (Canada / Austria), who sorda play jazz but also combine it with other genres. They’re both egoistic as hell. Also, both of them have played with Shorter and Pastorius. I don’t think they’ve played with each other, because they’re such big egos that it would never have worked out, it would have been like Michael Jackson and Prince. But obviously Shorter and Pastorius are drawn to them both for what I presume to be similar reasons. More importantly, both of them have very unique and idiosyncratic approaches to music that can unsettle and ruffle people who very much prefer the traditional categorisations.

The other strain is that Joni Mitchell has tried to put out compilations of her own material – it’s pretty striking that she’s done that more than a lot of other folks I’ve seen. She tried with “Hits” and “Misses” in the 90s. Then she tried again in the 2000s with a triad, “Beginning of Survival” / “Dreamland” and “Songs of a Prairie Girl”. Then there was that boxed set, “Love Has Many Faces”. That’s 9 CDs worth of stuff, pretty remarkable. And perhaps none of them are unqualified successes. In addition, there were the albums “Both Sides Now” and “Travelogue”. “Both Sides Now” was perhaps an exercise for her to figure out how to set music to strings, and “Travelogue” was the payoff, to redo some of her music with different arrangements.

It’s pretty apparent that her 80s Geffen albums have suffered from some form of schizophrenia. They’ve suffered from the fact that 80s style synthsizer arrangements just aren’t very good. But they’ve also suffered from being in the wrong context, and nobody can really put their finger on what those albums are really all about. Thematically they’re all over the place. I see a lot of that compiling as attempts to salvage what has come to be seen as a few failed artistic decisions. In time, possibly some of her later material will be re-evaluated. I hope that something will come out of it, and I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in her later music. I just don’t exactly know what to make of it.

Third, there is this tendency to bring up Joni Mitchell in conjunction with what I’d call the “Lilith Fair” crowd. It’s undeniable that Joni Mitchell has been a great inspiration to many women, although I’m not exactly sure that she’s repaid the admiration. There are a lot of women who are like her on the surface, but I’m not exactly sure I admire their music as much. Your Paula Coles. Your Sarah McLachans. Your Natalie Merchants. They are daughters of the folksy Joni, and like I said, she’s put a little distance between herself and that legacy. I’m not that sure that she likes that tag. In fact, I’m also not sure that every time some white chick stands up there with a guitar, she’s going to like being compared to Joni Mitchell. It’s an association both party would do better without.

But here’s the thing: Joni Mitchell lives in a man’s world. Most of her collaborators are men. And she’s the leader. Her associates are Crosby Stills and Nash. And those jazzmen I’ve mentioned. So she might not necessarily be compared to other ladies, because she wasn’t part of that scene. And that’s how I’d judge her music: she’s pretty good for a guy.

Bob Dylan has not bothered to correct her. He hasn’t waded into this discussion at all. Does he think that he’s she’s wrong? I don’t really think so. In fact, he might have some sympathy for her because he knows what it’s like to come up against a bunch of folkie fundamentalists who decry sell out every time you come up with something unusual. The people who want to put Joni in a box as a “female folkie” have quite a lot in common with the crowd who booed Bob Dylan in Manchester and called him “Judas”.

I don’t think it’s really that wrong for her to say that Bob Dylan isn’t that musically gifted. Very few people are, compared to Joni. One of Bob Dylan’s enduring musical legacies was showing the world that you could have a creaky nasal voice, and making something useful out of it. Saying that Bob Dylan has a great singing voice, though, is literally making a virtue out of a necessity.

That article which said that Joni Mitchell owes such a great debt to Bob Dylan is a little wrong-headed. Maybe lyrically. Lyrically, I would say that he’s superior to Joni. But the majority of Joni’s musical work has nothing to do with Dylan. I’d say that what Joni and Bob Dylan have in common is that both of them are sick and tired of how Bob Dylan has come to be some great icon. Even Bob Dylan himself would resist that. His Bobness does not like being typecast. He’s embarked on some “never ending tour” because he just wants to be a travelling musician, not some famous pop / rock God.

What Joni said about Dylan “inventing characters for himself” as opposed to her is true. The one aspect where you could say Joni Mitchell fits into the 70s singer songwriter mould is that she writes in the first person. Dylan writes in the 3rd person. Even when he’s assuming a fake identity and wearing a mask and stepping into somebody else’s shoes. I’m not that familiar with his lyrical work but that movie “I’m Not There” had a lot of different actors portraying Bob Dylan, so I’m assuming that that’s what he does with his lyrics. I don’t think that’s really a knock on Dylan. Bob Dylan being a plagiarist is a proven charge. But he’s still a better lyricist than she is. Bob Dylan is special because of the lyrics, not the music.

Still, calling Bob Dylan a fake is pretty out of line. Joni should know better than that, and she should also know that she’s never going to be a better wordsmith than him.

I think that Joni Mitchell would have done better than to be wading like this into a shitstorm, but she does raise a good point. Dylan’s on a certain pedestal as being the greatest singer songwriter ever. Is anybody going to be challenging him on that pedestal? In my opinion, he’s one of the greats, but not the greatest, and I think it’s good to challenge that notion. But Joni’s remarks do make her sound like a sourpuss. Still, it’s a good question raised.

You know, it’s a little sad, A few years ago when I put up this blog I had high hopes about actually being able to write about music composition, but I suppose it’s just going to be one of those trashy blogs where you talk about music in general.

Somebody put up an article about Best New Artist Grammy winners who didn’t deserve to win. I thought about it and I will review the nominees and the winners from every year from 1965 to 2000, which is the period of pop music I’m most familiar with.

1965 Won: The Beatles

Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Morgana King, Petula Clark

Preferred winner: the Beatles.

Who the fuck is Morgana King? Anyway the best and the most obvious act won. You couldn’t go wrong. Astonishingly, the Beatles are not my favourite act on this list: that would be Jobim. The sight of the Beatles being second on a list is very very weird. That still wouldn’t be enough to knock them off the winner’s list, since . It’s a sign of how out of touch the Grammys are, though. Even the one time they got it right, they gave a Best New Artist award to a band that had been around since 1957.

1966 Won: Tom Jones

Glenn Yarbrough, Herman’s Hermits, Horst Jankowski, Marilyn Maye, Sonny & Cher, The Byrds,The Gods at play.

Preferred winner: the Byrds

There’s nothing wrong with Tom Jones, or the career he’s had since winning that award. But the best on this list would have been the Byrds, for their very distinctive electric folk sound, and because they have Crosby, McGuinn, Hillman and Clark.

1967 No prize

1968 Won: Bobbie Gentry

Harpers Bizarre, Jefferson Airplane, Lana Cantrell, The 5th Dimension

Preferred winner: Jefferson Airplane

I don’t know who the heck Bobbie Gentry is. Even if they didn’t plump for Jefferson Airplane they should have settled for somebody more sensible like the 5th Dimension.

1969 Won: José Feliciano

Cream, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Jeannie C. Riley, O. C. Smith

Preferred winner: Cream

1970 Winner: Crosby, Stills & Nash

Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Oliver, The Neon Philharmonic

This is another year they didn’t fuck up the nominations. Any of CSN, Chicago and Led Zep would have been worthy winners. Interestingly this is the second time David Crosby got nominated: first as the Byrds. Maybe this was to make up for their fuck up in not giving it to him earlier.

1971       The Carpenters

Anne Murray, Elton John, Melba Moore, The Partridge Family

Any of Carpenters or Elton John

1972       Carly Simon

Bill Withers, Chase, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds

Any of Carly Simon or Bill Withers. I don’t like ELP but some people might.


1973       America

Eagles, Harry Chapin,  John Prine, Loggins and Messina

I don’t like the Eagles but I would have taken them any day. Maybe even Harry Chapin or John Prine.


Bette Midler

Barry White, Eumir Deodato, Marie Osmond, Maureen McGovern

I would have taken Barry White over Bette Midler, but Bette Midler’s not too bad.

1975       Marvin Hamlisch

Bad Company, David Essex, Graham Central Station, Johnny Bristol, Phoebe Snow

Argh, what a bad year. Maybe that’s why everybody was so relieved when Bruce Springsteen came out in 1975. The early 70s, though, were an excellent time for soul and funk and you know, they’re never going to win the Grammys. I’d have gone for David Essex instead, and then Graham Central Station (but this is only because of Sly Stone) and Bad Company.

1976       Natalie Cole

Amazing Rhythm Aces, Brecker Brothers, KC and the Sunshine Band, Morris Albert

Argh, this is so awful. I would go for the Brecker Brothers and then KC and the Sunshine Band.

1977       Starland Vocal Band

Boston, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, The Brothers Johnson, Wild Cherry

This is one royal fuck up. Any of the rest would have been better than the Starland Vocal Band, even though afternoon delight is a great song. I would have chosen the Brothers Johnson ahead of the rest.

1978       Debby Boone

Andy Gibb, Foreigner, Shaun Cassidy, Stephen Bishop

What a horrible year. I nominate no one.

1979       A Taste of Honey

Chris Rea, Elvis Costello, The Cars, Toto

Another horrible year, just like 1977. Anybody else would have been better than a Taste of Honey. Especially Elvis Costello.

1980  Rickie Lee Jones

Dire Straits, Robin Williams, The Blues Brothers, The Knack

1981       Christopher Cross

Amy Holland, Irene Cara, Robbie Dupree, The Pretenders

It should have been the Pretenders. We all know what happened next, but it would have happened to them, with or without the grammy.

1982       Sheena Easton

Adam and the Ants, James Ingram, Luther Vandross, The Go-Go’s

I’d have gone for Luther Vandross instead.

1983       Men at Work

Asia, Jennifer Holliday, Stray Cats, The Human League

I’d have gone for the Human League

1984       Culture Club

Big Country, Eurythmics, Men Without Hats, Musical Youth

Culture Club are fine but Eurythmics would also have been fine.

1985       Cyndi Lauper

Corey Hart, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Sheila E., The Judds

Another relatively weak slate. Cyndi it is, then.

1986       Sade

a-ha, Freddie Jackson, Katrina and the Waves, Julian Lennon

1987       Bruce Hornsby and the Range

Glass Tiger, Nu Shooz, Simply Red, Timbuk3

Either them or Simply Red.

1988       Jody Watley

Breakfast Club, Cutting Crew, Terence Trent D’Arby, Swing Out Sister

This was infamous for being one of the least deserving best new artists ever. I’d have gone for TTD or Sananda Maitreya as he is now known.

1989       Tracy Chapman

Rick Astley, Take 6, Toni Childs. Vanessa L. Williams

Nothing terribly wrong with Tracy Chapman, but what a meh year.

1990       Vacated[III]

Indigo Girls, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul, Tone Loc, Milli Vanilli (Vacated)

I’d have gone for Milli Vanilli, because it would show the Grammy up to be the scam that it is. But it’s interesting to note that New Jack Swing had ruled the charts so completely for 1 or 2 years that you had all these guys up for awards. There’s not much to choose between all 5 of them. I like Soul II Soul, but none of these ppl had lasting careers. The most significant one for me is Neneh Cherry because she took all the money she earned from “Raw Like Sushi” and funded “Blue Lines” by Massive Attack.

1991       Mariah Carey

Lisa Stansfield, The Black Crowes, The Kentucky Headhunters, Wilson Phillips

No question about Mariah Carey, although her career is something I admire more than I like. Lisa Stansfield and the Black Crowes would have been also fine.

1992       Marc Cohn

Boyz II Men, C+C Music Factory, Color Me Badd, Seal

I’d have chosen Seal, although here’s another slate of good but not great nominees. Seal’s first two albums were quite OK, and then it was downhill.

1993       Arrested Development

Billy Ray Cyrus, Jon Secada, Kris Kross, Sophie B. Hawkins

Another slate of meh candidates, although Arrested Development’s first album was pretty damn great. I can’t love it as much now as I did back then because I’m no longer a naïve 16 year old, but at that time I thought it was the second coming of Sly Stone.

1994       Toni Braxton

Belly, Blind Melon, Digable Planets, SWV

I’d have gone for anybody to win this. Maybe Blind Melon, for the same reason as the Pretenders.

1995       Sheryl Crow

Ace of Base, Counting Crows, Crash Test Dummies, Green Day

At least this one they got right, even though Green Day is also quite deserving.

1996       Hootie & the Blowfish

Alanis Morissette, Brandy, Joan Osborne, Shania Twain

Urgh, Hootie. For one entire year, Hootie was unescapable. But if not Hootie, then who? Alanis?

1997       LeAnn Rimes

Garbage, Jewel, No Doubt, The Tony Rich Project

No Doubt, by a wide margin. And I don’t even like No Doubt!

1998       Paula Cole

Erykah Badu, Fiona Apple, Hanson, Puff Daddy

Finally, there’s one person I wouldn’t hesistate to put forward, and that’s Erykah. But Fiona Apple is quite alright too.

1999       Lauryn Hill

Andrea Bocelli, Backstreet Boys, Dixie Chicks, Natalie Imbruglia

Lauryn, definitely. But after this, she just disappeared. But in “The Score” and “Miseducation” there were two masterpieces in a row.

2000       Christina Aguilera

Britney Spears, Kid Rock, Macy Gray, Susan Tedeschi

Nothing to choose between Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, both of them are more successful than they have talent. But both of them are by some distance the hottest ladies on this entire list.


Being an musical omnivore, I can’t honestly say that any one music artist, or any one music genre is central to who I am. But David Bowie is one of the greats and his place in history is assured.

In secondary school, there was a period when I was making a musical transition. There was a time when I was about to turn my back on my classical music education and turn instead to the exciting new music that was coming out from the left field. Most of us knew David Bowie from his more commercially successful 80s, the big singles from “Let’s Dance” and “Blue Jeans”, the Labyrinth cameo.

But the best part of his career, as any real fan knows, was what he did in the 70s. David Bowie ruled the 70s. One of the first cassettes I bought in this new era, and one of the earliest of a few thousand albums I own, was “ChangesBowie” by David Bowie, from ground floor of a HDB flat in Toa Payoh. It was one of the best places to get cassettes at the time because everything was $2 cheaper. (I had a lot of luck with music that I purchased on Chinese New Years’ eve. In the following years, I bought Suzanne Vega’s first album and Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. ) It was a great compilation and in the following years, even though I swore I wasn’t going to do it, I procured every album from that magical David Bowie period, which had a song from ChangesBowie.

That year was when I was basically listening to all the music I could lay my hands on. I was on fire. The timing was perfect. It was 1992, I just had to wait for all the fantastic music from 1991 to turn up in Singapore. For me, there were 4 magical periods in the rock music era. First was the Elvis period, where we had the early rock and roll stars. It was between 1955 and when Elvis entered the army. The second was the Beatles period, which was from 1962, when they released their first singles, to 1972, when the Rolling Stones released their last great album, “Exile”. The third was punk / post punk, which was from 1977 to 1983.

Then from 1987 to around 2000, there was the last great magical period. In it, all the strands from all the music traditions were coming together. Rap was having its Cambrian explosion, the underground music bands that were slogging away through the mid 80s, notably Sonic Youth, REM and Husker Du were breaking through to a wider audience. House music was being forged in the abandoned warehouses of Detroit and Manchester. 1988 was another “summer of love” when people were dancing away to ecstasy. Then Nirvana would break through and usher in the era of alternative rock. Then there would be the great Britpop boom. And on another track, rap would advance by leaps and bounds. Sampling would be largely stymied by legal issues by 1993, but there would be rap production groups that would always find a way to great fantastic music nonetheless. There were wonderful new fangled things like rave, drum n bass, jungle. It was an age of wonder for electronic music like the Orb, Orbital and Future Sound of London.

So you can imagine, me getting into music around 1992, a freshly minted Grade 8 in piano, a trained ear, and all this candy lying around. My timing was basically perfect.

I’ve always been proud to share the same birthday as two musical legends, Elvis Presley and David Bowie. And in 1992, some of you might find this strange, Elvis Presley was the bigger name of the two. David Bowie’s influence was yet to be felt, whereas Elvis Presley was the guy who popularized rock and roll. At this point in time, there’s no question who’s the bigger name. For me, David Bowie cast such a big shadow over the fourth great period. He was also such a big influence on all the big acts of the 1980s. Your Whams, your Duran Durans, your Chrissie Hyndes. Even the hair metal guys, who took their cue from glam rock.

David Bowie was one of the first guys I got turned on to during the second phase of my music education, and he was also the soundtrack to a few years of my life that I remember with fondness. He was also a big influence on the Britpop scene of the mid 90s, on Suede, on Morrissey. He was also game enough to make a comeback in the mid 90s, and although it was rather hit and miss, he always gave it a go. His mid 90s output would not be much more prominent than the work of some of his fans, but he already more than earned his right to share the stage with them.

For me, David Bowie was rock music’s great postmodernist. Elvis Presley was not well equipped to handle that kind of fame. The Beatles were also completely destroyed by their own fame, by the end of it, although by then they had a legacy nobody else could match.

David Bowie was different. He was knowing, self-aware. His starting point was not music, but theatre. There was always an element of theatre in the music. This was a turnaround from another main development a few years earlier, around 1965, when “rock n roll” morphed into something more self-consciously arty and serious – “rock”. David Bowie adopted the arty seriousness, but then he put in the more arty and self-conscious side. He was always simultaneously performing, and commenting on his own performance.

His choice of his earliest associates was telling. They were Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He was always a fan of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. They were the artier, seamier side of rock music. They had merged rock music with the pop art movement, and also the more dada elements. There was Iggy Pop, the in your face, confrontational performer, who was constantly destroying the fourth wall between the audience and the performer. He was the ultimate fool because of his antics, and he was the ultimate serious performer, because he took his own performance to extremes that nobody else would go to.

David Bowie was the ultimate plastic rock star. He was the classic all-style performer, because he made such a big deal about his image and his outfits. Yet you knew that there was a substance behind all that, because, as he made it very clear, anything you were seeing at any point in time was merely one facet of something that was extremely complex. He created characters, and performed in those characters. He put those characters up front, but at the same time you knew that he would dramatically kill off those characters at any point in time.

He was unknowable because he was always wearing a mask. And he was completely knowable because he wore so many masks that you probably have seen him already from so many different angles. Lou Reed destroyed the innocence of rock music. Iggy Pop destroyed any semblance of decorum in rock music. David Bowie destroyed the idea of rock music as being a permanent, lasting work of art. Everything would be plastic and disposable from now on.

David Bowie bent gender, because he often cross-dressed. He was the vanguard of the glam rock movement, along with T-Rex, the Sweet, Slade and Mott the Hoople. He already had in mind a multifarious rock career by the time he wrote, in one of his early songs, “So I turned myself to face me / But I’ve never caught a glimpse / Of how the others must see the faker / I’m much too fast to take that test” In other words, I don’t give a shit about how anybody – other people or myself – view me, because I’m changing too quickly to ever get nailed down.

David Bowie had a few careers, and any of these things would have made him famous on its own.

  1. Being at the vanguard of the glam rock movement. As John Lennon puts it, it’s rock and roll with lipstick on. Being sexually androgynous and hinting that he’s gay. (Actually, Bowie is probably not gay.)
  2. Being an actor (a fairly competent one, at that)
  3. Being a soul singer. A few of his singles are soul classics – “Fame”, “Young Americans” and “Golden Years”
  4. His Berlin albums, collaborating with Brian Eno, where he created a blend of Teutonic art rock pop. He would probably have to be considered, together with Cluster, Can and Neu! as Krautrock legends, except that he’s not German.
  5. International stardom with his hits, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love”.

David Bowie was not the first to have made a cartoon character of his rock persona. The Beatles did it with Sergeant Pepper, Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour. But there was something really unsettling with what he did with Ziggy Stardust. He was saying that the audience devoured Ziggy Stardust in the end. A performer getting killed by his audience. In other words, the gaze of the audience was also a significant actor in the show.

That made a mark on me. When I was in secondary school, no disrespect to my other ECAs, which were mathematics club and scouts, and which were also great experiences, but my biggest achievement was writing a play and winning the right to have it staged in public. In that play, I also had a bunch of guys become media sensations, and in the end, they were slaughtered. I also likened it to Tiananmen and the Chee Soon Juan saga that was going on at the time – in all three cases, the performer got killed at the end of the show.

On the way, through David Bowie’s imperial period, he dabbled with soul, rock, electronic treatments, art rock. David Bowie did not get killed by the punks, because he was wisely putting out his Berlin trilogy while all the prog rockers got killed. He, after all, was a great promoter of the godfathers of punk – Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Why would they ever want to harm him?

I read a comment about a person passionately defending his legacy and saying that “he almost died for his art”. I don’t think so. When I listen to David Bowie, he’s never anything but a consummate artist. But I always sense that he’s somewhat removed from his work. He wouldn’t feel so passionately about his work that he felt that he had to die, like Kurt Cobain did. He wouldn’t crucify himself on guitar like Bruce Springsteen. Put it this way, he had so many muses, I don’t think that he would have been faithful to any one of them – theatre, fashion, graphic design, music – soul, rock, electronic. He did have his fascist period, but not surprisingly that coincided with his cocaine habit.

There were a few songs where the mask slipped, for me, and not coincidently, they were in the late 70s, when he was just this close to dying. You can’t help being a little emotional at that point. “Heroes” was his most obviously emotional song. And there was also “Word on a Wing”, which was basically a prayer, as well as “Wild is the Wind”, which is a paean to something beautiful dying – although I’m not sure what. “Young Americans” was a very sad song. It’s a rebuke to what he saw as the Americans who live fast and heedless lives when they’re young. But other than those few songs, he just comes across as being very guarded.

David Bowie just comes across as somebody who’s very crafty, very artful, very astute about knowing what’s fashionable or not. The range and scope of his artistic ambition is very remarkable. He understands stagecraft, he’s a good enough songwriter to have penned a few classics. He know that music is not just about the sound. In his own words, he is about the sound and vision. When I checked out the new music “megastore” at MPH Stamford all those years ago, and came across a shelf full of his album covers that I had seen for the first time, it seemed to me that he had never made a bad looking album cover between “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Scary Monsters”. OK, “Low” and “Station to Station” were not his, they were nicked from “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, but they were visually striking. I understood that this guy was a universe unto himself. The visuals deepen the experience of listening to the music. You felt as though you were in a world of his own making.

I see that he has a lot of passionate followers. There’s no doubt that he’s a visionary. But the one thing he is not, he’s not really an emotional person. There’s something icy, something British about him. Something very Capricornian about him. He both loves and shuns the spotlight. From 1969 to 1977, he made an insane amount of music, and he lived so fast that he almost died from drug addiction. Then after his music career slowed down, he admitted that from the late 80s onwards, he didn’t give a shit about music anymore. He liked to play second fiddle to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and many times he just likes being a regular dude – inasmuch as he is capable of being a regular dude. Personally, this is very easy to explain. David Bowie is basically an alien. He isn’t pretending to be an alien, he isn’t affecting anything. He IS an alien. He couldn’t not stand out from the crowd, even if he tried. And therefore a person like that would naturally cherish whatever opportunity there is to blend into the background. But he can’t do that. He tried it once, with Tin Machine. He let somebody else be the guitar god, and padded it up with the two guys who did the bam-bam-bam intro to “Lust For Life”. It got nowhere, because David Bowie isn’t David Bowie if he’s not dressed in something freakish and garish.


When I first heard of David Bowie’s death, I thought it was a hoax. The timing was too clever: he had just released the second album of his comeback, BlackStar, a few days ago. But I suppose, he was probably holding on to life until the very end making sure that he died after the album was released on his birthday. Like Lee Kuan Yew, who made sure that he died on Singapore’s 50th jubilee. I had to check a few sources to make sure that he was really dead. Why?

In 1972, after the end of his Ziggy Stardust tour, he killed off the band on stage. He told a live audience that “this is the last show we’ll ever do”. But what he meant was he was breaking up the band, not that he was retiring, although some people might have assumed that.

He killed off Major Tom. He went through all these personas, and then dumped them after he was done with them. The man who sold the world – dead. Aladdin Sane – dead. Diamond Dog – dead. Plastic soul / Thin White Duke – dead.

Regarding the Thin White Duke, at the time when he was making “Station to Station”, he was in the grip of a very very serious drug problem, and he probably came close to dying that year. (Needless to say, he’d still be a legend if he did die in 1976.)

Then he moved from Southern California to Berlin for rehab, and made his celebrated Berlin trilogy. His career finally had a slump after “Modern Love”, and there was a series of mediocre albums until a mini revival around 1995 to 2003, when he made “Reality”, and stayed quiet for 10 years.

So David Bowie had died many many times before. How were we to know that this time, it’s real?

Anyway, that was a very sketchy overview of his musical career. What I just said was probably written many other places before, and better.


There was some discussion, I have a few friends who have kids who are around that age where they’re getting started on music. I have gone through the mill myself, and I have some opinions about this.

Before everything else, I want to say that however critical I sound about what’s gone down over the years, I am on balance more satisfied than dissatisfied about the music education I received. Similarly I talk about some of the mistakes my parents have made but I don’t fault them when it comes to effort. There are other students who only went at it for a few years, and then they quit in a huff. Obviously I have it better than them. To do anything, you need three things, talent, hard work and opportunity. I’m a lucky guy because I have had all three. That said, there are roads that I wish I hadn’t gone down and a few that I’m still a little divided about whether I should have gone down that path or not.

Also, one of the main points I will make is that a musical life is a different thing for everybody. That would mean that depending of what kind of a person your kid is, my advice may or may not be relevant. But I think the value here is in the sort of questions that ought to be asked from time to time, and obviously it’s for you and not for me to find the answers.

I studied the piano for 10 years between 5 and 15. I was sorted into a class with talented people, and we did a few things that were probably quite unconventional for people that age. We analysed music. We had to write music as projects. We went through the ABRSM grades. Possibly everybody felt that you had to be better piano players.

It was a difficult and lonely time, looking back. I didn’t necessarily think so but when you’re a kid you don’t really have anything to compare it with. Like everybody else, I probably didn’t like practicing, and I was not a very good player. I’ve never been very good with my hands. But I have a pair of excellent ears, I have perfect pitch, I can listen to a lot of things and tell you what everybody’s doing. It’s just a different kind of talent. Some people can play beautifully, but ask them to play something that’s not written down, ask them to improvise, ask them to write original music, ask them to play by ear, they’ll screw it up.

I suppose back in the old days, piano classes were only for the rich and wealthy classes. Singapore really only had a middle class in the 1970s. In fact I don’t really know whether it still has one. During the 80s, music instruction was pretty old school. It was drill, drill, drill. I went to Yamaha music school, and you know, they were run by the Japanese, and while I didn’t have Japanese instructors, they left their imprint on everything. Discipline was everything. You were supposed to practice all the time. They frowned upon you having fun. It was all about conformity, keeping your head down, and “being humble”.

So I was stuck in this cycle where things were depressing, and because they were depressing, it was harder to work at the music. It was just this painful slog that I had to go through, my just wanting to get it over as soon as I could. I didn’t really like the music that much. The classical music people were quite uppity about all other forms of music, and often cautioned us about listening to too much “inferior” music. Perhaps I didn’t like my music teachers very much and they reciprocated the sentiment.

But here’s where the issues become muddy: I wasn’t failing. I was doing just enough. I scraped grade 6, grade 7 and grade 8. If I had quit before grade 8, I would probably be regretting it today. In a way it was like a marathon – you had to slug it out until the bitter end so that you could take home the prize. There was always this sort of ambivalence about the whole thing. There were good things about a classical music education. It was probably the most structured of all the types of music, and you learnt things that you could apply anywhere else. Today – and this would be a pretty snide comment, but not far from the truth. I’m grateful for my classical music background because it made me understand jazz. It’s like saying the one and only use for Internet Explorer is to enable you to install Chrome or Firefox.

Still, it taught me so much about music. It’s basically impossible for me to know how my musical life would have turned out without it. I can just take apart a piece of music just by hearing it a few times. I know who’s doing what. I know if a musical idea’s interesting or it’s trite. I know about ornaments, but then again, I don’t give a shit. I know what belongs to what scale and what harmonises or doesn’t harmonise. (And even if it doesn’t harmonise, so what?)

So there were two things I now know about those lessons that I didn’t know back then. First is that my teachers actually did have some appreciation for my talent, even though they were screaming at me all the time. What happened was that they did tell my parents something, but they chose to withhold that message from me, and there was some mix-up, I used to be very puzzled at my teachers telling me “you think you’re very great, and you’re just complacent”. It didn’t make sense to me, because why would I think that I’m great when all you ever do is scold me? Second is that people who did make it through that class were very well placed to do something musical with their lives. I’ve seen people in that class turn out to be conductors of choirs, university professors, nominated members of parliament (who are also performers on the side), etc etc. But it’s a little hard to see the larger picture when the only thing you hear are people bitching about you.

I don’t hate classical music, but it’s almost certain that I admire it more than I love it. I’ve listened to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th hundreds of times and till today, I’m really impressed with – the duh duh duh DUH is really famous. But what it really is to me is how many ideas he can squeeze it with that duh duh duh DUH. There are literally hundreds of “duh duh duh DUH” in those 10 minutes. It is rich with ideas. Extremely rich. Beethoven took the duh duh duh DUH and made it into everything but the kitchen sink.

But in many ways it can be extremely sterile and conservative. These are a bunch of guys whose primary job is to suck up to nobility and whose secondary job is producing music. They’ve only decided – and this was barely two hundred years ago – that augmented 4ths are OK. At least it’s not as bad as the Chinese pentatonic system, and I heard that they only have five notes because it’s the only way you can have a scale where nothing clashes with anything else.

To be sure there are a lot of people out there who will take the other side of the argument, that classical music is a superior form of art, and in many ways it is. But I’ll leave that to them. The main point I’m trying to make is that music education has to take into account the preferences of the student. You cannot impose a certain style and taste upon an individual. He is who he is.

They’re doing research now, and one of the things is that different people have different preferences when it comes to music. Understanding a person’s taste in music is very very revealing of his inner psychology. There are studies done about this. I like complex music (thus I don’t completely hate classical) but I also like my music to be slightly chaotic (which is why I prefer jazz). Conversely, take somebody like my sister, she’s a classical person and I could never convert her to jazz. Hip Hop didn’t exist in those days, it hadn’t gotten big. Chuck D had barely gotten to know Flavor Flav when I got started with music. I once read a comment that somebody said, “why is it that the greatest music is sad music?” Ultimately it tells me more about the person who said it than it does about music in general.

Is taste subjective or objective? People differ amongst themselves when it comes to which genres of music they prefer. So the classical guy will turn his nose up at rap, the rap guy will turn his nose up at rock, the rock guy will turn his nose up at funk, etc etc. But for people who like the same genre, or the same artist, there is broad agreement. If you were to choose the best Rolling Stones albums, most people will agree that they are “Exile”, “Sticky Fingers”, “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed”.

Music is NOT a universal language. Sorry guys, there are a lot of feel-good inspirational people who would have you believe otherwise. Music is more like nations and religions. It is the marking of a tribe. Any given piece of music will not appeal to everybody. Every genre of music has a certain philosophy, and if you buy into that philosophy you will buy into that music. I’m more happy with music that has a lower emotional content, that’s why I like jazz and hip hop. The emotional vocabulary of classical doesn’t always agree with me. The vibe doesn’t match. Until the modernists, classical music does not favour exotic rhythms and harmonies. It’s too neat and orderly. Even Beethoven is too neat and orderly. It’s pretty oppressive.

It would not be possible for me to listen to classical music all day, much less play it for an hour or two a day. If I had been playing jazz music instead, I would have been less disinterested. There’s no guarantee that I would have mastered it, but it would have been a less unhappy experience. So here’s the first big message for people who want to train their kids in music: make sure that what they’re playing is compatible with the person that they are. My choice of instrument, though, is absolutely the right one. I’m a pianist, the architect, the schemer of schemes.

I’d have been much happier with a kind of musical education that had more to do with composing and arranging than performing. But you know those crazy Japanese guys, they always want to hammer square pegs into round holes. They want all the kids to be pianists, I don’t know why. You had all the crazy things they said: “read the music sheets. Total fidelity to the printed sheets”. OK, that’s good for an orchestra. But something more like the jazz philosophy, where you learn theory and you have a looser set of rules would be more up my alley. “Play what’s on the page, don’t play by ear”. Don’t play by ear!!! WTF!!!

So some of you might be wondering, “why doesn’t he just quit”. It wasn’t obvious that I was failing, people around me had limited imaginations and limited options. The music that I liked was looked down upon. What can you do? At least it taught me something about the world we live in, and I think that was how I came to the conclusion that I’m going to be leading a very miserable life if I allowed other peoples’ opinions to be dictating what I did with my music. First and foremost, I have to go my own way, second, I have to obey the law and after that pleasing everybody else is some kind of a bonus.

That brings me to the first piece of advice that I would give to a parent who’s getting their kid started on music education. From time to time, check whether it’s the appropriate musical education which suits the type of musician your kid is. And – surprise, surprise – he is what he is, not what you want him to be.

If you look at the way that classical music teachers are being portrayed, they are tough taskmasters, possibly even sadistic, as in the movie the “Piano Teacher” with Isabelle Huppert. There is also “Page Turner” and “Shine”. Of course, if you’ve watched “Whiplash”, it’s also no different for jazz. These are caricatures in movies and they stretch the truth quite a bit, but setting a kid on a music journey is something that’s long and arduous. (Of course, the fact that it’s long and arduous could be said to build character and could be seen as a good thing, but don’t be blind to the fact that it’s long and arduous).

Be aware of the alternatives. What’s going to happen is usually a compromise between what’s out there and what kind of person your kid actually is. A more general point that applies to parenting in general is that it’s just a really bad idea to be forcing something through. The kid has to have some input, he has to think for himself, do some internal evaluation.

My next point is that music is a universe unto itself. Because of my unhappy experiences, I wasn’t willing to talk about them to the guys at school. Probably the shame of not measuring up. In many ways I was a runt of that “advanced class” and I’m sure that most of them could play better than me. But I’m also sure that I have a better musical brain than many of them. You could say I had a unique skill set.

I built up a Chinese wall between my musical life and those around me at school. It wasn’t a secret that I played the piano, but the details were not really talked about. I participated in no music ECA, be it a band or a choir or a Chinese orchestra. I’m not saying that the ECAs that I took were lousy ones, or that wanting to avoid musical ECAs narrowed my options – I remember leaving secondary school with an A2 grade for my ECAs, hardly an indication that I had wasted my time. But I knew that if I had to make music for my ECA, on top of all the time I was spending on the piano, I wouldn’t be happy about it.

That was not ideal. I think my mother wanted me to have a Grade 8, and she didn’t want me to fail. But there was no coherence about what is going on. And in many ways this reflects the Asian mentality. You have to do well in music, work hard and play the piano beautifully. But you are not allowed to be a musician. It was totally bonkers. Then you work so hard for fuck? After a particular tough music lesson, I asked her why I had to study music. She said, “it’s good for you to learn how to relax”. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

So we had a situation where my study of music did not lead to any discernible improvement in my social life, which is pretty much the point of it all. Some people learn it to jam with their friends. Some people learn it for their church. I wasn’t learning it for any real reason at all. Maybe, I suspected, it was to satisfy my mother’s vanity. But possibly she believed that what she was doing was absolutely the right thing.

Well until I was 16, I could say it was somebody else’s fault. I’ve had opportunities after that to form a band and set something up, and I never did anything, and the time’s ticking away. As anybody who’s ever read any band biography would know, setting up and managing a band is an extremely fraught business. The amount of give and take is really incredible. The ability to share a creative vision with another person who’s different from you is so difficult.

So here’s the second point: Understand how music is going to be integrated into the rest of your kid’s life – if it serves a social function, or what.

The same year that I quit classical piano – something that was a year or two overdue – I started turning on to other types of music. Nirvana was about to take off. It was a special time, in the words of a documentary, “the year that punk broke”. I think that 1991 – like 1983, 1977, 1966, 1971 or 1964 – were vintage years for pop music. In 1992, I started discovering what was going to be known for a brief time as “alternative music”. Of course, Nirvana was not the first punk band, and neither was it the first great punk band. Before them were the Pixies, Husker Du, the Sex Pistols and the Stooges. But they were the ones who broke into the mainstream into a big way, and blurred the line between the alternative / underground / independent label culture, and the major labels.

It was the year that I began my record collection for real. The first album that I bought with my own pocket money, on cassette, for $5.50 instead of the customary $8.90 because it was a budget title, was Led Zeppelin 4. I wanted to find out what this fabled “Stairway to Heaven” sounded like, and I wanted to figure out if all this stuff about it playing a satanic verse when flipped backwards was true. Around the same time I befriended somebody from school who seemed to have a really hip taste in music.

I had been tired of listening to Firehouse and White Lion and all that bullshit rule the airwaves, but this was a refreshing burst of fresh air. That friend of mine was attuned to all the music that was going on in the UK. The pop historians will know that the period from 1987 to 1997 was an astonishing time for music in the UK. In fact, from 1977 to 1997 was some sort of a golden age. There was madchester. There was shoegaze. There was C86 indie pop. U2 was getting turned on to all this stuff when they made “Achtung Baby”. 1992 was as good as anytime to get acquainted with pop music. Yes, it was a bummer that I didn’t live through the 60s but the early 90s were as good, maybe even better.

So here’s the thing. Together, me and my friend exchanged tapes. We exchanged opinions over what was good and what wasn’t. We talked about the relative merits of U2 and Nirvana. After Spin or Rolling Stone or even BigO magazine (this was the main music magazine of Singapore during the 90s) came up with their year end list of albums, we would talk about which one belonged there and which one was overrated rubbish.

I had my wonderful pair of ears that could x-ray any piece of music that got popped into my stereo set. I was a bona fide second musical education for me, this time in pop music. Unlike the classical music education, this one emphasized creative listening. This one was less listening to a person in authority, and more like you were playing the critic, trying to figure out how the critics thought, trying to understand what kind of merit they saw in the recordings that were acknowledged as classics. Understanding what was possible and what was not possible. Understanding what typical records were like, and understanding what were the outstanding qualities in those classics. I think I didn’t listen to enough music during the classical music education. It was just drill drill drill, and maybe some people felt that having an extensive music collection was a frivolous thing. Maybe there was too much emphasis on sheet music, and with that too much emphasis on playing exactly what’s written down.

But that’s wrong. You have to trust your ears, and you have to trust your heart. You can’t have your music teacher leading you by the nose and telling you this is right, this is wrong. You have to have a mind of your own, your own opinion about things, it’s absolutely essential in any musician’s education.

That friend of mine was a useful resource. He turned me on to rap music. He explained to me why Madonna and Prince were the greatest. (I don’t agree but I understood some of what he was saying.) In 1992, he hunted down an expensive import copy of “Blue Lines” by Massive Attack and generously allowed me to copy it onto cassette. This was quite a while before it became a commonly acknowledged masterpiece. He’s a great Bjork fan and incredibly Bjork’s “Debut” wasn’t the first I had heard from her. She was a guest vocalist on 808 State’s “Ex:El”. Primarily we think of her as being something of a fashionista but in the intervening years I’ve revisited “Post”, “Homogenic” and “Vespertine” and come to the conclusion that she’s also something of a musical genius. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a great fan of FKA Twigs.

Well, he’s got a great pair of ears and the miraculous thing is that he was not educated in music at all. So it surprised me not at all to find out that he once had a gig reviewing music for a Singapore magazine which had a circulation of thousands.

I probably acquired anywhere up to 100 cassette albums. No mean feat for somebody who – well, I get a certain amount of pocket money, and I never asked for more than that. I basically had 3 items of expenditure: transport, food and cassettes. I bought the bare minimum amount of food: no snacks, just meals. Anything more, and I’d have less money for music. Building up the canon one by one. The most popular titles were available on cassette. The slightly more obscure ones, only on CD (and therefore, with a few exceptions, out of reach). Occasionally I would find a rare cassette copy that I wouldn’t find anywhere else. That’s how I got my Steely Dans, my Joni Mitchells and my Patti Smiths. Well I’m a little more squarish than my friend and I was more interested in 60s and 70s rock than he was. A few years later I would educate myself in jazz music in a similar manner.

So, the third point: Understanding that listening to music is one half of the education. You cannot just be playing one hour every day if you have no understanding of what the end product is going to be like, or understanding why it matters to the end product. Listening is a crucial part of musical education.

For me, there is a third musical education, and this time it wasn’t that much of an eye opener. One day, I wrote a song that wasn’t disappointing, and it wasn’t a piece of crap. I had written my first composition (because it was homework) at the age of 8, and it was only when I was 21 that I wrote something that sounded like it could work. But that’s less dramatic, and that’s certainly an adult education, albeit one that rests on the foundations laid by the first two educations.

It’s pretty essential that I create some product at some point. The next 5-10 years will be essential. I hadn’t done very much up till now, but there’s one thing that’s crucial: if a song pops into my head and I think that it’s good, I write it down, and maybe I’ll file it away, but I’m sitting on maybe 50 of these songs. A few of them are pretty good. Almost none of them have lyrics. But it’s always very useful to have a good arsenal. The one thing I forced myself to do was to keep on writing music. Why? Because I looked at Brian Wilson, I looked at Paul McCartney, and I looked at Stevie Wonder. These are the masters, but I couldn’t help but notice that they did most of their good stuff when they’re young. It’s a cautionary tale. So you have to keep on writing when you’re young, lest you grow old and lose your mojo. I was doing the equivalent of freezing my eggs.

Being an artist is, to a larger degree than I’m maybe comfortable with, a social activity. Unfortunately one element is essential, which is how are you going to be a part of a scene, how are you going to collaborate and work with others. At the moment, I have musical visions and I’d probably be hell bent on producing that. And then what? The next 5-10 years are essential because I need to have something done before I get old.

Ultimately, being an artist is like being a politician. It is a form of public service. You volunteer your time and effort and you hope to shape the world that you live in, as well as be of service to other people. You translate your vision into reality. There will always be people who are not going to like you, and instead of doing nothing you still have to work, and you still have to take the fruits of your labour and pimp it around to people. Half of your work is about making the other half of your work count.

I don’t expect that I will ever be a popular musician. But at the same time I’m also not expecting that I will grow old without having anything to my name. It’s easy to work in stealth mode, and sometimes it produces the best product, when you’re away from pressure. But sometimes I have to put myself in front of other people and maybe that will force myself to consider that I can’t always be hiding away, that the clock is ticking, and I’m not going to live forever.

So, to recap, here are the three things that you have to remember when you’re planning for your kid’s musical education.

  1. From time to time, check whether it’s the appropriate musical education which suits the type of musician your kid is. And – surprise, surprise – he is what he is, not what you want him to be.
  2. Understand how music is going to be integrated into the rest of your kid’s life – if it serves a social function, or what.
  3. Understanding that listening to music is one half of the education. You cannot just be playing one hour every day if you have no understanding of what the end product is going to be like, or understanding why it matters to the end product.


There was this guy Alex Hoffman who wrote on a Facebook wall, “Fuck Wayne Shorter”. That message went viral.

As you know, Wayne Shorter is a jazz legend. First, as a member of Art Blakey’s Messengers, and then as a member of Miles Davis’ legendary second quartet. His stint with Miles Davis was notable, because the second quartet was one of the best bands that Miles had put together, and when you consider the number of great bands that Miles had put together, that’s quite something. Furthermore, he was the principal composer in the second quartet, not Miles Davis himself. He was instrumental in the groundbreaking albums “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”, and later on broke away to form Weather Report, one of the greatest ever fusion bands.

He also had a good run as a bandleader, issuing a series of albums in the 1960s, while serving in the great second quartet. A few of these titles are stone cold classics, like “Speak No Evil”, “Juju” and “Adams Apple”.

That brought me to this youtube that I have found, where Hoffman is explaining his stand on the issue. Judging from his responses, I’m starting to understand why his original rant was only three words long. He’s pretty inarticulate about what he’s trying to say. And when the camera first panned on him, I had to laugh because he had the kind of face that you wanted to punch.

But he does raise interesting questions about music. Because some people have written in support of him, saying that the problem with jazz music education is that it’s too conservative: the greats are the greats, and you aren’t supposed to argue with the way that they play. You’re supposed to learn “classic” bebop, and then shut up and sit down.

That’s pretty reasonable. But if you know Wayne Shorter, he’s hardly a conservative. He was a trailblazing innovator. What I liked about his compositions is that they were pretty elliptical and subtle. They were very thought-provoking. “Footprints”, one of his most well known pieces, is rooted in blues structure, but it very cleverly utilizes the device of triplets played in fourths to produce a very striking melody. “Adam’s Apple” has a figure where half the melody is on only three notes, but ends with a flourish. As a songwriter he has a sense of melody only rivaled by the best tunesmiths from pop music, and I mean that as a compliment. Almost all of the “In a Silent Way” crew went on to form their own bands: Tony Williams with Emergency, Herbie Hancock with the Headhunters, Miles carrying on with his bandleader work, Chick Corea with Return to Forever, even Jack DeJohnette did some stuff. But the outfit with the best songwriters was Weather Report, which had Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul.

As a soloist, his technique was possibly a little limited. He tried to play like Coltrane, but never with quite the same speed or virtuosity. His tone was possibly a little harsh. He was much more of a thinker and an architect than a master musician.

But what he wasn’t was a conservative. He was relentlessly innovative, dabbling in Latin jazz (“Tom Thumb”), avant-garde (most of the “All Seeing Eye” album), and fusion (his entire Weather Report career). If somebody said that “I can’t stand Wayne Shorter” I have a hard time believing that he said it on the grounds that he was rebelling against excessive conservatism.

On the contrary, judging by Hoffman’s comments, it does seem as though he’s the one who’s the real conservative. He says that free jazz is not an artistically valid form of expression because there are no rules – that’s bullshit. Even free jazz has rules. All music has rules. It’s just a matter of whether it’s more rules or less rules. In effect, he’s dissing music for not having enough rules? I would never do that. I would do it based on aesthetics – to be fair, he does consider that.

Where Hoffman is on firmer ground is that he says that Wayne Shorter’s music lacks a certain lyricism or tenderness of touch. Wayne Shorter is never, and will never be the most nakedly emotional of all jazz musicians. He’s the cerebral one, the one who weaves complicated patterns – not only into his solos, but into his main themes. A lot of his tunes are not straightforward – you do not always know if or when they’re going to resolve. But that’s what I really like about Wayne Shorter! And as for his being incapable of tenderness, anybody who’s heard “Infant Eyes” will tell you that’s bullshit. Even songs like “Black Nile” and much of the “Speak No Evil” album have a very understated romantic tension within.

Now, “Fuck Wayne Shorter” is a sentiment that is not very clearly and precisely articulated, and is therefore open to various interpretations. This guy has stated why he doesn’t like Wayne Shorter and he’s free to express that opinion. Although – well he said that he doesn’t think that Wayne Shorter’s playing is civilized and genteel enough, so “fuck Wayne Shorter” is a very curious way to express this idea.

However if he’s saying anything stronger than that – just because he can’t – as he says – logically make sense of Wayne’s playing, there’s no validity to it whatsoever, there’s something wrong about that. Wayne’s not even the most avant garde of the jazz musicians. Usually when somebody tells me he likes something, I just assume that he’s genuine. After all, if he’s just pretending to like something that nobody else can get, just because he wants to show that he’s “cool” and with it? Well he’s just punishing himself by listening to all that shit. Otherwise, he’s enjoying something that you don’t get – that’s actually pretty cool with me. I’m not going to object. So why the angst? I’d say that if you want to be pretentious and you like something that’s very difficult to like, you’re just punishing yourself. There are some things – trash metal, country and western – that I just can’t subject myself to, but if people say they like it, I’m willing to believe them and I probably will not want to comment on the kind of music that I don’t “get”. But if it’s in a genre that I know something about – like pop music, then I’d be more critical.

Well anyway “fuck Wayne Shorter” is just very curious to me. This is a guy who’s touched on such a wide variety of music that I find it hard to see how anybody would not even find a single thing to like about his oeuvre.