From orchestras to Marvel movies, composers have been scoring the soundtracks to our favourite tunes, television programmes, and movies since the dawn of music.
In its most fundamental definition, a composer is someone who writes music, either through crafting a unique piece or by arranging existing musical pieces. In reality, however, a composer is much more than a creator. They are skilled performers, pedagogues, technologists, and even entrepreneurs. Their job description, especially in this day and age, goes beyond just arranging pitched sounds in musical time and space.
“A good composition, regardless of musical genres or cultures, will evoke strong emotions, feelings, and thoughts from the listener.”– composer Emily Koh
So, what does it mean to be a composer today? How do you get into this industry? And how do you even begin to create a “good” composition’? To answer that, The A List spoke to three award-winning composers, 2003 Young Artist Award recipient Zechariah Goh, 2019 Young Artist Award recipient Emily Koh, and 2019 Cultural Medallion recipient Eric James Watson, who have made significant waves in the music scene both locally and internationally:
What first drew you to music?
Goh: Music drew me to want to know more about it. At 8 years old, I was convinced that I would be a composer.
Koh: My ears were first drawn to music when I heard my secondary school (Dunman High School) Chinese Orchestra play. I immediately knew that I needed to join the orchestra and be a part of this music-making. I had played the piano when I was younger, but it was making music with other people, in an orchestra, that drew me in.
At Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, I had many opportunities to work with performers and hear my compositions come alive. Hearing something that has been in your head be finally performed live, and being able to share that experience with others, is tremendously satisfying, motivating, and exhilarating. Soon after, I learned that I present thoughts and ideas more effectively through sounds and music than through words or visual elements. This was about the same time I had some early successes with awards and recognition, which pushed me to pursue composition professionally.
Watson: I was always interested in music from a young age but did not start formal education until the age of nine when I started learning to play the recorder at my primary school. I enjoyed and progressed with this so much that I soon started to have piano lessons and then, later, violin lessons, and shortly after that I joined a local youth orchestra. While I was still in grammar school I started composing around the age of 16 and my first piece was actually for recorder and strings.
Could you describe a typical workday?
Goh: As I am a full-time lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), I can only find time to compose after work or during weekends. My composition processes are as follows: knowing more about the person or the ensemble I am writing about, researching, and composing. I could be doing any of the three things mentioned here.
Koh: A typical composition day could be a combination of many things, and there is never a day that is “typical”. Every day is different, and that is what I love most about my job. Things I do on a “composition” day can be put into different categories: Pre-composition, composition, post-composition, and the business of being a composer.
Watson: My typical working day generally will start with composing or arranging, working on whatever project I have in hand, and I try to work at that until lunchtime. Sometimes I have a lecture to give or some teaching to do. Afternoons will be spent more on arranging and orchestrating, sorting out emails, and general administration or research. Evenings will vary, either relaxing at home, attending concerts or meeting friends.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Goh: My inspiration comes from the richness of nature and life.
Koh: I am interested in details that are often overlooked and find joy in bringing these back to light for others through my music. I enjoy writing chamber music for bass (or uncommon) instruments and bring my interests in food, languages, and immigrant stories to my music.
Watson: Anywhere and everywhere – nature, history, science, literature, art, the newspapers, the internet…
Of your compositions, which piece are you most proud of?
Goh: The piece I am writing next would be something I am very proud of. The process of composing and working on new material is something I enjoy very much.
Koh: Another tough question here, but I hope people will listen to my album [word]plays, which was just released on Innova Recordings last year. Thank you to National Arts Council for supporting the creation of this album!
Watson: This changes on almost a daily basis, but I’m still very fond of my earliest musical written in Singapore titled A River In Time and a piece for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra written in 2006 and titled Tapestries.
What would you consider the most challenging aspect of composing music?
Goh: Not composing.
Koh: The most challenging part of composing music is being a composer. Our society is not yet accepting of the idea of an artist as an important and contributing member of society and community. Even my family is not entirely supportive of my chosen vocation. Just last year, my grandmother reminded me that it is still not too late to go back to school to be a (medical) doctor.
It is sad to observe people’s reactions when I meet them for the first time and answer the inevitable question “What do you do?” My usual response of “I am a creative. I make music.” is usually met with a mix of suspicion, confusion, disbelief, and a response of “No, what do you do for a living?” To that, I respond with “I’m a professor” and see an immediate sense of relief and understanding wash over their faces. These exchanges make me feel like the musician me and professor me, while both the same person, are seen very very differently in society.
Watson: Finishing! By this, I mean knowing when the piece is finished and being completely satisfied with it. In the earlier days, I left more pieces uncompleted than I do now.
How do you usually start a new composition?
Goh: Getting to know the group I am writing for, researching the materials I am working on, and composing. I believe that my music is an extension of what I want to say beyond words, and how I want to say it.
Koh: There is not one single starting point or process in starting a work. Sometimes I start with a fully formed idea, other times, a half-baked one. Sometimes I start with sketches in my sketchbook, and other times, I start with painting a painting. Sometimes I start by improvising something on my bass, and other times, by interacting with my collaborators. It does not matter where I start because that is just the beginning. What comes after that is tens and hundreds of hours of dissecting, developing, trial and error. My music is inwardly-intense and otherworldly!
Watson: I have to have some idea in mind, even if it is initially just to explore a sound, timbre, texture or chordal juxtaposition. The creative process is often an exploration of the material, expanding, transforming, and morphing, and my musical language is quite eclectic, deliberately so as I often find that mixing style and language can lead to interesting ideas. In general, though, I have a more tonal harmonic language even though textural ideas varying from intense and chromatically dense to light and evanescent interest me a great deal.
Do you have any advice for aspiring composers in Singapore?
Goh: Be open, persistent, bold, ready, genuine, and kind. Be yourself.
Koh: Here’s my general word of advice for everyone: “You only live once! Don’t live someone else’s hopes and dreams.”
For aspiring composers in Singapore or anywhere:
1. Be a good human being. One can only make good art as a good person.
2. Be curious and act on that curiosity.
3. Be bold. Don’t be afraid to be different, to try new things or to “fail”.
Honestly, I wish I knew that being an artist was going to be living multiple lives all at once – I am my art, I am the composer, I am my business manager, I am my own technician, my web designer, social media publicist, scheduler, publisher, bookkeeper etc. Many people think that artists live dreamy, carefree lives, but the reality is that there is so much more to being an artist than just making art. And now, more than ever, we musicians need to be able to juggle all of that on our own. Creating is a way of life, and our work envelopes our entire beings.
Watson: Beyond listening, exploring, and developing critical thinking, I think the setting up of a work routine where you can write something every day is highly important. Sometimes, you just have to write or nothing is achieved. If you want to be a composer then you must write, not just think about it!