29 November 2007

Shaking to the bouncy Afropop rhythm with my students

AfropopThere are ten students in my world music class. A few of them choose this course because they really have passion for musics of different cultures; a few of them are here because they need more credits for their degree; the others, I believe, drop in for no reason.

Officially, today is the last day of this temporary part-time teaching job. However, it appears that Canzio hasn't yet been back from his study leave (I hope he was not captured and cooked by certain anthropophagous natives in his field work) and thus I shall carry on with these students. As we do have fun from time to time, I would love to spend two hours a week with them while accumulating teaching experience for my academic CV.

After exploring a wide variety of traditional African music last week, today we shifted to African music in modern times, including choral activities, 'classical' music and Afropop. To be honest, Afropop is beyond my expertise, so I had to put in hours swotting up on the history of the development of popular music in different corners of this huge continent, listening to song examples and infusing all the neurones in my head with the rhythmic pulsation of mbaqanga, marabi, kwela, Krio dance music, salegy, iscathamiya, marrabenta, soukous, mbalax, juju, tuku and highlife.

There are more 'genres' of Afropop than these, but these materials were indeed more than enough for one hour, the second half of today's lecture. Instead of showering them with a plethora of boring stylistic, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic or whatever -ic analysis, I just gave some general descriptions about each genre and then played the music. They had fun and so did I.

18 November 2007

I didn't see the image of pipa in Pipa Images

Pipa ImagesI learnt of this album, Pipa Images (Pipa xiang 琵琶相), released quite a while ago in 2003, from May. I love the smoothly-flowing melodies, the hauntingly beautiful timbre of pipa (琵琶) and, above all, the idea of infusing a time-honoured Chinese instrument with different ethnomusical elements. However, I didn't encounter any climactic tension, which would usually be heard in a piece from the traditional pipa repertoire, nor did I catch any impressive sound effect, which would be conventionally created by a variety of fingering techniques.

It appears to me that the producer/composer has affection for the distinct tone colour of the pipa, but somehow ignores the characteristic expressions that can only be conveyed through the idiomatic practices of the instrument. As a result, while to some foreigners who are not familiar with the Chinese pipa, this album may present a refreshing combination of musical possibilities, to me it is simply another nicely produced easy-listening album featuring the sound of the 'pipa'.

Watch this video clip of the renowned piece 'King Chu doffs his armour' (Bawang xie jia 霸王卸甲) to get a representative experience of the pipa's 'characteristic expressions'.



I'm not proposing that the producer should maintain all the way the pipa's stereotypical image of vibrant strumming or ever-present rasgueado techniqes. However, it would be great if its resonant, clear and enchanting sound could be heard via the energetic rasgueado. Morever, this album would also become a ground-breaking act if the violent, fierce strumming could be used and incorporated into serenity with the graceful melodies.

15 November 2007

Deleting Angkor Wat

I am not suggesting that I'm gonna emulate the Taliban by bombing the UNESCO world heritage Angkor Wat. I am talking about ceasing to compose the commissioned Angkor Wat soundtrack.

It was indeed great fun to write music for this word heritage site, but it's irritating to have a client who wouldn't sign the contract before making more requests. The production team couldn't even decide whether they should use my composition or a track of copyrighted music which they felt too complicated to obtain permission to use.

What's the point of engaging a composer if the proposed CD track is still preferred? What's the point of reworking the score if the client can't make the decision?

While they may leave it in abeyance, I'd rather quit. I enjoy composing but not making alteration time after time against my own aesthetic for a client who doesn't even sign the contract.

Let me remove the blooming Angkor Wat from my work schedule and send the work-in-progress score to the 'closed' folder.

08 November 2007

Relocating Angkor Wat to Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan Plateau
(image from Life on the Tibetan Plateau)

I've just had a meeting with the producer and other supervisory personnel of the Angkor Wat film team. In their point of view, my proposed piece feels so contemporary. Although it has a good balance in all registers of sounds and can surely be used in their future plan, on this occasion they would like something that bears certain religious mark, has a touch of history and creates a mysterious atmosphere. Well, I now present a different version, with the same backdrop, the alternate C and B-flat chords, but with the more sonorous tone of string basses and the haunting voices of a choir.

May, the first one to listen to this redone version, commented that she heard monks droning and eagles screeching and it felt as if the Angkor Wat had been moved to the Tibetan Plateau. She wondered if I should treat the Angkor Wat soundtrack in such an epic manner.

Does this reworked one carry any epic or probably post-apocalyptic atmosphere?

04 November 2007

Coffee on the Singaporean menu

The vocabulary of Singlish, an English-based creole spoken in Singapore, consists of words originating from Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien (福建), as well as some other Indic languages, such as Tamil, to a lesser extent. Although the Singaporean government discourages the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English and runs Speak Good English Movement, this English-based creole is still used by most Singaporeans.

Both Fanne's brother-in-law, who is now working in Singapore, and her sister, who unfortunately still lives in Taipei at the moment but frequently flies over to visit him, have spent some time acquainting themselves with Singlish. Among a wide selection of interesting (or amusing) examples is coffee on the Singaporean menu. According to their demonstration and explanation, as well as my own investigation, I found following terms and origins of those non-English words.
  • Kopi: coffee with milk and sugar, or sweetened condensed milk
    It's the Singaporean default configuration of coffee.

  • Kopi-kosong: coffee without milk, without sugar
    Kosong, a Malay word for 'empty', 'hollow'.

  • Kopi-o (also kopi-oh): coffee with sugar, without milk
    O, the word for 'black' (烏) in Hokkien.

  • Kopi-kau: strong coffee, with condensed milk
    Kau means (of liquid) 'stronger' or 'thickened' (厚) in Hokkien.

  • Kopi-C: coffee with evaporated milk
    C stands for Carnation, a proprietary name for a brand of evaporated milk).

  • Kopi-ping: iced coffee
    Ping, the word for 'ice' (冰) in Hokkien.
I've been to Singapore in 2001 but haven't suffered too much from their native tongue as it was just a short break. Nevertheless, next time when I pay a visit, I will at least be able to order a cup of coffee in Singlish and I shall see what would happen if unwittingly I start speaking Scots.

03 November 2007

Composing for Angkor Wat

Angkot Wat
(Image from Far Horizons)

I haven't touched Sibelius for quite a while since I finished an advertising song commission in March. Thanks to an old friend, Richard Tsao, a couple of days ago I received a commission to write a soundtrack for a short about Cambodia and have now started composing with Sibelius again.

I'm still with Sibelius 3 (can't be bothered to pay an exorbitant price to upgrade to Sibelius 5 just for some more functions I'll only use when Ang Lee asks me to write music for his film, but would love to do so if someone else engages me to do a similar task and pays for it). The start-up music in this old version, the opening of Jean Sibelius's 3rd Symphony, really reminds me of the time I used it to make karaoke tracks of Christian hymns in Stirling.

Since the producer hopes that the soundtrack carries a hint of the mysterious image of Angkor Wat and the state religion Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia, I have spent some time gazing into the photo of Angkor Wat while intoning a Buddhist stanza in Pali to see if inspiration would come to me.
parinibbute bhagavati saha parinibbana
sakko devanam indo
imaj gathaj abhasi
anicca vata sangkhara
uppada-vaya-dhammino
uppajjitva nirujjhanti
tesaj vupasamo sukho ti

(When the Blessed One had passed away, simultaneously with his Parinibbana, Sakka, king of the gods, spoke this stanza, 'Transient are all compounded things, subject to arise and vanish; having come into existence they pass way; good is the peace when they forever cease.' )

(translation cited from Digit Library & Museum Of Buddhist Studies)
Additionally, I've also tried to find some clue from Cambodian traditional music. However, I don't think those I encountered over the Internet would help. It really doesn't sound any spiritual at all but something entertaining to me. (Check out this example from Asian Classical Music in MP3 Format.)

Anyhow, this afternoon, I put in three hours and drafted one and a half munites. The producer will decide if I am on the right path next week. If so, I shall turn it into a longer piece and try to match music to moving images as the producer wishes.

Use your earphones to avoid missing the opening low-frequency sound waves.