Mature and grow in style

Every music student should recognise the importance of growing and maturing in musical style — be it in their playing, thinking or writing. This is definitely not to say we have to throw away our youthful thoughts and start being old-kok-kok, all chim and complicated in our musical expression. In fact, we should make it a point to develop a youthful musical style that holds a salient level of mature thought.

It’s interesting to observe, through the past few years in the music programme, as well as through my encounters with friends outside school, that by looking at the way people play music and the kind of music people write, you can actually roughly gauge what kind of character they are as a person. It’s really very true. And this observation is easy to make especially during youthful periods, where people are relatively jumpy and lively in youthful spirits. Haha, it can even be liken to fortune-telling, instead of having to use parrots or octopuses to pick cards to determine your character, you just ask someone to play you a piece, or write you something, or just sing something, and his personality comes alive. Music offers immense nuances for expressions and human interaction. It’s amazing.

It is precisely nuanced expression and human interaction that need careful refinement — so that we can develop more unique, perhaps more accessible musical expressions. I used to think that everyone had their own innate style of expression which stems from their personalities, and the rest of their lives would be spent in this style. This thought came to me at the start of last year, and up till now, it still holds quite steadily for me. However, recently, I’ve grown more aware of certain limits that my own style of expression could have, and these limits could be quite detrimental to my expressive abilities.

From the very start, I must say that it’s really really very exciting to see everybody having unique in-born characters that shine through their musical expression. Music students are blessed with opportunities to refine their style through repeated practice that offer rich experiences. When I started learning the piano since 4, and up till now, I don’t see much of my character being shown through my playing leh. Funny right. But when I took up the pen and started writing since Sec 3, I realized 2 natural tendencies whenever I composed:

  1. Weaving layers of voices together and
  2. Creating a space through my compositions that keep listeners intense.

Somehow these 2 traits got picked up by many friends consistently. It is not to say that the other things were not unique of my music, it was just that these 2 aspects came through most apparently. They’re part of my expressive style.

Furthermore, when I ploughed further into manuscripts and more manuscripts, I realized that I had a habit of progressing my music using non-melodic & harmonic means. Somehow it’s just inherent within my music. Atonal? Not really ah, because I still hinge my music largely on tonal motions. Post-tonal? Maybe. But when I continue writing, I grew to dislike the idiom that I was writing in, which was a manifestation of my style. I hoped that I wasn’t myself. I wanted to write ‘normally‘. Like my friends. To make matters worse, I had another unhealthy tendency to write ‘hardworking‘ and extremely busy music, which result in cluttered listening experiences. Together with the earlier idiomatic trouble, it meant a hard time trying to squeeze some calmness into my otherwise busy music.

I didn’t like what I was doing. This revelation came unhappily in just the previous month, in August 2010. I knew that I had to do something to refine my style and really, consolidate my musical stylistic expressions. On top of this, I knew that I had to grow and mature my style into one that is uniquely mine. However, the tricky thing was to continue staying versatile in various stylistic idioms.

Then, on a day in September, my two music classmates played a beautiful Korean song that follows tonal progression, and I really enjoyed myself in the tonal idiom that I almost began to distaste my own style of expression. How beautiful it was – the lush harmonies, the rich reflective, meditative cadential moments – but somehow I just couldn’t pull myself together to write stuff like that, and I didn’t know why. Even my arrangements of pop songs had to have some of that ‘nonsense‘ of mine. I wanted to change.

Thanks to my music teacher who loaned a Tan Dun Snow in June CD to me just 2 weeks ago, plus my own hardcore listening of composers like Kahoe Yi and Chungshih Hoh’s works, I began to realize a way that I could adopt to finetune my expressions and idiom of writing. When listening to Tan Dun’s works, such as Black Dance, Elergy, and Drums and Gongs, there was always a sense of calmness, a meditative state that listeners are naturally put into by the music. How pro! You have to listen to it to believe it. I realized that abstract qualification of ideas could actually be more effective than direct literal expressions. It’s hard to describe this understanding in words, but it’s ever interesting to listen to how different composers have taken multiple directions in their various compositional careers, to find their inspiration from different sources.

Like I sometimes tell friends who ask me how to gain inspiration for composition, I tell them that the important thing is to recognize music not as music, but as life. In essence, music is life – our interactions with the environment, with people, with animals, even with objects, these nuances and notions translate so seamlessly into music. It’s a blendful entity in our lives. never try to separate them two. Music is life, and it’ll be my life-long endeavor to understand myself, understand life, and understand music in my life, and mature to share myself with the world in my musical expressions.

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