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23 Dec 2020

CSS Composer of the Month for Dec 2020: Eric WATSON

The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) kickstarts 2020 with a new monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month!

The final CSS Composer of the Month for 2020 is Eric James WATSON, PBM. An eminent composer, Eric WATSON was awarded the Cultural Medallion 2019 by the National Arts Council (NAC) Singapore.

Photo Credit: National Arts Council (NAC) Singapore.

Eric WATSON

Interviewer: Emily KOH

You started your musical journey on the piano and violin. How did that bring you to composing?

Well I started my musical life really when I was given a descant recorder at age of 8 or 9 in primary school which I concentrated a lot of effort on. I can still remember a lot of detail from those days, and that led on to the piano two years later and then the violin. I was encouraged to continue my interest at my grammar school, and played in the local youth orchestra for a while, before my family moved from North Yorkshire to the Midlands. This school also had a very good music teacher and department, so I continued learning all these instruments but concentrated more on the piano. Again I joined the county youth orchestra playing violin, and I was inspired by a piece I was rehearsing for a summer orchestra by William MATHIAS. That inspired me to write a piece for recorder and small orchestra, which I was able to perform at school. Unfortunately I do not have that piece any more……

Later in Singapore I came back to the recorder with my Concertante for Recorder and Dizi with Chinese orchestra, and I was very fortunate to have TANG Jun Qiao and Michala PETRI as soloists with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO). 

What does your day-to-day life look like right now? What are you working on and what can we look forward to from you once we get to Phase 3 post circuit-breaker?

In my daily life now, I work on a variety of projects. Usually I try to reserve mornings for composing and then afternoons for arranging and orchestrating and other more routine tasks such as preparing scores. In between I do quite a bit of research and listening for composing or learning more about non western instruments as well as developing some electronic music or sometimes writing lyrics. I also have at various times lectures to deliver and I tend to work around those.

At the moment I have just finished an arrangement for orchestra, and I’m working on a choral piece for a concert next year, another orchestral piece and a new composition for the Asian Traditional Orchestra. I’m also planning a one-act music. Theatre piece for, hopefully, later in 2021.

You were SCO’s composer in residence and have composed many works for Chinese instruments since 2008. When did you learn about Chinese instruments and the Chinese orchestra, and how did you go about writing for instruments (especially those with long histories and strong embedded musical cultures) that are new to you?

Eric Watson’s The Ceilidh played by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO)
on 5 Jul 2014 at Esplanade Concert Hall

I had heard of Chinese orchestras in the UK before I arrived in Singapore in 1991. Partly because I had been mainly working in musical theatre, I have developed a wide curiosity about different styles, culture etc. Moving to Singapore naturally led to more interest in Chinese instruments and also in Gamelan and Indian music which was of course even more accessible.

Whenever I write for an unfamiliar instrument, I always try to do research, which was more laborious in 1991 before the internet was underway. Listening was and still is crucial and talking to players and performers helps the process enormously. Fitting it into an ensemble, especially an orchestra, is yet another challenge especially as there were not many texts available in English for the Chinese orchestra. However, I was never trying to write ‘Chinese’ music per se; I was more interested in the huge sound palette and especially the nuts and bolts and underlying principles involved as a means of expanding my own tool box.

What words of wisdom do you have for young and aspiring composers in Singapore and what are your wishes for the new music scene in Singapore?

I am very wary of passing on words of wisdom, as they are so often open to misinterpretation and worse misrepresentation. However, I do think it is essential to keep on widening horizons and if you ever think you have stopped learning then that is the time to retire. Artists these days need to develop a portfolio of skills to enable their activities and most importantly it is a source of constant renewal. There is a lot of interest in teaching creativity and there is a lot of ways you might do that, but I think all of them need a first step of an active curiosity first…… That’s interesting…..how do I do that? That tastes good….how can I make it…..That sounds interesting….how?

Check out also NAC’s interview of Eric WATSON when he was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2019!