Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month!
The first CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Joseph LIM! Joseph LIM currently works as a music educator in Singapore and also plays the tenor saxophone.
Interviewer: GU Wei
Tell us about yourself! How did you get into music and composition, and what do you do now?
I had piano classes from a young age and somewhat mindlessly plowed through graded exams. However, my experience as a saxophonist in the school band made music a more intimate experience. As a tenor saxophonist located right in the middle of the band, I started to wonder how the vastly different sounds surrounding me could coexist so beautifully. This desire to then play with and combine sounds led me to arrangement and composition. I am thankful for my first two composition teachers Benjamin LIM Yi and PHOON Yew Tien for their guidance in those early years.
2020 has marked the start of a new journey as a music educator! This year, I taught music at Jiemin Primary School with their fantastic Aesthetics department. To better serve my young students, I have been actively composing and arranging original material to be used in class. Despite the onset of COVID and the circuit breaker, I collaborated with my HOD Desmond SEAH to create original recorder tutorial videos for Home-based Learning (HBL). It is exciting and rewarding to combine both my passion of teaching and composing.
Apart from my teaching duties, I have been collaborating with various performers and presenting my compositions on digital concerts, such as for CSS Showcases SG New Music Talents 2020 (with Christoven TAN) and IMPRINT concert (with Benedict NG and Joost FLACH).
You spent the last couple of years living in the UK for your overseas studies. How was the experience and how did it influence your music?
It was a joy to study music in London as a student of King’s College London and later, the Royal Academy of Music. The experience has certainly opened my eyes and ears. In London, one is simply surrounded by world-class music of different genres. From King’s, a short walk down the road will lead you to the Lyceum theatre which is the home of the Lion King musical. Another short walk across the Waterloo bridge will lead you to the Royal Festival Hall. Enter the Tube, and perhaps a Jazz saxophonist would be busking.
Other than the experience of London, my composition professors Dr Ed NESBIT (KCL), Dr Rob KEELEY (KCL), and Gary CARPENTER (RAM) have indeed sharpened my musical language. Their training has disciplined my creative process and have made me clearly define and systematically develop my compositional ideas.
You have done a fair bit of research on the influence of traditional culture on music composition, and many of your works seem to be based on traditional themes and influences.
Could you tell us about your thoughts on this, and what “tradition” means for a Singaporean composer?
This question is actually partially linked to the previous one. As an international student, I was suddenly more aware of my Singaporean identity. I therefore wanted to express it in my compositions. However, my early efforts were somewhat problematic with generic uses of Malay folksongs and other musical material like the pentatonic scale. Uncomfortable with this approach, I started to research intercultural composers like CHOU Wen-chung and KAM Kee Yong to learn from their experience. This took me on a journey to discover long words (Postcolonialism, Orientalism, Essentialism) and obscure theories (Levinas, Husserl etc).
But I shall spare you the dreary details. For the long academic process I undertook, the conclusion I came to is really…… simple.
Basically, I learnt that ultimately, tradition or culture is a valuable resources and influence. As a composer, I would want to approach these influences like how I would want to get to know a friend. To make friends, time and communication is required. Therefore in the musical realm, I would want to undergo a process of research to ‘get to know’ that target influence before subsequent compositional incorporation. I think this is the case not just for traditional culture but for other musical influences like Jazz.
As a Singaporean composer, we are blessed to exist in a city which is the nexus of traditional and contemporary, old and new. We do have so much to inform our musical practice. But before incorporating them, I would want to first ‘make friends’ with them!
What are you working on now, and what are you looking forward to in the upcoming year?
Following my recent digital concerts that just ended, I am taking the rest of December to read up to prepare for teacher training in NIE that will start in Jan 2021. I am also looking forward to publishing a new work for band with Retsel Mil in the upcoming year. Now with Phase 3 of the post-circuit breaker period, I am also eager to get back to making music with the Singapore Wind Symphony on my tenor Saxophone!