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28 Mar 2020

CSS Composer of the Month for Mar 2020: Joey YEO

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

The third composer to be featured is Joey YEO, a Singaporean composer-guitarist currently studying composition and guitar at NAFA!

Joey YEO

Interviewer: Emily KOH

How did you get into music / composition / guitar? What made you decide that you wanted to pursue higher education in music?

Like most Singaporean children, my musical journey started on the piano at a very young age. As I progressed through the ABRSM grades, my piano teacher noticed my aural sensitivity and tendency to improvise and encouraged me to develop such instincts. This led to me composing pieces on the piano and her going the extra mile in teaching me notational techniques.

Despite such pursuits, I never had the interest or thought in studying music academically, and my piano education stopped abruptly after a steep decline of interest in music after achieving my ABRSM Grade 8. Nevertheless, I am greatly appreciative towards the attention my piano teacher paid towards my musical strengths and her determination to develop it. I still keep in contact with her and I would credit most of my musical strengths to her teaching.

My interest in guitar started in JC where I was a member of the Wind Symphonic Band. As I DSA-ed (DSA = Direct School Admission) into my JC using my musical skills, I had extra responsibility in the CCA, be it taking the initiative to suggest ensemble pieces or even arranging for the percussion section (which I am in). It is through these experiences where I suddenly found myself applying the things my piano teacher taught me a long time ago. Due to the deadlines and JC academic workload, I found myself working late nights and the guitar was the only instrument I could fiddle on without making too much noise. It was also these arrangements that caught the attention of my conductor who was known for being extremely strict and rare on compliments. His singular comment of “not bad”, after he heard my percussion ensemble arrangement gave me a sense of pride and happiness that I never thought I needed to hear at an age of 18. I also liked seeing my peers have fun learning the piece and forget about the stresses of JC studies for a moment. This helped me decide later on that I did not mind pursuing music academically if it could positively impact others.

As time went on, I became interested in the electronics and technical parts of guitar and would spent hours and hours learning about both the artistic and scientific aspect of guitar. Eventually I spent so much time practicing, playing and attending gigs with the guitar that coupled with my experiences in arranging, decided to follow my father’s advice to pursue a study in composition under NAFA after GCE ‘A’ levels.

You are now studying composition and guitar at NAFA. What kind of guitaring do you do, and how does your performing experience affect the way you compose music?

I am currently studying classical guitar under Mr Hunter Mah. Since NAFA is a classical conservatoire, most of my guitaring in school is classically based, be it chamber rehearsals or readings.

As a performer and a composer, I strongly believe that composers should never stop playing music. It reminds us of the mechanics of playing a piece of music and it provides a different perspective to composing. Guitar and its arrangement techniques are unique to me as I essentially see it as a mini orchestra. Thus it helps me approach my compositions from a big picture perspective and gives me a more direct insight in the communication between composers and musicians; how the music is transferred from a visual work to an aural one.

Your work 罗汉果 arhat was read by yourself and NG Hsien Han, a dizi player from Ding Yi Music Company. Tell us more about this work, and what it felt like performing a work you composed, wearing both hats as composer and performer.


Arhat was composed with inspiration drawn from a conversation I had with my father, who explained to me about the principles and concept of enlightenment. In early Buddhist traditions, a monk who becomes enlightened is called an arhat (罗汉) who attains the “fruition of arhatship”. My father believes that forgiveness is one of the most cherished features of humanity and that one should have the graciousness to forgive all that have done him or her wrong, and instead thank them for the experience in teaching us to become better versions of ourselves. Though I have not decided on my perspective on that statement, I understood the reasoning and logic behind developing a skill for such clarity in the worthiness of self and composed this piece based on the concept of ‘zen’.

As a performer it was definitely extremely smooth for me to communicate the musical ideas due to the fact that I knew exactly what I wrote and what Mr NG Hsien Han will be playing. I could pay much less attention to the score and instead be in the headspace of a perfomer, focusing on my ensemble skills as it was something that I was not yet familiar with as a guitarist in a classical setting.

What did you learn from this reading? Did you make edits after the reading? Will this work be performed/premiered in future?

I learnt from this reading that Chinese instruments are nuanced in a way that I found attractive, and since then my interest in Chinese instruments deepened.

I did make some notational changes after the reading upon consulting Mr Ng Hsien Han but nothing musically drastic.

I would like the piece to be performed in the future when possible.

As a young musician, what do you wish for Singapore’s arts/music scene?

I wish for an increase in interaction between the musicians of the same instrument but different genres. As someone who is active in scenes of drastically different genres, I have learnt so much that would never be found in books or taught in a school. If applied to our own study of music, the basic principles or school of thoughts from techniques, systems, and stylistic choices from different cultures are actually extremely helpful in seeing music in many different perspectives. This can open up many opportunities for auditory pursuits in the modern world.