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02 Mar 2021

CSS Composer of the Month for Mar 2021: John SHARPLEY

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month!

The third CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Dr John SHARPLEY! Dr John SHARPLEY, a Singapore-based composer, performer and teacher, possesses a unique and multi-faceted career that spans geographic and cultural borders.

John SHARPLEY

Interviewer: GU Wei

Tell us about your musical background and why you decided to settle down in Singapore.

My mother was an active and inspirational pianist and piano teacher and her father, my grandfather, was a country fiddler and square dance caller who had a dance band. (That’s how he met my grandmother!)

I was introduced to a lot of Mozart played by my mother while I was still in the womb. My first piano lessons began at age three and composing soon followed. From the start, music was the core of my life. At age seven I began violin lessons and was soon playing in ensembles, recitals, festivals and competitions. Piano, violin and composition filled my days. I was fortunate to attend the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas where art as a way of life was considered the norm. I am also grateful to have had inspirational and caring teachers all along the way.

After high school I pursued French, Latin, philosophy and art history studies at the University of Houston along with music. I also travelled spending my summers in Europe and the Middle East. My holistic aim was to cultivate myself (still working on it). I later attended the French National Conservatory of Music in Strasbourg where I did diplomas in piano, violin and composition. Following this, I completed a Bachelor of Music in piano and Master of Music in composition at the University of Houston. Subsequently, I attended Boston University where I did my Doctorate of Musical Arts in composition and was a founding member of the new music ensemble, Extension Works.

In 1985, I had a startling dream where I was living in a big Asian city. I could even see the buildings and the population mix (which turned out to be an accurate account!). I woke up knowing that this city would be my next home. Nonetheless, this did not fit into my plans of either returning to France, taking up a job offer in Rio de Janeiro or moving to New York City. Later that same day, the director of the School of Music at Boston University approached me in the school corridor and asked: “How would you like to live in Singapore?”. My dream definitely enabled me to unhesitatingly reply: “Yes! When do I go?”.

I arrived in Singapore (December 1985) as an Assistant Professor of Music from Boston University to co-direct a pre-university music program. I considered that I would be in Singapore for 2 or 3 years, and that was 35 years ago!

You have explored a lot into various musical cultures of Asia, even travelling for extended periods of time to learn particular styles of music. How were the experiences like and how did these influence your music?

Since 1986, I have been travelling extensively throughout Asia to experience and research music, culture and spirituality. This grew out of a deep-rooted attraction for Asia, especially India, that began in my early teens.

In my travels, I spent invaluable time meeting with local musicians, musicologists, teachers and spiritual gurus, including visits to music, arts and religious institutions. These visits have had a profound and lasting impact on me. More recently, I have been visiting Nepal and working with various musicians and organisations there, and plan to return once travel restrictions are lifted.

I currently have about 300 musical instruments in my collection. But rather than discussing Asiatic instruments and styles of music which can easily be researched and googled, I will focus on sound as a spiritual portal. Here are three examples (out of many) of my spiritual sonic encounters through my travels:

The first took place in 1987 at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, a city in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh. This temple is considered one of the most sacred of Hindu temples and is visited by 30 to 40 million pilgrims annually (pre-COVID). After enduring a very bumpy bus for 6 hours from Chennai whilst sitting next to some chatty chickens, I arrived, lost in an endless crowd of thousands of pilgrims and beggars. Suddenly, a temple priest took my hand and guided me without ever uttering a word towards the Shiva linga (an abstract representation of Shiva), housed at the end of a deep U-shaped corridor. There was a queue that numbered a few thousand at the entrance. In spite of this, the priest ushered me right up to the front entrance. I turned to thank him and he was no where in sight. I proceeded into the long and semi-dark corridor. Within a few steps, everything around me began to dissolve. The ceiling, walls and floors were no longer discernible as I even lost my sense of self in a physical body with gravitational forces. There was neither up nor down, left nor right, front nor back. Simultaneously, my consciousness was immersed in a loud roaring sound, like the sound of a thousand Niagara Falls. I believe that this sound is known as anahata (cosmic sound unheard through human ears). Space and time ceased. All was one, no separate, physical “me”. Suddenly and unceremoniously, I found myself outdoors, quite a distance from the Shiva linga. There was no account for how I got there nor of the gap of missing time. A life-changing mystical experience indeed.

My second example happened in 1994 within a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas, just outside of Gangtok in the northern Indian State of Sikkim. I was travelling to Sikkim along with a renown Hindustani singer and musicologist, the late Dr. M. R. Gautum from Kolkata. During our entire trip which included a marvelous visit to Darjeeling, we spoke of music, spirituality and philosophy. We shared time in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery just outside of Gangtok spending long hours experiencing the monks who chanted and played the dungchen (long trumpet) and rölmo (brass cymbals). It was a reality-shattering privilege to be allowed to sit amongst the monks in their great hall with snowy mountains as backdrop. In the midst of this setting and chanting, I had an unforgettable out-of-body experience and seemed to fly free as an eagle above the white mountains.

My third example took place in Kathmandu. In the past few years, I have made several musical visits to Nepal. In particular, a revelatory sonic spiritual experience took place in 2018. Healer and singing bowl guru, Mangal Man Maharjan, facilitated a special “gong bath” in his specially designed space. All four sides of his spacious room were filled with huge gongs, tam tams, bells and singing bowls. In the center were about 16 reclinable lounge chairs. Joined by fellow Nepali musician friends and two Singaporean musicians that I brought to Nepal, I laid back, eyes closed, relaxed. The moment that Mangal struck the first gong, the sound triggered in me an “out-of-body” experience. This particular experience was quite different from previous ones (and there have been many). The magnificent cacophony of ringing sounds in 3-D that lasted over an hour (in clock-time but an eternity in non-physical time) permeated and overloaded my senses. From the sounds, emerged vivid and strange colours, shapes and entities, truly another dimension, outside of space and time; all things unified. A year later, I experienced the same other worldly dimension just before my father’s passing who was in Houston at the time. This spiritual sonic encounter took place in Singapore (actually outside space and time) with my own singing bowls which seemed to open a spiritual portal that connected me to my father whom I perceived as a being of pure energy. The impact on me is beyond words.

Indeed, these experiences profoundly influence my music and how it is composed. These encounters serve as a reminder of how inadequate our understanding and languages, spoken and musical, of the physical plane are. Consequently, my perception of music, manifested in myriads of cultures and times, is largely contextualised by spiritual practices and aspirations.

From my understanding, music to you carries a highly spiritual quality and functions as “a gateway to higher consciousness”. Tell us about your thoughts on what music means to you, especially as a composer.

Music’s highest aim is to reach the spiritual and non-physical plane. This is simultaneously healing and revealing. As illustrated in my answer to your second question, music as spiritual portal or vehicle that transports the listener beyond the sound and sonic structures themselves. Sound is only the “skin” of music. Ultimately, music is your consciousness which is, in turn, portal to an infinitude of consciousness. Indeed, the process of yielding structure to sound and silence (micro to macro) into what we call music and the craft of making music is an extremely subtle and, for me, spiritual action. The act of composition is meditation, even momentary release from the physical plane.

I must mention that composing, for me, has nothing to do with career, kudos, money or acceptance. It is a spiritual act, a ritual that may allow insight, albeit temporary, beyond illusion. The composer / performer is shaman. What does composition mean to me? …Liberation!

I have just completed the first draft of a book that explores music, meaning, inter-connectivity and spirituality. It’s been in the make for a few years and only now ready to start exploring publication. The working title is We Are Music: An Existential Journey.

In the recent CSS Showcases SG New Music Talents 2020, you interviewed composers and performers involved in the project. What did you learn from fellow composers talking about their music?

I was delighted to interview the composers and performers featured on the CSS Showcases SG New Music Talents 2020 project. It was a very uplifting and inspirational experience for me.

Each musician that I spoke with had a keen sense of purpose and direction in their creative work. Marching to their own personal drummer, each musician was highly individualistic and defined in their approach to music. Each one was highly skilled at achieving their goals yet with a healthy sense of unknowing and vulnerability as to what a future might bring. It is an act of bravery to take a stand in our modern world as a composer of art music.

I felt a strong sense of solidarity and community with each of the musicians that I interviewed, and am grateful for the opportunity.

You witnessed the development of Singapore’s music scene in the past few decades. How have things changed and what hopes do you have for its future?

I could write a book based on this question regarding my witnessing the development of Singapore’s music scene in the past few decades! Here is an brief reply:

There were definitely phases that paralleled those of Singapore’s socio-cultural, political and economic development along with those on a global stage. I arrived in 1985 within what seemed a post-colonial era. The British cultural hold (ABRSM for example) on Singapore was tenacious. This was all part of my personal experience of culture-shock. Nevertheless, I found enormous pleasure and inspiration in attending performances of Indian, Chinese and Malay music, dance and theatre. Frankly, the Western music sector was embarrassingly underdeveloped, and itself a political minefield.

Consequently, the early 90s witnessed a strong sense of rebellion against this and a search for Singaporean identity. Consequently, there were often desperate and self-conscious attempts to make “Singaporean” music. My most exciting Singaporean collaborators during these “early years” included LIM Fei Shen (dancer / choreographer), TANG Da Wu (artist), the late Robert LUSE (guitarist), TAN Swie Hian (painter / poet), the late KUO Pao Kun (playwright / stage director), the late Mary Rose GASMIER (journalist / poet), ONG Keng Sen (stage director), and Sandi TAN (film-maker). The Substation played an enormous role for contemporary performing arts in the 90s. These were halcyon days though fraught with many frustrations and set-backs. Nevertheless, the eventual combination of rising economic power of the middle class, higher and more widespread educational qualifications for musicians, the establishment of the National Arts Council, the rise in performing venues, greater audience interest in music performances, and growing popularity of the internet, all contributed to a slow yet evident growth in Singapore’s music scene.

The opening of The Esplanade in 2002 definitely ushered in a new era for the performing arts in Singapore. In the early 2000s music education in Singapore also made giant leaps. In 2003, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) was founded. The music programs at both Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and LASALLE College of the Arts also greatly evolved and flourished. The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) was founded in 2007! (Editor’s Note: John SHARPLEY was one of the founding members of CSS.) More and more musicians and music-making was populating Singapore! Consequently, the Singapore music scene grew from strength to strength up to the beginning of 2020 and the COVID-19 crisis. This global crisis has also put into action new forms of dissemination of the performing arts. It has also put a lot of musicians out of work. While writing this (21 Feb 2021), it is still too soon to fully grasp the impact of this crisis on Singapore’s music scene. But I am sure, that we will emerge all the stronger!

Nevertheless, there is one obstacle that is always very difficult to penetrate, materialism. Singapore had rapidly evolved towards being a global center for capitalism, consumerism and materialism. In Singapore, money matters! Everything has a price. Consequently, music in Singapore has largely been viewed as entertainment, commodity, a revenue-churning industry. How can artistic integrity survive in such a stifling environment? Not easy!

But maybe things are changing? Already, I perceive in the youngest of the younger generation a certain pull away from materialism. Perhaps through the COVID-19 crisis experience, we will necessarily further reexamine our values, perceptions and aspirations. May music, consequently, assume a more holistic role in our life and community. My hope, is that we, as part of a global society evolve much further, well-past materialism and physicalism, towards a more holistic life where music is an integral part of existence. It is further hoped is that musicians will be more enabled to voice themselves as agents of connectivity, love and healing.