Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 7th CSS Member of the Month for 2022 is POW Jun Kai! Jun Kai is a cultural historian and musicologist specialising in gender, media and technology in twentieth-century Southeast Asia and Western Europe.
Introduce yourself to us! How did you decide on music as a career, and what led you to musicology?
Hello, everyone! I do wear several hats in the arts and cultural industry, but my foremost interests are in musicology and history. After my ‘A’ levels, I was deciding between majoring in Dietetics or Music at King’s College London. The former was a four-year science degree that I could not really afford at that time. I was also enriching my time during national service with music analysis and composition work.
I guess my fortes have so far being able to see the big picture and long narrative in both music and history, as well as being inquisitive and innovative in every aspect of life. Throughout my music studies, the philosophies and politics behind the music fascinated me immensely that eventually made me branch into and specialize in Musicology. Both historical musicology and ethnomusicology opened up my world and my mind beyond playing the piano in a small room at university. Eventually, I completed a PhD in Musicology supported by the National Arts Council.
Tell us about your research interests. What projects are you working on currently?
My research interests have gradually evolved to focus on music, gender and technology in the twentieth century. While I was initially fascinated by the works of Xenakis and Lachenmann, it was the Polish music of Grażyna Bacewics and Hanna Kulenty that opened my musical ears. Upon my return to Singapore, I embarked on a project to chronicle the new music history of Singapore in the twentieth century, one result of which was the book, Singapore Soundscape, published by the National Library Board.
I am currently working on a book project on the topic of death in the music and culture of the Malay World in the mid-twentieth century. The subject matters include bangsawan, popular songs and P. Ramlee’s film songs. The intersection between original music and other artforms, such as theatre and film, forms a creative synergy that could readily be considered modern innovations of their times before Singapore’s Independence.
Recently, you led the Composing Monumentality project, where several CSS members researched the works of pioneering Singaporean composers. What motivated you to initiate this research? Share with us your thoughts on the research process.
It was a great privilege and pleasure to be able to work with the Composers’ Society of Singapore and a handful of its members on this project of discovery. As common knowledge, the opportunity to compose and perform large-scale works in this country remains rare. I had two objectives in the proposal, which were to introduce the symphonies, concerti or cantata to a wider audience, as well as to allow the young composers in the Society to get inspired by the pioneer generation of artists working in the closing decades of the last century.
Given that many of these music have had only one to two performances, it also took the whole team a monumental effort to resurrect and recalibrate the music’s place in Singapore’s new music history. The most exciting part of the project was also an opportunity for the young composers to create a musical work themselves as inspired by the aesthetics of their selected composer.
The six research projects of ‘Composing Monumentality’ can be viewed here.
Check out Jun Kai’s presentation on his research on Tsao Chieh below (in Mandarin):
What advice do you have for younger musicians who are considering pursuing musicology?
Learn lots of languages and read lots of anthropology and history books! Musicology is really about retelling the stories behind musicians or musical works. The genesis, provenance and reception are all highly fascinating aspects of study within musicology. Musicologists have to enjoy working in the archives as well as around people, including observing and interviewing musicians. Musicologists work mostly as educators in the academic or communal settings, and also as consultants in many music-related companies worldwide. Contradictory to many assumptions, musicology is a vital component of any musical community.