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Composer of The Month for May 2024: Joel TAN

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The Composer of the Month for May 2024 is Joel TAN. Joel is a young aspiring composer who is currently awaiting matriculation into the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music for Composition. He is also a recent participant of the Young Composers Forum, with his piece Cubic Ribbon being featured by WeirdAftertaste at the Singapore Composers Festival 2024.

Interviewer: MOK Peck Yim

1. Tell us about your musical background - how you began learning music, and what you do now.

Growing up, I always had a love-hate relationship with music as I was forced to take lessons and had plans to pursue a career in STEM since young. My passion for it grew when I started making decisions for myself sometime in my teens, abandoning my Yamaha education in favour of ABRSM gradings. I was exposed to classical music after taking O-Level Music.

It wasn't until I auditioned to read H2 A-Level music at Junior College did I realise how lacking in ability and experience I was compared to everyone else. I was discouraged by the teachers to take it due to my overall poor performance in all aspects of the audition but decided to take it anyway. (This was possible because the condition was to pass O-Level Music.)

Throughout my time at JC, it was slowly revealed to me that my desire to pursue mathematics was built on a flimsy reason. I thought I was pretty good at mathematics, but my passion for music, specifically composition, was truly genuine despite the difference in ability compared to my peers. By the time I graduated, I had decided to apply for Composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Since then and throughout National Service, I have joined a few composition workshops, got accepted into YST, met a bunch of fellow musicians and composers (many of whom make great friends!), initiated a bunch of workshops and a concert, and continue to work on my fundamental skills as a musician. But currently I'm just keeping myself busy by working and wishing that August comes quickly so that I can start university!

2. Share with us about your inspiration and compositional process for your piece 'Cubic Ribbon' that was recently showcased at the Singapore Composers Festival.

'Cubic Ribbon' is one of the earliest pieces I wrote after I decided to abandon my strict and complex developmental techniques which I derived using mathematical processes and tools. It is modelled after a cubic graph with two turning points and the value of the graph loosely represents the intensity of the music. I tried to take apart the sounds and have the music slowly unravel to focus on the details during periods of low intensity, and I likened this process to untying or unravelling a ribbon, hence the name 'Cubic Ribbon'.

I personally feel that my execution of this piece was rather flawed and felt that many moments throughout the music were very unintentional, but that's just part of the process and I'll continue to work on honing my compositional craft! 

3. What are some of your upcoming projects/works that we can look forward to?

Well, I don't really have a lot of ongoing projects nor works coming out soon but I do have the next four years at YST to figure it out! Do look forward to the projects and concerts I'll be embarking on as a composition student soon! 

4. Any words of advice for our aspiring young composers?

I'll advise them to go out there and talk to people. Music is often a social activity, so find a community of people or make friends with people that you are comfortable with. You can really learn a lot from everyone, and to inspire and be inspired by the people around you at this early stage in your composition journey is also very important. It gives you a lot of ideas on the type of music you want to write or the type of composer you want to become in the next few years. 



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