Thursday, 21 November 2019

Composer's life

Louisa Café.

Ritual: I wake up, look at the small vintage clock - when it hasn't stopped working during the night. Get my glass of water then get dressed to have my coffee downstairs at the Louisa Café, which opened a couple of years (or more) ago.

It’s not that I really need to go there to have a cup of coffee. I could do that with the delicious coffee I had brought back from Vietnam. But somehow, in the solitary routine of music composing, to find myself in this familiar place every morning is soothing. Young mothers and their cute offsprings, old lady friends, young students, some sporty-looking guys in shorts and tank top. They play the same generic music over and over – American pop, mostly, again, always, ad nauseam... 

But I don’t mind. I bring down my computer, write my emails or edit my photos. This ritual soothes me. The ladies’ joyful chatter at the nearby tables soothes me – the men are usually silent, reading the newspapers or just dozing, while the younger ones, bespectacled students, are busy with their homework and textbooks. I somehow envy them. 

It’s nearly the end of the year. I have those two projects on the fire: the Bruce Lee documentary and the album for this newcomer Ray Kang, a theatre actor and stand-up comedian who also moonlights as a singer-songwriter, protest songs and politically charged observation of Taiwan and its people. Sam told me about this "very interesting singer with a nice voice" a few months ago. 

Work, these past months, has been taking most of my energy – or what was left of it. Time and experience have helped hone this ability of mine to just take things at their own pace, even when everybody around me is under pressure or is rushing here, there and everywhere. My survival and mental sanity depend on letting the music come in due time, and trusting that everything will eventually turn out well – which it has, so far.

But I do look forward to that week in Seoul that I promised myself to take. December? Early January? As usual, it will be a last minute decision. 

For now, it’s the Bruce Lee documentary - Be Water the title is, said Bao, and Parallel, the temporary title for Ray’s album.

Sam Liao wanted me to arrange the songs that Ray had penned – shall I say write music on the lyrics Ray penned, for the music is no more that some unstructured melodies placed on words. Ray’s singing is very soulful with a beautiful tone of voice and nice musicality. Sam recognised the qualities right away and that prompted him to take on this project.

The bare melodies are like souls searching for themselves, and as a composer, it is an interesting challenge – sometime an infuriating process, to find the colours, the instruments, the harmonies, the rhythms that will give the song its personality, although it sometimes feels like writing a whole novel out of a simple synopsis... Because if he has some nice melodic ideas, structure isn't his forte, and he tends to repeat the same kind of humming when he gets lost musically.

However, this project allowed me to meet two talented musicians, guitarist Chen Pang and accordionist Achino, both of whom Sam introduced me to. 

When he said that he knew someone who could play flamenco guitar really well, my pictured a chubby fifty-something bearded man with long hair, a smiling face, who would be wearing a hat. Why so? I have no idea. The person who rang the doorbell was barely in his late twenties, short-haired, with a tattoo on his arm, cool and hip. I immediately felt 'in tune' with him – both personally and musically. Working with him felt like two children playing Lego. He immediately understood my intentions for the songs and after one session with him, his parts for the first two songs were already clearly defined. We were looking forward to the next session, just like children who can’t wait to meet up again to play and imagine more together. I see less and less of my friends, but such encounters, beside being musically arousing, also bring warmth and a sense of companionship in an otherwise very solitary life.

Achino is, according to Sam, the best accordion player in Taiwan. Whatever that meant, I did not know. I had no clue about the state of accordion playing in Taiwan! 

His studio was located in Gongguan, the university area, close to one of my favourite spots in town, Treasure Hill – or the artists’ village.

We agreed to meet before he’d go on tour for a week or so. There was still a few days. I had brought my ZOOM recorder, but when I saw his working space, I knew there would be no need for it. It was a mad scientist’s den, albeit for music. All sorts of machines, recording devices, keyboards, wires and cables… 

Of course, there were countless declinations of accordions: cassoto accordion, bandoneon, accordina, musette accordion, melodeons… Achino had been asked to arrange three songs for Ray. I was relieved to hear that he too, struggled to give life (and structure) to the songs. “They always follow the same patterns, the beginning is fine, with some nice melody, then it fizzles out, no structure and he (Ray) ends up humming the same kind of melodic patterns to fill the void.” Oooh... that sounds familiar...

What makes the songs, are the texts. Ray writes beautifully. But the work of a composer’s goes beyond putting notes under words. Achino played what he had done on the songs. It was beautiful. I was worried that his arrangements and mine wouldn’t match with each other, but they do. 
I don't know how Ray will stand up for this album. Sam told me that he, in turn, struggled with the music that has been written, and I understand he feels dispossessed of his songs. "Why not go back to the demos? Ray suggested at some point. Sam told me he stood his ground. 
It is a pity that there hasn't been more interaction between Ray and us. It feels more like playing at dressing up than a true collaboration.
And the issue regarding copyright and composer credit is infuriating to me.
"That's how it goes in Taiwan, and also in China" Sam explained. 

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

On being Asian - and some other anecdotes (continued)

Girl: What’s your name?
Me: It’s An
Girl: An?
Me: Yes, it’s a Vietnamese name.
Girl: Oh I see… An…. I don’t like that name.
Me: …

(on a date – first time, many, many years ago)
M.: You look very good! I like your style! And I love musicians
Me: Yes! I’m very glad to meet you!
M.: So… 
Me: ?
M.: Erm, how old are you?
Me: 27
M.: 27??? Oh….
Me: Is there a problem?
M.: Well, I have a rule… I can’t date anybody who’s older than 26.
Me: You can’t? … Even if you like the person?
M.: Yes… I really like you but… you’re older than 27, so I can’t date you
Me: That’s weird… And what happens when you reach that age? Will you keep that rule? 
M.: That’s how it is now. I have to follow that rule. If not… It’s a pity… because I really like you.
Me: (good luck with your life…)

X.: So where are you from?
Me: I’m Vietnamese (I know what to answer, now, he he!)
X.: Which country?
Me: Vietnam… I’m Vietnamese…
X.: You’re not Filipino?
Me: Erm, no… Vietnam and the Philippines are two different countries.
X.: But you don’t have Western blood? 
Me: What do you… mean?
X.: Like, you could be Mexican!
Me: (Mexican?) No. I’m 100% Vietnamese
X.: Yes, but your parents could have Chinese blood!
Me: (This is getting curiouser and curiouser) I may have some Chinese ancestors… There’s no such a thing as pure blood.
X.: Seee! So you’re not completely… erm Vietnamese.
Me: But I am. Although I was born in France
X.: See! I knew it!
Me: Knew what?
X.: That you were not totally Vietnamese!
Me: Both my parents are Vietnamese. And so are my grand-parents.
X.: Yes, but one never knows. Maybe one of them had an affair with someone from America or Europe.
Me: Yes…. I really can picture my great grand-father going on Tinder to meet a French lady…
X.: (pause) Because you don’t look completely erm… Vietnamese
Me: And… how are Vietnamese supposed to look like?
X.: Not like you!
Me: (ok, I give up)

Guy: What’s your family name?
Me: Tôn Thất
Guy: How do your pronounce it?
Me: [toŋ˧˥ tʰə̰k˩˧]
Guy: Wow, that’s hard to pronounce!
Me: I know… what your name?
Guy: Wojciechowski…
Me: Oh it’s Polish! (pronounce the name)
Guy: Wow! You can say it!
Me: Yes… I have come across Slavic names fairly often, so I’m a bit used to it. Why?
Guy: Well... I can’t even pronounce my own name correctly…

(28+ years ago… phone rings)
Me: Allo?
Woman: May I speak to mister… Anh.. Toh Tate?
Me: … It’s me speaking.
Woman: Oh! Wonderful! My name is Mrs. D. and I’m a casting agent for xxx Production.  I’m calling you because I have received your photo and you’d be perfect! (I had just had a bit part in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s ‘The Lover’)
Me: (yeay yeay yeay!!!) Oh really? What is about?
Woman: Yes, we really like your look. It’s for a leading part in a film.
Me: (yeay yeay yeay x 10!!!!!!)
Woman: Do you have a moment? I would like to tell you about it.
Me: Of course
Woman: Oh…  and… erm… I have one question…
Me: What is it?
Woman: Would you accept to play in the nude?
Me: ???
Woman: Yes… let me explain. The film is about Emmanuelle (the heroine of a series of French erotic films in the 70s and 80s)
Me: (mountains collapsing in my head)
Woman: So the story is: Emmanuelle goes to Asia… and she meets an old zen master. He gives her some magic tea to drink. She drinks it and then baaam! The zen master turns into a young man, and IT’S YOU!!!
Me: How.. wonderful…
Woman: Would you do it?

(twenty eight + years ago… phone rings)
Woman: Hello?
Me: Hello.
Woman: Good morning, I’m mrs. G. from xxx production company. We’re casting for an advertisement and I thought of you. 
Me: Oh good! When is it?
Woman: It’s in two days. Can you go?
Me: Yes, of course
Woman: Lovely! Do you… have a leather jacket?
Me: Yes I do… why? Should I bring it?
Woman: yes! Wear it! 
(two days later … opening the door of the casting agency. The room is filled with Asian guys who look like they’re from the most dangerous gang in town. They all turn their head and look at me)
Me: Oh…. bonjour....

(In Bretagne – Brittany, after a concert during a tour with a French singer and her band, of which I was the musical director and pianist)
R. (Bass player): Oh An, I would like to introduce you to my parents! 
Me: With great pleasure!
(walking to an elderly couple)
R.: Mum and dad, this is An!
Me: (extending my right arm to the lady) How do you do? A pleasure to m…
(Lady jumps back as if she has seen a ghost. Her husband shakes my hand)
R.: (embarrassed) Sorry for my mom… she has never seen any Asian in her life…

(twenty years ago, at a famous record company)
Manager: We listened to your songs. It’s really good!
Me: Oh thank you!
Manager: Well… some of the songs are a bit long… and it’s a bit complicated… but… it’s very interesting! We like your music!
Me: I’m happy to hear that.
Manager: However… we don’t know how we are going to sell this…
Me: I know. There isn’t any Asian singer or musician out there in France, or Europe…
Manager: Yes… so how do we sell you? Pop? World music? Electronic? French? No… not French…
Me: Yes, everything has to be built up from scratch… it’s virgin territory.
Manager: That’s the problem. How to market you?
Me: That’s not for me to say… 
Manager: And… could you change certain things in your songs? I know they are demos… but your way of writing is too meandering, it's too… personal. Could you make the songs shorter? And perhaps make the structure more simple?
Me: Then it wouldn’t be me… 
Manager: Mmm… the problem is that nobody does what you do. So we have to make it more approachable to the audience. Once the audience gets used to what you do, you can do what you like!
Me: …
Manager: However, the main issue is… how to market you? … Let me think about it and we will call you…
(There is one known fact: if a company say they will call you again, you can be sure they will NOT call you back. The manager never called me back.)

(Months later at a launch party of an album by an artist by the same label)

Manager: Hey An! ... How are you doing?
Me: ... Still meeting with record companies...
Manager: Yeah, I know... It's a tough world, isn't it? ...

Singer: I heard that Julia (my singing teacher) has encouraged you to write your own songs.
Me: Yes. She did.
Singer: Your OWN song?
Me: Yes. Why?
Singer: … well… you have nothing to offer as a singer, or on stage. You are a composer. That’s what your skill is.
Me: How can you tell, since you’ve never seen me do anything on stage but play the piano for you or someone else?
Singer: I just know. I can tell when someone has the talent. You don’t!
Me: I don’t find that very nice of you. 
Singer: You have to know the truth

(several years later, at a hip Parisian concert venue where I presented my first album)
Singer: Oh An you were wonderful! I’ve always known it! You have IT!

Woman: "I really love your music! It's so powerful and dramatic! Very unique. I hope we can work on something together!"
Me: "Oh thank you. That could be nice! Whenever you have a new project"
(some time later)
Woman: "The music you've done is... nice, but... It's not really what I had in mind... Could you do something more in this style? (plays something...)
Me: "That's quite the opposite of what I do... why did you ask me then..?"
Woman: "No... I like what you do. But... it's maybe a little too dramatic.. It's too..."
Me: (If I had a virtual punching ball....)

(Twenty two years ago, in California, where I was meeting casting directors – at that time, I was still thinking of - and working at being an actor)

Uncle T.: You can’t be an actor.
Me: Why so?
Uncle T.: Because we are in America. This isn’t our land. This isn’t our culture. There is no place for Asian people in movies. We have to play it low profile and earn an honest living
Me: But that’s what I want to do. At least try. I know it’s going to tough. But I have to try. If everybody thinks that way, nothing will change.
Uncle T.: Well, you should just not waste your time on that. Go get yourself a proper job, resume your studies, study something like... engineering! Gte married and make your parents happy. This isn’t our country, there’s no room for such things as being an actor as an Asian.

(later, after he heard me play the piano to entertain my cousins)
Uncle T.: Mmmm maybe you can be a musician… But not an actor!

Actually – and sadly, my uncle was right. There wasn’t much of a future as actor for me at that time – unless one is okay with playing a Laundromat owner, a Chinese restaurant waiter, a gang member, or martial art fighter. And true, I felt that my true calling was music, not being an actor. And I’m glad I picked music.