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. 

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