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 In-Conversation with Iskandar Ismail

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horer1



Posts : 13
Join date : 2008-10-16

PostSubject: In-Conversation with Iskandar Ismail   Wed Oct 22, 2008 12:56 am

21 Oct 2008, 6pm

[Iskandar Mirza Ismail is a composer, arranger, conductor, music director, artistic director, producer, performer and educator. Working in genres ranging from jazz, pop, ethnic, new age, orchestral to fusion, he ranks among Singapore’s most admired and respected musicians. I have grown up listening and performing his music in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) and National Day parade (NDP) amongst his many national music projects. He was recently conferred the highest honours for arts practitioners, the Cultural Medallion by the Singapore government. I was warmly welcomed by Mr Ismail at his residence in Siglap before being ushered to this spacious and well-furnished music studio which was his work area for music arrangement and composing. His second remark to me was rather instructive - he liked to interact with musicians in music studios rather than working alone at his home. I looked forward to hearing more from this much esteemed music man. Below is the transcription of our conversation detailing his music education, a little history of music in Singapore, and his aspiration and hope.]

WS: Congratulations again for being awarded the Cultural Medallion. Thank you for taking this time to speak to me.

II: Thank you very much. I hope I can tell you more than what I have already told several others already. You must have seen the recent published interview already.

WS: Yes I have and I do not hope to duplicate the others’ good work. I thought I could ask you some questions and hear about what perhaps our teachers and students will be most keen to learn from you.

II: [Smiled and waved his hand] Oh I wonder whether I can offer that but sure please go ahead.

WS: We know that you have gone overseas to Boston for your music training, but prior to this, how did you get started with learning music here in Singapore?

II: Oh thanks to my mother who was a recording artiste then, she insisted that my siblings and myself had a good music education. Yeah she was really very insistent and all of us benefited from her ‘regimental’ approach. I started out learning the piano with the late Zubir Said [WS: oh… this is a precious connection that I am sure many people did not know about!] Yes… indeed, bet you were not even born then in the 1960s and 1970s. I went on to learn the electric organ or what you call the electone with Ms Dorothy Wang at the Yamaha School. Back then, the Yamaha school was in the current Thomson Medical Centre. Yeah I was probably the pioneer batch of students with them. I also taught ‘illegally’ for a while there when I was 15. I was the champion in the electone competition in 1975. I suppose that really encouraged me to pursue music at a much higher level.

WS: How about in the school - were you involved in any music activities in the school?

II: I took part in the interschool singing competition! Ha ha ha… that was where I got to know Dick Lee who was the same age as me. He was in SJI and I was in St Pats. [WS: Oh that’s quite amazing that you knew each other since then and that there were actually inter-school singing competitions] Ya… we sort of grew up together. But he went Japan. I had a choice of going to Japan or US, but a Japan electone master teacher who came to Singapore decided to go with me to study in US, so I guess that’s how I ended up at Boston. In Berklee, I knew I would not be as good a performer, that’s why I decided to go into majoring arrangement. At that time, to major in music arrangement (as compared to say classical music performance) is considered quite rare even in US.

WS: That must be a very important stage of your music training. And what did you do after you returned from your studies?

II: Oh I worked at hotel lounges to continue to brush up my jazz playing skills and was later working with the then SBC to do music arrangement. Very soon, I was ‘taken out’ to work full time with a record company in Taiwan.

WS: How was the music scene then? Was it very competitive?

II: Haha, yes you were not even born yet! The 1960-70s music scene was different compared to now. Back then entertainment business was mostly about radio and TV. Not so competitive. To be able to make a record and sell for a couple of thousands in those days was a very big deal already. Today, you have music all over the place… much more competitive now. I was very lucky to be ‘taken out’ by a record company to work full time in arrangement. Basically, I was paid very well to work on arranging a few Chinese songs for artistes like Tracey Huang, Sandy Lam and Aaron Kwok. I learnt a lot about writing good Chinese music arrangement but I also felt limited because some of the singers really cannot sing. The boy bands for instance - they looked good and were well publicized but they cant sing - so I could only arrange song that was within their range. I was really glad to be asked to do the NDP and SYF since 1985 till now - the record company allowed to me to do this as there was no conflict in interest. So I was financially well-supported and was still able to arrange different sorts of music for the SYF and NDP. I counted myself very blessed.

WS: Lets talk about how music education is like for our students now as compared to your time. How different is it you think?

II: I hope that music can be introduced in the curriculum in a much bigger way than it is now and also during my time. I know that some students participate in Choir, Band etc but it will be much better if more students can benefit through learning music well in the classroom. It is not complicated if you think about it - it is just playing with 7 notes! But the possibilities… I also know that technology must play a much more important role today in the classroom. You have software like garage band that students can compose freely or ‘cut and paste’ to make music. You need to constantly keep pace with the development because technology shape the kind of commercial music we have today.

WS: What do you mean by “commercial music” and how differently is learning about this?

II: Well certainly you must have good foundation of music. I believe that classical training of music is very important so that you know how to listen properly. In commercial music, I worked with a lot of loops but it’s not as simple as just cutting and pasting. You need to know the MIDI language and also working with MIDI and audio sounds - how to do sampling, equalizing and other engineering skills. I know students today are able to do ‘cut and paste’ with software like garage band - but they do not know what is actually good music; how to work out harmony and instrumentation - all these must be learnt at the foundational level. After that, the students must know specifically of each of the musical styles - Rap, R and B, Pop, Soul etc. Each of this music has its own distinctiveness - you can be very good at writing rap but not the others. So in this times, you need to be able to specialise. I am fortunate that I can explore all these different styles.

WS: That’s a lot to think about for our aspiring students but will you say there are more opportunities for them today as compared to your time?

II: Yes certainly, students today are much more fortunate - they can cut short a lot of the learning through all these technologies that are widely available to them. For myself, I also try to keep abreast with the development but sometimes it’s just too difficult - so I will just simply give it a try and if I get stuck, I will just call my friends for help. Our younger students today are much more adept in using technology.

WS: Lets talk about the music you are writing now. Dick Lee has said that you have shaped Singapore’s music identity through the pop culture. Would you agree with that?

II: Haha, yes I do think there is some truth in that. I enjoyed working in all sorts of styles. But lately I am also searching for what is the Singapore music. I was never very familiar with the various ethnic music since I have started with classical training and moving to commercial music. But lately I have been exploring. For instance, we just did a production, supported by Spotlight Singapore in Moscow of a 50 minutes Russian play directed by Ivan Heng that featured various Singapore ethnic music. This was a multimedia production with musicians from SCO, NUS Chinese CO and other ethnic music professional players. It was very received. SM and MM Lee were there too.

WS: What is this Singapore music?

II: Haha, I am still searching. It may have to do with exploring our ethnicity but you know the music scene is changing so quickly. I will rather look forward then being so caught up about our past.

WS: Our students today in school are learning more about our ethnic music - do you think that is a good move?

II: Well, it depends on whose authority is this knowledge on ethnic music based on? Frankly, I have my doubts about what they are learning in school. For myself, I can hear the notes of the morning raga but I will still check with my Indian friends what really is this raga about. Does it mean that if there is this instrument and that instrument, it will be that particular ethnic music? There is the danger that students will acquire only very superficial knowledge. But then, I guess this is a start and there will be improvements along the years.

WS: Thank you so much for your time and your insights. Would you have any other wisdom to give to our aspiring students and teachers?

II: Believe in yourself and be prepared to take the fall and stand up again. The music business is a lifelong journey.

WS: And a lifelong gift as well - thank you and we wish you all the best in your future musical endeavours.

[Mr Ismail is currently working on a number of national projects such as the Esplanade Fireworks and Child Aid Concert. I believe he has to fly off to Hong Kong for a Dick Lee’s musical production in China featuring Nicholas Tse after this interview. I came out of this feeling slightly over-whelmed by the amount of music work he is already involved in and his capacity to do even much more. I am quite certain that more accolades will come his way in his search for the Singapore music identity - a very long way for this man who started off as an ‘illegal music teacher‘. In the mean time, I was simply grateful to have caught up with him in this one hour and being able to capture a snapshot of his busy musician’s life. I was also glad to have the chance to visit this Siglap estate - my first time!]


Last edited by horer1 on Wed Oct 22, 2008 9:25 am; edited 2 times in total
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suriati



Posts : 5
Join date : 2008-01-17

PostSubject: In response   Wed Oct 22, 2008 7:13 am

I think it was great that you managed to interview Mr Iskandar. Through the interview, I sensed that he keeps a very busy schedule.

I think he didn't think much of the schools' music curriculum and most pop singers Very Happy . For curriculum, did you feel that it was because of his own personal experience? Or that he found little or even no relevance to the 'outside' vibrant commercial world?

He was awarded the medallion for his arrangement. In light of our current MOE project, do you think it would be good to feature him in the resource package? Too soon? Would he fit in as a local 'composer'?
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horer1



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PostSubject: Re: In-Conversation with Iskandar Ismail   Wed Oct 22, 2008 9:22 am

suriati wrote:
I think it was great that you managed to interview Mr Iskandar. Through the interview, I sensed that he keeps a very busy schedule.

I think he didn't think much of the schools' music curriculum and most pop singers Very Happy . For curriculum, did you feel that it was because of his own personal experience? Or that he found little or even no relevance to the 'outside' vibrant commercial world?

<Basketball added some additional comments on this thoughts of the music education which could be useful later when you do a mid term/full term>

He was awarded the medallion for his arrangement. In light of our current MOE project, do you think it would be good to feature him in the resource package? Too soon? Would he fit in as a local 'composer'?



< rendeer He certainly deserves to be featured as I think CCAB is trying to do too thru some archiving project - sigh - for all you know you may be working along the same line. Maybe you want to check with them? I am sure you guys have a list of prioritising who should be included in the resource package right? The order of who has being conferred the cultural medallion could be one way of prioritising. Even not included now, can be later. Razz>


Last edited by horer1 on Fri Oct 24, 2008 10:29 am; edited 2 times in total
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suriati



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PostSubject: In response   Thu Oct 23, 2008 7:18 am

Will bring the thoughts back to the unit. Thanks for the thoughfulness and for being so fortcoming with your ideas. Mid term and full term review...indeed. Need all the help there. flower
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