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A Musical Journey with a Physicist-Composer
— Conversation with Professor Bernard T. G. Tan
By Y.K. Leong and Elizabeth M.Y. Lie
Published: EduNation, Issue 8, June 2015

Professor Bernard Tan Tiong Gie is a well-known personality in the historical and academic development of the National University of Singapore (NUS) from its early years in the 1970s as the University of Singapore. He played a pivotal role in the development of the Faculty of Science from 1985 to 2007. While contributing to research in solid-state physics and acoustic electronics, he has shown an enormous amount of physical energy and organisational skills in having to wear a wide range of hats in education at the tertiary and school levels, as well as in science and technology, civics education and music and arts management. He has supervised 10 PhD and 4 MSc students. At present, he continues to be active in research and teaching in the Department of Physics, and is concurrently Director of the Centre for Maritime Studies, and Chairman of the Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing and of the Singapore Synchrotron Light Source in NUS.

There is, however, one side of Professor Tan which few of his scientific colleagues and even his friends are aware of. And that is a passion that finds its creative expression in musical composition whose structured form is as methodical as the scientific method, and yet its free-flowing form is antithetical to the linear flow of scientific enquiry. There are, indeed, many examples of scientists who are talented as performing musicians, but few there are who are also accomplished composers (the most prominent example being the Russian chemist and composer, Alexander Borodin (1833–1887)).

EduNation had the good fortune to interview Professor Tan on 28 January 2015 in his office at the Centre for Maritime Studies (admittedly a rather improbable, if not incongruous, place to find a physicist or composer). In a rather long interview, he opens up with gusto to share his passion for music, his motivation for composition and his knowledge of music development acquired with the spirit of a scientist. The interview also gives us a glimpse of the development of music education in NUS and of the prospects of music and the arts in Singapore. The following is an edited and vetted version of the interview conducted by Leong Yu Kiang and Elizabeth Lie Mei Yan on behalf of EduNation.

Leong Yu Kiang, Elizabeth Lie Mei Yan (LL): Although there are scientists who are also musically talented, not many of them acquire professional musical qualifications (such as Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music and Licentiate in Music of Trinity College of Music) like you do. When and why did you take the trouble to do so?

Bernard Tan Tiong Gie (BT): I don's know; it's very hard to say. You know, many people who study music take the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) grade exams. You finish grade 8, you think of what you want to do. You can try taking the LRSM, so I took it. Then because I had an interest in composition, I took the theoretical diplomas — that's the Licentiate in Music at Trinity College. Then at some point in time, I have a fellowship in composition from Trinity College as well.

LL: Did you have to sit for exams or anything?

BT: Yes. These are all written examinations. The fellowship in composition at Trinity College isn's an examination but you submit your compositions and they give you a fellowship if they think they're okay.

LL: How old were you when you took the exams?

BT: For LRSM, I must have just entered university. I think I did this diploma on my own. I don's think I had a teacher because there were very few teachers in Singapore at that time who taught theory. So you just struggle on your own. You just buy the textbooks and you do your best. Even if you're doing it wrongly, you won's know.

People often ask me, "Is music your main hobby?" My answer is very simple. It's something that's much more important to me than being a mere hobby. But professionally I'm a physicist, not a musician. I don's think I'm good enough to be a professional musician. When I was young, during our time, there were very few people who dared to take music as a profession. Your parents will not even let you think about it. You know, so very few people actually went off and did music as a profession. The ones I can think of who are from Singapore — Lee Kum-Sing and Yu Chun Yee.

LL: Your scientific field of research is acoustics, which has something to do with the production of sound just as music has. Is there any connection between your chosen field of research and your own personal love of music?

BT: Actually my original area of research is not in acoustics, it's solid state physics, applied solid state physics, particularly, semiconductor devices and microwaves. Most of my research life in the physics department has been in those fields. Towards the later part of my research life, I decided to go into acoustics because of my interest in music and secondly, acoustics is cheap. It doesn's require a lot of money. In fact, you can do a lot of research with very little money. The equipment is not expensive. Once you become a senior member of the department, you don's compete for research money. So I didn's feel like asking for big research grants. I thought why not I do something that's not a hot area of research because acoustics is not a hot area of research but still important in certain ways. So I would say that for the last 10 to15 years of my NUS research life, I did acoustics. For the major first part of my life, it was solid state physics. To my regret, I didn's produce enough PhDs but I managed to have 10 PhD students — 6 in solid state physics and 4 in acoustics.

There is a connection why I chose acoustics. I have an interest in two areas. One is production of musical sounds electronically. That's probably my main area of research. I have an interest in concert hall acoustics. To be honest, I can's say I've done research in that even though I follow the research, but I've given advice and consultation on concert hall acoustics. Again that's a very esoteric branch of acoustics. Hardly anyone in Singapore does that. In concert hall acoustics, you advise people on how to design concert halls or auditoriums so that the sound will be good. For example, I was the acoustics consultant for the Victoria Memorial Hall when it was renovated in 1980 for the SSO (Singapore Symphony Orchestra). For the Esplanade, we had a very famous acoustics consultant from the US but I was on the committee as well.

LL: But the basis of acoustics could be theoretical, right?

BT: It is very theoretical but acoustics is not an easy subject to apply because you can do all the calculations for a particular concert hall and sometimes it just doesn's come out exactly. There are many famous examples of people who did this. The most famous example is the Royal Festival Hall in London. They did a lot of calculations and they didn's come out correctly. They had to make some adjustments... I think the technology now is somewhat better because they can do a lot of computer simulations. The sound of the concert hall is affected by a lot of things: the shape...

LL: Geometry is involved?

BT: Yes, it's geometrical. It's ray tracing. The sounds come in waves, so it's wave front dynamics too. The shape of the concert hall, the materials in the concert hall — materials of the chairs and walls, and all that — and, in fact, if you really want to do a full computation it's very complicated but today they have software packages that can do it quite easily because now PCs are very powerful. In those old days, 20–30 years ago, a PC will take months to calculate but today it's not a problem. It's a practical subject but you can's make a living doing that here. How many concert halls are we going to build? It's not only concert halls but auditoriums too. I've done some churches too. Churches always have a very problematic sound environment. I've been a consultant for a number of churches to improve their sound system.

Acoustics is an interesting art-science because while you can do the scientific calculation, the final adjustment is very sensitive to what people feel about the music on the stage. So there's a lot of tweaking to do. For example, in the Victoria Memorial Hall, we have a very good company doing the acoustics but they're still adjusting even now after many months because it takes time as people have a very sensitive perception of how they want to listen to music. Different people have different ideas, so you can's satisfy everybody. It's like cooking, you can have scientific amounts and all that but for the taste, 70% will say "good", 20% will say "not so good" and 5% will say "It's terrible" It's a perception and music is like that. Concert hall acoustics isn's easy actually.

LL: The well-known mathematician Donald Coxeter [(1907–2003)] was something of a musical prodigy who played the piano and composed music at an early age. And he said something to the effect that music composition has structures similar to mathematical forms of symmetry. What attracted you to music composition?

BT: I read the book King of Infinite Space [by Siobhan Roberts] about Donald Coxeter. He's a geometer and a musician too. I agree with Coxeter when he says that geometry is unfortunately neglected today. In school you hardly teach geometry now. It's all algebra. Was it he or somebody who blamed the Bourbaki group who took away everything? They formalised everything. Yes, I agree that algebraic formalisation is important but the intuitive sense of spatial relations is something very special. And yes, I would agree with your statement that structures in music are actually important because in music, though it's not a piece of physical structure, a piece of music occupies time and a piece of music has a structure — the beginning, the middle and the end. If you know about sonata forms and all that, these are structures. Many people think that the structures in music are analogous to architectural structures. In fact, you know what some people call architecture? Frozen music. Have you ever heard of the term "frozen music"?

LL: That's interesting.

BT: There's this cognate relationship between architecture and music because of the fact that for some reason or other though we listen to music as a linear time sequence, the subtotal of a piece of music has the appearance, in our mind, of solidity, of something that's built in space. And we talk about the palette, the balance in music, we talk about form in music, we talk about contrast and all that. It's just like how architects do. It's the same. The relationship of structure is very important because it's like architecture and, needless to say, architecture developed on geometry. So that relationship — architecture, geometry and music — is very, very strong.

LL: So if you want to study composition, you must have some sort of geometric . . .

BT: I'm sure there are composers who don's have this or don's think about this and they think linearly in symbolic terms, but you and I know that the relationship between music and mathematics is extremely close. I teach a course in NUS called "Science of Music". One third of the course, I'm talking about construction of scales because in music, absolute pitch is not important. Relationship between two different pitches is important. In other words, the interval is important. We talk about interval and the definition of interval is given by the ratio of intervals. Ratio of intervals is the ratio of two frequencies. The scale is built on a series of intervals and I teach a class that modern scales used in western music are actually used in many music. It's built upon intervals which derive from harmonic principles so even though my class is about music, I don's demand them to have any music background. They need to have O-level physics and some mathematics, at least you must know what ratio is and all that.

I first do the formulation of a Pythagorean scale. Then I do the Just scale. Finally, I work out the equal tempered scale. The equal tempered scale is a compromise. To give you two examples, octave ratio is 2 to 1; 2 to 1 is okay on a piano. The second most important ratio in music is the fifth, 3 over 2; 3 over 2 comes from the third harmonic actually. That's where the 3 comes from. The Pythagorean scale and Just scale use pure fifths, 3 over 2. They are Just fifths, Just intervals. The basis of the Pythagorean and Just scale is the octave and a Just fifth. The Just fifth is the second most important interval in music. It came from the Greeks: 2 to 1 is an octave and 3 over 2 is a fifth. To cut a long story short, equal tempered scale, look at the piano, the white and black keys is a compromise. I surprise my students by saying that the fifth on the piano is not 3 over 2, it's 1.498 something. It's adjusted.

LL: Due to physical reasons?

BT: To put it simply, if you use a Just scale on the piano, and you want to change keys, there will be hundreds of black keys on the piano. There will be too many. So in order to combine notes and all that, we sliced these things off and all that. That's the origin of the tempered scale. So by taking 3 over 2 and adjusting to about 1.498, you can make a more practical piano keyboard. So simple, just 5 black keys per octave. I teach my students that but it's just to show that the foundation of music is completely physics and mathematics. You know something? Most books will teach the original Pythagorean scale as being Greek. I did a bit of research and, of course, two things are important in Chinese history. One is that the equal tempered scale is discovered by a Chinese scholar [Zhu Zaiyu鏈辫級1536–1611)].

LL: When was that?

BT: He discovered it in about 1584. It's all in my notes. I must send it to you. This one is well-known because Needham [Joseph Needham (1900–1995)] knew about it but Needham's work on this is not well-known, but today the work of Needham is very well-known. So the origin of equal tempered scale (is due) to this Chinese scholar. In fact, his treatise (translated into English) is in the Chinese library. I borrowed it.

LL: Did they influence the west?

BT: No, what actually happened is this. If you see the piano scale, one octave is divided into 12 semi-tones. On the piano scale, if you have one octave 2 to 1, 12 semi-tones, 2 to 1, what's the ratio of semi-tones? It's 12/2 because in music, it's multiplication, you see, not addition. So a semi-tone is 12/2. Many western scientists have been trying to do this division for many years. This guy did it correct to 8 places of decimal.

LL: This Chinese guy?

BT: Yes, and it was documented. The earliest document in Europe which gives about 4 or 5 decimal places is about 80 years after him. In fact, now there's still a debate about this because some European scholar in his letter said "I discovered this but I didn's publish till later". So who was the first one to publish this, I don's know. The date of the publication of the Chinese scholar (Zhu Zaiyu) is well-known; the treatise is well-known, and 100 years after that, you find that J.S. Bach [Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)] was using that system. Of course, the western scholars were trying to find it out but this Chinese scholar had done it 80 years before any western scholar had published it, you see. There's always speculation. Did the system come from China to Europe?

LL: Through the Jesuits?

BT: Well, some people think that that's possible because... what's the name of the Jesuit scholar? The Italian guy. The most famous one.

LL: Matteo Ricci [(1552–1610)]?

BT: Yes! Some people speculated that Matteo Ricci... You know I was quite amazed that in the 16th century there was already the Canton trade fair. Canton trade fairs are hundreds of years old. They thought Matteo Ricci may have brought a book back but we don's know.

LL: Castiglione [Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766)]?

BT: No, some people think it's Ricci. They are all mathematicians too, you see. This is one fact that the equal tempered scale in the 1500s was discovered by a Chinese scholar, but even the earlier scale, the Pythagorean scale, I came across a book by a Hong Kong physicist (he's not a musicologist but he was doing the history of Chinese science and technology). He quoted a well-known (treatise) — there were several well-known treatises. In fact, throughout the years, many Chinese musicologists have been trying to do this subdivision until this scholar ... This Chinese scholar is very interesting. He's an amateur, a nobleman. You know in China at that time, this type of people do all sorts of things. He's a mathematician, musicologist and wrote many things. According to a Hong Kong physicist, there's a well-known treatise, older than Pythagoras, where the method of constructing the Pythagorean scale is (known) in China already.

LL: But the Chinese scale is pentatonic.

BT: No, the Chinese also got an 8-note scale. They got it all. People think only pentatonic but they have extensions of the pentatonic to be similar to the western scales too. Actually, the Chinese got a lot of scales not used by musicians, for example, this one (equal tempered scale) is a theoretical scale, never used by Chinese musicians. Actually, from this I learnt that the Chinese musicologists were really very advanced but the only thing about them is that they don's seem to be in communication with Chinese musicians. They seem to work separately. The other famous one is the temple bell. Temple bells are well-known because they vibrate in two parallel modes according to physics and people who made them knew the acoustics extremely well. There's no question about that, otherwise they couldn's have done that.

LL: What type of music have you composed? Which composition of yours has given you the greatest satisfaction?

BT: It's mainly classical. I started composing choral music mainly because it was for both the university choir and church choir. Then I moved into orchestra music. Which composition of mine has given me the greatest satisfaction? Hard to say, but I wrote a piano concerto in 2002, performed in 2003 and I wrote it for a very good friend of mine. I don's know whether you know her; she's a Singapore pianist, Toh Chee Hung and she played it with the SSO in 2003. So that one is a very important piece for me — first concerto I wrote, basically. Since then I wrote a violin concerto for Lynnette Seah in 2006. Then I had a long break. In 2013, I wrote a guitar concerto for a young Singaporean guitarist, Kevin Loh. He's now 17. He's studying in (Yehudi) Menuhin School. What happened was that he was only 11 or 12 years old when his father, who was his teacher, put his performance on Youtube, and on the basis of his performance on Youtube, the principal of Menuhin School admitted him. He's doing very well. I think he's one of the Singaporean musicians who have great probability of becoming very renowned. And my latest is a "cello concerto premiered last year by the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Tan, and with a talented Singapore "cellist Noella Yan as the soloist. On the CD I gave you, you'd find my two latest concertos. I would say that these four concertos have given me the most satisfaction because writing a concerto is rather nice as you can write for somebody you know, like Toh Chee Hung... I'm quite proud to say that all four concertos I wrote were written for Singaporeans. I'm very pro-Singapore in that respect.

LL:I think many, if not most, people have the impression that "classical" music is music that was composed before the 20th century, or at least before the Second World War, by composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and so on. This impression is especially strong when one tunes in to the "classical" music radio broadcasting stations. It gives one the impression that "classical" music has stagnated. Has there been some kind of development that one can view as a form of "progress" of classical music after the two world wars?

BT: The problem is that the term "classical" has two meanings. One is the general meaning that is "classical" as opposed to pop music, but among musicians, "classical" refers to a specific period but more specifically, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. After that, romantic, then modern music. What kind of progress in classical music after the two world wars? It's a very difficult question to answer because in the old days, if you're talking about the 19th century Europe, there were no pop music concerts, you see. Classical music had the public attention that pop music has today and people like Liszt [Franz Liszt (1811–1886)] and Paganini [Niccol貌 Paganini (1782–1840)] had the status of pop stars. But what has happened in the 20th century is that pop music has become a bigger phenomenon than classical music. Why is this so? Did classical music stagnate or did it reach a point where it was hard to reach the masses? It's very hard to say why. I follow all sorts of music. I follow pop music too. Certainly, some of the pop music written in the 20th century and so on are of very high quality, no question about that. Groups like The Beatles and Queen write music of high quality and they reach a lot of people. Why did popular music become more popular than classical? Is it because classical music is only meant for a small number of people? It shouldn's be so because in 19th century Europe, it reached everybody.

LL: Nowadays people think of classical music as highbrow.

BT: Exactly, highbrow, not for the layman. This is unfortunate. Why has it become like that? It could be because of pop music. Pop music is supposedly lowbrow. Actually it's not true, you know, because one branch of pop music which became jazz is very highbrow too. Different genres are looked at differently. One of the good things that's happening today is that the distance between classical, jazz and pop [music] is lessening somewhat. Musicians are more open-minded to each other's genres. So can classical music ever reach a bigger audience? Well, some classical musicians are doing things like playing pop songs, even Pavarotti [Luciano Pavarotti (1935–2007)] produced a CD which can reach a lot of people. So I don's know what's the answer. When I write music (actually some of the earlier pieces I wrote are more esoteric) I write music very consciously to try to reach people. I do not use any 12-tone system or what not. You know what's a 12-tone system?

LL: Not quite.

BT: You see, what actually happens is that when music reached the end of the 19th century, it became very complex but still producing music that most people could understand. Then in the early 20th century, there was a revolution in music. Actually it's interesting that there was a revolution — there was a revolution in science because of relativity and quantum physics. A similar thing happened in music because music became very complex with a lot of sharps and flats.

One composer Schoenberg [Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)] invented a new system where he said, "No key". You just write music which does not have a specific key and which can have any sharps and flats but he had his own system, of course. That became 12-tone music. To be honest with you, when music has no key it's very hard for the layman to understand it because pop music, folk music, music that we instinctively understand all have a key based on a scale and you have a central point — like C for the C major scale. In the Schoenberg system, there's no fixed point and this results in music which is a bit hard for people to understand. Schoenberg was like Einstein or what not. He was looking for a new system, so to say. Eventually the 12-tone system, I won's say became out of use, but aspects of the 12-tone system are incorporated into most music today. But at the end of the 20th century, and certainly now, most composers don's write in that system. We write in a system which is more like what people want to listen to but composers being composers, some think they are scientists doing research — we have to do things that nobody can understand. It depends on the attitude. I don's take that attitude. I want to write music which my friends can understand but then, what's the point of writing music? To express yourself? But some people may say, all these great music by Beethoven and Mozart, what are you going to say that can beat them? What can you say that is different? What can you say that is fresh and new? It's a very hard question to answer because writing music is in a sense like... new music is like doing research, right? You can do research on things that everybody already knows. So my answer to this is that there are many areas of music expression that can be fresh but it doesn's mean you write music that nobody can understand.

For example (even though when I was younger I didn's count myself as a Chinese-educated composer), because my very good friend, the late Leong Yoon Pin (1931–2011) together with Phoon Yew Tien and the others basically come from a Chinese cultural stream, their music is very Chinese in some ways. But, of course, Leong Yoon Pin broke out and was trained in the west and all that, whereas I belong to a group of composers who are English educated and perhaps more western oriented, and, of course, now there's no such thing as a Chinese language medium. Now the present composers don's think about that but because I grew up at this time of Singapore where Chinese music and Malay music were very widespread and could be heard everywhere... Actually, you know, in those old days... there was no such thing as getai. Before getai, during the 7th month, people stage proper Chinese opera. If you remember, it's either Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese opera. It's proper opera, so when we were young, we just go in and listen. In the old days, they still had traditional musical groups playing instruments like yang qin, and you can find them in the neighbourhood coffee shop. Now where can you see all these things?

Anyway, I belong to an era where all this was common, so even though I'm English-educated, that kind of music is familiar to me. So I try to reflect that in my music. If you listen to my music, you might hear a lot of Chinese, a lot of Malay, even some Indian (music) or whatever it is. I'm trying to write music which reflects my origin, you know. What's the point of writing music if I listen to your music and I can's tell where you come from? At least if you listen to my music you can tell this is somewhere in Asia. That's what I'm trying to do but I want to do it in a natural way. Each of us as a composer, we need some sort of principle to give us the rationale for writing the music because you cannot produce music like Mozart. He has done it already and he's perfect. Or Beethoven. So what can you produce that can say something fresh and new? It's a very, very difficult question to answer. We face this problem in research as well. Writing new music or painting pictures, I would imagine it's all the same kind of question. Do you want to do things that other people do? The same copy of something in the 19th century? You don's want to do that. But you also still want to do something that people can understand, enjoy and appreciate. So that's what most composers will try to do — to communicate something that's new but something which is understandable to the layman.

LL: Classical music in the 19th century was also influenced by folk music. How much has modern classical music been influenced by pop, rock and electronic music

BT: Influences on classical music by pop, rock, jazz and folk are very strong now. Composers have always been influenced by folk music even in the 19th century. If you listen to Russian classical music, a lot of Russian folk music (is) inside. So in the sense we don's have folk music today but the pop music of today is like the folk music of yesterday. Pop and rock influences? Yes it's possible; in fact, it'd be a good development but how do you incorporate these things in such a way that the integrity of classical music is maintained? It's very difficult, so you must have a composer who understands classical music and understands rock music very well. There are many people trying to do this.

Electronic music is another one. Electronic music is completely a new sort of technology. It's not that new anymore but I personally don's incorporate electronic music into my music, I use traditional instruments entirely but there are many composers in Singapore who incorporate electronic music. Electronic music in pop music is very common, I don's know if it's because of the instruments. Well, electric guitar (music) is a kind of electronic music but many groups incorporate synthesizers and that sort of thing. It's much more common in pop music. I mean if you go to nightclubs, like Zouk, you see what the DJ is doing, it's all electronic. Electronics entered pop music much earlier than classical music. Electronic music in classical music is almost like a separate genre entirely. There are a lot of people doing it but I don's know whether it really reaches people or not. I'm not very sure. I'm more conservative.

LL: On a different note, have there been people who write computer programmes to generate music?

BT: Many people. The pioneer of writing computer programmes to generate music is Max Mathews (1926–2011). He was the first one to produce a computer programme for the IBM computer. He passed away recently in 2011. I met him before. He is probably the most important person. There are other people, of course, but he's the most important as he's the pioneer and at MIT, he wrote the first widely used programme for sound generation called MUSIC. He's a computer scientist and a musician. You have to be both to do this kind of things. He's a very interesting person. I met him at Stanford many years ago. Now if you want to do this there are programmes available for PC and Mac. It's not a problem but he's the first one. We're talking about 1957. That's a long time ago. He wrote it on an IBM 704, that's a very old computer. When I met him, he was doing the Radio-Baton, an electronically conducted baton which can interface with the computer so the computer can tell what you're doing. This is a big field of research. He's generally regarded as the father of computer music.

LL: You were the acting head of the Department of Music at the National University of Singapore in 1977. Please tell us the state of music education at that time and how it evolved into the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory we have today.

BT: This is quite interesting because not many people know that before Yong Siew Toh, we had a Department of Music in the Arts Faculty. It existed from 1972 to 1978, only 6 years. What happened was this. I was the last head of department in 1977 and it's not because I'm such a great musician but because by that time the department was already going to be closed down. All the faculty had already left.

LL: Why was it going to be closed down?

BT: Well, it's a long story. In 1972, it was established because it was one of the interesting things done by Toh Chin Chye (1921–2012). He established the department in 1972. A lot of people didn's expect it to happen but Toh Chin Chye did it. It was a very small department. The first head of department was Edward Ho. He's a pianist, conductor and composer. What actually happened was that the department could never get enough students because in the arts faculty it's a minor, so not much weightage as all minors are. But to do a minor in music, you have to spend almost the same time as a major. Usually there were only 4-6 students. By 1977, Toh Chin Chye had left the university, so all the things he did were dismantled and this was one of them. Another thing that was dismantled was, if you remember (he instituted) Arts for Science and Science for Arts. I was teaching that as well. In 1977, by the time they wanted to close the department, most of the musicians had already left. So they asked me to be the head of the department. I was thinking, how do I ... and we still had one more year to teach. So I taught harmony and I'm two pages ahead of the students. Some of my students are still in touch with me today. Then in 1978 what happened was that we told the university that it's a pity to close the department down but they wanted to close it. So we said, "why don's you do this? Why don's you change it into an extra-curricular centre?" It became the Centre for Musical Activities, CMA. The Centre for Musical Activities is actually the music department. The library there is actually the music department's library. Then in 1993, the Centre became today's Centre for the Arts (CFA). The Centre for the Arts is actually the music department. A lot of people don's know this. When the music department became the Centre for Musical Activities, the head was Paul Abisheganaden. After that he became the head of CFA. Then Edwin Thumboo became the head and now it's Christine Khor. So CFA on campus is actually the music department.

LL: Does it still give courses?

BT: No, once it is converted to CMA, no more teaching, just running groups, choirs, orchestra, just organising. That was in 1978. I was the last head of department. It has no connection to the Yong Siew Toh (Conservatory) whatsoever. Yong Siew Toh came up by itself. It was an initiative by Tony Tan.

LL: When was that?

BT: Sometime in the mid-90s, we wanted to establish an arts college in NUS. So the thinking at that time was that we would have music, dance and drama, maybe even film. I was the chairman of the steering committee. But once we had written the report, Tony Tan went to visit Peabody (Conservatory) on my recommendation. Then he made the decision that it's too complicated and that we should just have music. That became the Yong Siew Toh (Conservatory). It was a separate initiative and had nothing to do with the music department. CFA is still there and Yong Siew Toh is separate.

LL: Yong Siew Toh is funded by some donations?

BT: Well, not entirely but the generous donation from the family of the former Chief Justice, Yong Pung How. Yong Siew Toh is, I think, his cousin or niece and they have given a lot of money to the conservatory but Yong Siew Toh has no connection to the former music department.

LL: Music and visual arts are compulsory subjects at primary and lower secondary levels. Ideally, their inclusion in the curriculum is to provide a holistic education. But, given the mentality of Singaporeans, there is a possibility that the idealistic mantra of, for example, "If music be the food of love, play on" may turn into the pragmatic mantra of "If music be food of the curriculum, study and study on" How do we overcome such a mentality?

BT: Primary education? This is hard for me to answer. How to change the mentality? Oh my! You see, the trouble is that music and arts in the Singapore curriculum for many years is regarded as not part of the main curriculum. First of all, it's not counted, and secondly, it's not taken seriously. I don's remember what we did during most music periods and sometimes it's taken over by other teachers to teach other things like science or math. We also don's have enough qualified teachers, so some teachers have to take over these periods and sing songs and all that kind of things. I must say that today, it's better. The music and arts periods are taken more seriously but I think there's a serious shortage of music and art teachers in schools. So we really need degree-level music teachers even at the primary level. We have to produce 1,000 music graduates. NIE (National Institute of Education) is producing but it's still not enough because if you think about it, there are 400–500 schools in Singapore and in each school there should not be just one music graduate but several. Most schools in the US have several music graduates, mind you. There's not enough (music graduates).

LL: So it's not taken seriously.

BT: I have to say it's better now, especially now you have the School of the Arts. The School of the Arts started about 8 years ago and it's meant for secondary school students with exceptional ability in some branch of the arts, but they still have to take the IB (International Baccalaureate). They still have to pass science, math and all that. But what the School of the Arts tries to do is that they try to use the arts in teaching other subjects, so that if you're a musician we try to show you the connection between science, math and music; we try to show you that.

LL: How do you choose students for that school?

BT: They are chosen by auditions. They must have some special talent: dance, drama, painting, music or what not. They are chosen by their talent. But their PSLE must not be that bad so they can pass the IB in future. IB is actually quite difficult to pass. It's like A-level. In IB schools, you don's take A-level, you take IB. A-level is three H2 and one H1. IB is 7 subjects but you take 3 or 4 at higher level. But the good thing about IB is that you take one arts and all that, so it's a more rounded education. Do you know in the new H-system for the A-level, many science students throw away physics? They take math, biology and chemistry.

LL: Really? They throw away physics? That's unusual. Chemistry is actually based on physics.

BT: A lot of people take math, biology and chemistry because physics is very hard. Another thing, do you know that our engineering faculties today don's need A-level physics? They just need math.

LL: That's strange.

BT: You need chemistry if you're taking chemical engineering but you don's need physics. Strange, isn's it? I know that for both NUS and NTU (Nanyang Technological University), you can enter the engineering faculties with no A-level physics. It's not a required subject. I was quite concerned about this. I asked NUS why they did such a thing but they said it's because NTU is doing it. I asked NTU and they said we have so many poly graduates but that's not really a good reason. You can maintain the physics requirement and for poly graduates, you could give them supplementary physics classes. But they dropped physics completely. They should've done it (physics) at the A-level, so I've been talking to them for many years to restore physics but I don's know if they will ever restore it. How can you drop physics for engineering? Engineering is based on physics. It's a primary scientific discipline that everything in engineering is based on.

LL: In 2012, the government announced that it will spend up to $40 million on arts education over the next five years to upgrade cultural facilities in schools and enhance teaching methods. How do you think the money should be spent? What areas do you think we need to work on?

BT: How do you think the money can be spent? Of course, physical facilities, but also good teachers. If you've got good facilities but not good teachers, no use. If you've got good teachers but not good facilities, not so good but the teachers can still do something. Good manpower is important. They must be prepared to pay for people with degrees in music and art. It's not just training. But your school, even if it's a primary school, must be prepared to pay degree-level music and art teachers. Some people have this notion that if I teach music at primary school level, I don's need to know music very well. I don's think this is true. This is another erroneous reason. In primary school we learn all these simple concepts so the thinking is that with these simple concepts, we only need people who understand simple concepts. That's not true. It's harder to teach actually. You might as well say the math teachers in primary 1 and primary 2, no need to be math graduates. It's much harder to teach (in primary school), in fact. I give you an analogous argument which is ridiculous. Doctors who treat children (their bodies are smaller) don's have to be fully qualified then, just doctors who learnt a little bit. It's erroneous but the same argument is applied to teaching in primary school. In fact, teaching in primary school is very hard. I have taught in a primary school before. It's a tough task. This notion that as you get lower (kindergarten), less qualified, you should be paid less. It's ridiculous.

LL: Perhaps they can give more scholarships.

BT: They should increase the pay of all these people, first and foremost.

LL: Do we have the people?

BT: Now they're trying to because now at least NIE and some universities have degrees for primary and early childhood education. Now they realise that early childhood education is not simple. It requires you to learn child psychology and all. Likewise if you give me a choice to teach music to grade 1, 2 or 8, I'd rather choose grade 8; it's easier. Teaching grade 1 concepts to a child is very tough. It's very difficult. So they should spend money on people who are qualified, highly qualified, especially trained to teach children, which is a high level of training, not a low level of training.

LL: Could we use existing teachers?

BT: You can but if I want to force a physics teacher to be a music teacher, it's possible but the person must love music first. I cannot force a person who doesn's love music to be a music teacher. He will teach people to hate music.

LL: I'm sure there are many people who like music but it's a bread and butter thing.

BT: There are. I think they must have a reasonable level of music proficiency. If I have a physics teacher who has a grade 8 in piano, yes, I can turn that person into a music teacher easily. There are two requisites: one, the person must love music; two, the person must love children. Do you know how I appreciate all this? My wife has been a primary school teacher for 40 years. Let me tell you her job is much, much more difficult than mine. It's a hard way to earn money, you know.

LL: Especially in Singapore with all the administrative work

BT: Not only that; the ones that make it hard are the parents. In the old days, if I'm a primary school child and my mother gets a letter from the principal saying that I did something wrong, first thing I get is caning from my mother. Now the mother goes to school and scolds the principal. I don's know, things are different now.

LL: Do you think that Singaporeans are largely ignorant about the arts and other cultural aspects of life? Presumably, one way to address this issue is the fairly recent policy of free admission into museums and cultural centres for Singaporeans. How else do you think we can raise the awareness and appreciation of the cultural aspects of life in an ever-increasing pace of living here?

BT: Ignorant about the arts? Well, I won's say ignorant but we can increase the appreciation of the arts among the community. Definitely. We should have more programmes specially for people who are scared of going to concerts because of clapping at the wrong time and all that. We should have more concerts like that.

LL: There used to be free concerts but they scrapped it.

BT: There are still free concerts at the Botanic Gardens.


BT: Yes, we still do but we need more. Let's put it this way. We need people who are prepared to explain at the concert. We don's have enough of this kind of thing in Singapore.

LL: Maybe on television?

BT: If you go to Japan, you switch on the TV late at night, you see people explaining all sort of things, you know. All kind of things — math, music... but late at night. Professor standing there, even at 1am, because the Japanese have a good appetite for learning, which we don's have. I think we have to concentrate on making the ordinary Singaporeans not so afraid of all these supposedly high-class stuff. You know, even my friends who want to go to concerts, they don's know how to buy tickets and asked me to buy for them. Secondly, they don's know what to wear and how to behave at the concert, so they eventually don's go. If I clap wrongly, people will look at me and I'd feel embarrassed. Even highly educated people are afraid of going to concerts, so we have to do something about this. How? I don's know.

LL: We have open-air concerts, you can clap anytime you like.

BT: Yes, but we have to bring some of them to attend proper concerts and all that. We have to bridge this gap in some way but I don's know how to do it. Musicians should be more keen to do such things. Many classical musicians think it's too low-class or that it won's help to further their career, so musicians should be more willing to do so. It's good for them; they can reach out to the public. Sometimes we scientists are to blame; we ourselves don's do more to reach out to the public.

LL: Physicists do it more than mathematicians.

BT: It's in your nature as mathematicians. You're introverted people but physics, you see, we don's reach out, so the public has a lot of wrong ideas, for example, nuclear energy. So in music, musicians have to reach out and be willing to do this and that, and conductors can stand up and explain. I think the younger conductors are more willing to do that. Maybe the government can give more money for such concerts because if we don's reach out you cannot enlarge your audience.

LL: Very few musicians, especially the classical types, do this.

BT: They think it's low-class. Why would they want to perform at Botanic Gardens and play for all these people? They want to play for a high-class audience. They think it's a waste of time to explain. Like some scientists would say why write an article for a newspaper when they can use that time to write papers to get promoted. It's the same thing for musicians. By the way, musicians are very much like scientists. I've dealt with both and they're very similar in their attitudes toward such things. They want to be internationally recognised and only want to do high-class things. They don's want to do things like publicity as they think it's a waste of time but you can's think like that. You have to think in terms of your community.

LL: In fact, it should be your professional duty.

BT: It's a duty; it definitely is for musicians to reach out to the public. Otherwise, your profession may one day disappear if you don's do such things. So it depends. Some conductors are very willing to do this but others think it's a waste of time. Conductors and musicians always want to play challenging works, sometimes works which nobody can understand.

I give you an instance of that. There was an SSO concert, the first concert of this year, where the famous pianist, Krystian Zimerman performed. I attended it. Lan Shui wanted to play a work that was seldom heard — "Pelleas and Melisande" by Schoenberg — which is very nice but not well-known. He did what Choo Hoey used to do; he put the difficult work before the interval and the work that everyone wants to hear after the interval because if you put the difficult work after the interval and Zimerman before the interval, there will be nobody in the audience (after the interval). But some people are smart enough to come during the interval. Some people complained to me and asked why Lan Shui played such a difficult work. People just don's want to hear difficult music even though musicians think it's good for them. People want to hear familiar music. It's a continuous struggle between the audience and musicians. It's like mathematics: you cannot put difficult math before people who don's know it, you have to put math that they can appreciate. Music is exactly the same. You can's put difficult stuff in front of people. You have to be prepared to compromise somewhat by playing music that they like and progress from there.

LL: I've often wondered, for professional musicians, is their career determined by the number of compositions they make, similar to the number of papers for scientists?

BT: There is an almost exact same correlation in music. I know this because I'm the chairman of FPTC (Faculty Promotion and Tenure Committee) of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. When Lim Pin wanted to have a music school in NUS, I told him "Prof Lim, you must understand one thing before we start. That is, if we employ a piano professor, how are you going to promote him? By the papers he write? Piano professors don's write papers, so you have to promote him based on his performing ability. But how do you judge this? What is equivalent of a paper in Nature? The equivalent is if I play a concert in Carnegie Hall, and then the reviewer of New York Times writes that it was a fantastic concert. That's the equivalent but it must be at top venues and by top newspapers."

LL: You must be well-known to get invited.

BT: Of course, you must be well-known unless you want to pay to play at Carnegie hall.

LL: But if you're well-known you don's need to be promoted anyway, right?

BT: It's the same in the scientific world. Sometimes it's easier for well-known scientists to get their paper accepted into Nature or (Proceedings of National)Academy of Science Journal. It works like that. Lim Pin understood what I was saying. They don's write papers so you have to promote them based on concert review or recording review. That's equivalent to a publication in the musical world.

LL: They have different rankings, like associate professor and so on?

BT: Yes, they have. In music schools, a music professor is like any other professor. You just have to judge him but not by written papers.

LL: Writing compositions?

BT: Compositions are different. A composer is judged on his compositions. His compositions are like his papers. But how do you judge whether a composition is good or bad? A review. You write the composition and if it's performed by a top orchestra at a national venue and it also got a good review in a top newspaper. It's the same thing but a composer is judged on his composition. It's just like a performer is judged on his performances and recording. It's the same. They don's write papers in journals. Only musicologists do, those doing research on music.

LL: Does it depend on the sales of the CD?

BT: That's a good question. Supposing I produce a CD and the review said he's a very good pianist but why did he produce such a CD even though sales hit a few million. How? I don's know but I think generally we go by the musical level not by the sales. Oh, are you thinking of citations? In the scientific world we still go by citations but some people say they are not accurate because wrong papers also get a lot of citations.

LL: There are also ways to get your paper cited more than others.

BT: Yes, there are ways of doing that and also, the citation rate in different areas is completely different. For mathematics, it's very low. For medical biology, you write anything and it can be cited by hundreds of people. Math citations of a hundred are very high. The top citations in math are a few hundred or a thousand but in biomedical, even the lousiest paper could have 500 citations. The way they do it is different.

LL: You mentioned that in the School of the Arts they take IB? Why don's they just concentrate fully on music?

BT: They can's. There's some misconception about the School of the Arts which I'll correct. Some people think that the purpose of School of the Arts is to be a small conservatory, train people to be professional artists, no. The purpose of the School of the Arts is to use the arts to teach holistically, so not 90% of our students will become professional artists. Maybe 25–30%, the rest will go into society and become leaders of industries or politics but the good thing is they will have a good knowledge of the arts. Unfortunately the arts community has the misconception that the primary purpose of the School of the Arts is to produce professional artists but that's not the case. That's one of the purposes but only 25–30% might become professional artists, and the rest will take on different routes and go into different professions. They will all have a good foundation in the arts though.

LL: Can we have a school for professional music training?

BT: We can but, well, there are many countries that have such schools. The most famous ones in Britain are the (Yehudi) Menuhin and Purcell Schools. Those are for musicians. It's particularly common for music to have specialised schools to train young musicians because the idea is that for musicians you cannot wait till they are 18 years old to get rigorous training. If a person has potential when he's 11 or 12, he/she must start intensive training immediately. Schools like Menuhin and Purcell are designed to give really intensive training for these young students but even in Menuhin and Purcell, like I asked Kevin Loh if he's going to take A-level, he still has to do science and all that. So they have other teachers there but in Menuhin and Purcell, the focus is on music.

LL: But can we have something like that in Singapore?

BT: That's a good question. I don's know. I often wish that we would do that but is there big enough talent pool in Singapore? It will have to be regional, and who will fund it? The funding for such school is very difficult. You cannot have a large number because in music, unfortunately it's like PhD, it's one-to-one teaching. In really intensive music teaching, it's one-to-one. Music teaching is a very expensive process, so Menuhin and Purcell Schools, they have a lot of donations. If some millionaire gives me 100 million dollars, I can do it. If you ask me, I personally would like to see something like that in Singapore but it has to be very carefully thought out. Funding must be there. Actually, Yong Siew Toh is trying to do that. Yong Siew Toh has got a school like the School of Young Talents at NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts). They have a stream for those who are too young to enter Yong Siew Toh but I don's know how intensive it is. It's probably not full-time and for students who come to Yong Siew Toh to take part-time. Even the School of Young Talents is not full-time. So can we have a school for 100 pupils? It'd be very expensive but it'd be the only way to intensively train talented young people. It's already quite a good step that we already have a conservatory. When we were young, there was no LASALLE (College of the Arts), no NAFA like (what we have) now, no Yong Siew Toh. There was NAFA but it had a long, hard struggle. And NAFA was only visual arts then; it was only in the 80s that they added a performing arts department.

LL: This has been very educational. Thank you for sparing the time to talk to us.

Note. Recordings of the compositions of Professor Bernard Tan may be downloaded from his homepage at

He has documented the history of the musical development of Singapore since the 1960s in the following two articles:

[1]Bernard T.G. Tan,"Goh Keng Swee's Cultural Contributions and the Making of the SSO" in Goh Keng Swee - A Legacy of Public Service, ed. Emrys Chew and Kwa Ching Guan, pp 205-224, World Scientific, 2012.

[2] Bernard T.G. Tan, "Music in Singapore since the 1960s: A Personal Account", to appear in a book edited by Renee Lee Foong Ling and published by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of NAFA.

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