Interview/Preview – TFI interviews Jonathan Shin

A founding member of Singapore’s very own Lorong Boys, award-winning composer-pianist Jonathan Shin is known for his wit as much as his talent, as demonstrated through his growing body of work. This October will see the premiere of Shin’s 1819 Suite for Small Orchestra, written to celebrate Singapore’s Bicentennial and performed by re:Sound in what promises to be  A Very Singaporean Celebration! Aileen Tang talks to the man himself and asks that question about the Singapore sound.

The Flying Inkpot: Your commissioned work for re:Sound and Singapore’s Bicentennial is set to take us on a journey through 200 years of Singapore’s history. That sounds rather daunting and massive! Tell us a little about it: is it going to be one of those epic shed-a-tear-as-you-listen works or a LOL-because-I-get-the-sneaky-references piece?

Jonathan Shin: It will be hard for the Suite to be the latter: this one doesn’t contain any references, sneaky or blatant, haha! As it is, whenever I work on orchestral pieces I feel like I take on the role of a raconteur, so whereas I’m telling my story and my life experience in Siginnah! and The Night Bazaar (Ed: both works commissioned by Orchestra of the Music Makers in 2018 and 2019 respectively), the 1819 Suite tells a nation’s narrative, a story of a people and their spirit. It was pretty daunting at first, but the suite form worked perfectly for this purpose: the work is divided into six movements, with each movement painting a period of Singapore’s history. Think six musical vignettes!

On a personal level, this composition is my way of paying homage to some of my favourite composers like Stravinsky, Britten and Shostakovich. In that vein I’ve utilized archaic Western forms (and names) for each of the movements, but their purposes end there: the rest is 100% Cosmopolitan-Lorong!

TFI: What inspires you, as a Singaporean composer living far from home for most months in the year?

JS: Ironically, it’s the Singapore I’m living away from that inspires me. It becomes a place of my imagination and nostalgia: a fantastical Singapore, much like Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong, Rushdie’s India or Marquez’s South America. It’s a little sad but I have a mild suspicion that I don’t compose best at home: I feel like I need the vicissitudes of the seasons, and a lot of space and sky. But maybe it’s because I really only started composing seriously overseas. We’ll see!

TFI: I’ve listened to your previously commissioned works which were rousingly successful, and I noticed the tongue-in-cheek use of familiar tunes and ditties which audience members happily identified with. How relevant would such quotations be to the non-Singapore resident? How challenging is it for a significantly local work (and not just yours) to reach a global audience?

JS: Thank you, you’re too kind! I love having a laugh and feeling a sense of community with my audience, so in a way, planting these Easter eggs helps me get closer to them, almost like a magical fist-bump with every individual in the audience! And it helps that there are certain sounds or tunes that are practically endemic to the Singapore experience, sounds anyone who’s lived here for a while would not only immediately recognize, but have an emotional reaction or connection to.

As for how relevant the quotations would be to the non-Singaporean, I would say, it really doesn’t matter: it does not diminish their musical experience in the slightest way. We don’t have to know the context of each theme or melody to feel the sheer despair and sorrow pulsating through Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. So it’s not really challenging to reach a global audience: good music is universal, and that’s what I aim for in creating a work of art.

TFI: The million-dollar round of questions next! What makes music Singaporean? Is there such a thing as a “Singapore sound”? Is a piece of music Singaporean because it’s written by a Singaporean composer, written in Singapore, or for a uniquely Singaporean purpose?

JS: I would love to put the “Singapore sound” question to bed, but it is a complex question which everyone loves to ask, and for good reason! My take on it is that the question is very intrinsic to nation-building vis-à-vis Singapore, and especially with a nascent, postcolonial state like ours, there’s an urgent, concerted effort to establish a cultural identity and to claim authenticities (this is Singaporean food, this nice patch of air is Singaporean, etc.). And as a composer I feel myself responding to that call with certain pieces, especially with my art songs, because it’s such a romantic idea, and I think a good life is a series of romantic ideas! As for what makes music Singaporean, this was actually the subject of my doctoral entrance paper: it looks at the question through the analysis of Dr. Chen Zhangyi’s Laksa Cantata (Ed: premiered in 2013), where I propose that Singlish (gasp!) might be the key to answering our favourite question!

TFI: On a more macro level, does music always have to be associated with the land of the composer’s birth?

JS: Not at all, and I’m grateful for that. There are composers whose music are associated with their motherlands, and just as many whose music aren’t, especially in today’s globalized, transnational music culture. Either way, like I said previously, good music is universal, and I’m glad for that!

TFI: So Jon, can you share with us any rituals or habits you have when working on a composition?

JS: I’m not sure if this can be counted as a ritual or habit, but I have this routine where I compose in the morning, orchestrate in the afternoon, and practice the piano in the evening. Sometimes I go into a frenzy (unfortunately, that is the only way to describe it) of improvisation and singing before I close the lid for the night. My best ideas usually come to me while I’m commuting and walking. Oh, and I’m a pen-and-paper person (Pilot V7 Hi-Tecpoint, anyone?), so I write all of my music on sheets of manuscript before I start my engraving process!

Tickets to re:Sound’s A Very Singaporean Celebration! are available at The concert is on Wed, 16 Oct 2019, 8.15pm at the Victoria Concert Hall.

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