“So what do we have in mind?” I asked.
Andy didn’t hesitate.
“I’m going for something dark, passionate, confused –
Something relateable for the students. I’m thinking of this quiet guy who feels like he’s being left out by the others in his class…
The class is having fun and chatting about, but he’s just alone in a corner. You know the emo kid feeling?”
Well, it was not the first time someone talked to me about the whole “emo kid” thing.
“So everything shrinks into his world, and then he starts questioning why – he questions and questions, and suddenly his friends reach out to him. And then he realises he’s not alone. You get the idea?”
I loved the idea. And you could bet that I got it. I loved the story, I loved how willing Andy was to shoot for something dark and reflective, and I was overflowing with ideas.
“Can you choreograph something in 3/4?”
“Oh, yes! Of course…”
I’d taken up the offer, and I wasn’t too sure why.
Mr Andy Cai – he was cool with “Andy” – found the time to meet with myself and the teacher-in-charge, Mr Aloysius Lim, late November last year. Stuff had happened, and suddenly I was called up for an opportunity to write a dance track. Being a little impulsive when it came to music opportunities, I bit the hook instantly.
I was told that he was one of the big fishes in the local dance scene. But his humility and openness took me away straight from the first meeting. So thank you Andy, for accepting the musings of a crazy little music nerd, and never closing the door to creativity ^^
Well, the technical bits weren’t so simple.
I had no idea how dance tracks worked. Later on, in the one rehearsal that I went down for, I admitted it to the dancers – I didn’t know what would really make a track suitable for dancing.
“I’m just a music guy, hope this track wasn’t too hard to figure out.”
There was this magnificently blatant question mark in my head even before I even started.
Yet, that first meeting gave me all the ideas I needed for the whole project. It was the most vulnerable, open, artistic project I had committed to – in that eventful first meeting, after all the formalities and the music samples and all…I asked Andy for the general concept.
He gave me a story.
I was taking notes furiously on the innocent little notebook I brought along. He told me not just about the actions – he told me of the intimate, precious feelings of our imaginary emo kid. How he was lonely, but not sad – just understanding. We never mentioned the word “depression”, because that was not something to be glorified in any work of art. No, we were going for something much more basic and fundamental: we talked “insecurity”; we talked “vulnerability”.
And I had never generated my ideas as freely as I did in that one meeting. Not even in my own works.
I started piecing together the structure, I drew graphs that represented tension, progression…it was the messiest plan I’d ever made. It was magical.
And then, it hit me.
“Can you give me twenty minutes? If we can access a piano, I’d like to show you some ideas.”
“Sure! I’ll just take a listen to some of your other tracks in the meantime.”
None of the ideas I generated in the first round were kept for the final product.
Yet, to feel that kind of inspiration – the rawest, purest inspiration stemming from nothing but emotional honesty and empathy in equal parts – was eye-opening. Not just for this project, but for all of my future works.
Emotional honesty and empathy in equal parts.
Of course, at a personal level – political or societal issues were to be isolated from these.
But writing music had never felt so surreal before.
It’s not to say that the process was easy. Contrary to that, I was stuck many times. In my first composing session, I wrote essentially nothing for the whole two hours.
I let the ideas simmer (i.e. I procrastinated) for a week or so. I tried generating ideas in camp. It was pretty tough, because I’d become a little rusty at electronic music.
One day I remembered the story. I scanned through my old notebook.
Ah, we had a story.
We weren’t in the realm of concrete ideas and details anymore – it was all a cloud of washy feels and experiences, honest and simple. Fundamental, human emotions drove the music. I started hearing things.
And then I wrote my layer plan. That very weekend, I sent over the first draft.
Of course, a few drafts were sent back and forth. Inspiration isn’t the magic bullet – hard work, commitment, and focus forms the foundation of any great product. But in this equation, inspiration was the fuel, the catalyst.
It was that story, and it was playing back in my mind over and over again, returning with good ideas from time to time.
A little reflection.
This project taught me so much more than how to write a dance track. The small details formed a perfect learning experience that I would carry onward to future projects, but it was the process – so unconventional, yet so perfect – that I carved into my composing mantra.
It had never occurred to me that composing based on stories was a thing. It wasn’t just a thing – it was the thing. In all my best past works, I had some raw emotional connection that formed the basis of a story. Now, my newer works are take this approach to the next level; they are, literally, based on stories. I hand-write those stories in moments of inspiration, sit on them for a while, and draw ideas.
So there is a spiritual element in composing. Learning the theory wasn’t even half the battle won. I had taken the compositional process too clinically, and this project got me to scrap that mentality.
But my biggest regret of this project was that I only went down for one rehearsal. It was a cool rehearsal – we made on-the-spot changes suggested by the dancers themselves, and I think the final product was pretty solid.
That said, I saw so much more than I’d expected to in that rehearsal. I saw the dancers’ personalities, the air that filled the rehearsal room, and how all of that led to their handling of my track. A bunch of them approached me, and I was really impressed by their fun-loving spirit and strong leadership. They were extraordinarily on-the-ball.
During that rehearsal, the students took charge: they worked tiny details, they were collectively disappointed when they botched a run (I was the only one clapping, clearly I don’t know dance), and it was eye-opening to see such a cohesive and passionate group in action.
If only I’d gone down in the development stages, or just more times in general – there was something immensely great about empathy with the end user. So that’s something I’ll take into future collaborations: just show up more. :p
(if only showing up didn’t involve getting out of the house, sigh…)
For future reference, and for you guys ^^
Being emotionally honest and open in the planning stages; writing stories out of raw emotional experiences. Thanks, Andy 🙂
Being clueless as shite, and not showing up for rehearsals enough to supplement myself with understanding. :p
Focus for next project:
Showing up and staying updated.
The Acknowledgement Roll
Gratitude is saved for face-to-face talks and handshakes. 🙂 This is just for the recognition, haha.
Ms Chua Yi Fang, the greatest educator to have graced my life, for thinking of my stuff when there was a need for music, and bringing me this opportunity on a silver platter 🙂
Mr Aloysius Lim, teacher-in-charge for the ACS(I) Dance Venia, for staying open and being hilarious to work with 😉
Mr Andy Cai, choreographer, director, and a ridiculously amazing dancer himself, for the constant encouragement and the meeting that changed my life 🙂
All members of the ACS(I) Dance Venia, for taking up my track without complaint and your dedication to your passion ^^