Lyle Chan is a Malaysian born Australian composer who has taken on a radical musical challenge. Over 2 years Lyle has committed to write 6-or-so minutes of music and release it (for free) every fortnight. This is his musical diary.
I personally love Lyle’s music and was honored that he agreed to be interviewed by classikON. Here he answers my questions about his relationship with music and in a few weeks we will publish Lyle’s tips for young composers.
Who introduced you to classical music?
When I was 10 years old, my family went on a vacation and we stayed with another family (friends of my parents). This was all in Malaysia, where I was born. The boy in that family, about my age, had been learning piano for a year. He was able to play The Lone Ranger TV theme (which years later I learned was properly called the William Tell Overture by Rossini). I was fascinated that it was possible to play TV music at the piano. So during that vacation, he taught me that one piece by rote – I simply copied his fingers.
There had always been a piano at home, even though no one played it. My mum was able to pick out one tune at the keyboard, and that was the English folksong ‘The Ash Grove’, which she learned as a young student in Britain.
Last year when I wrote a piano piece for my 9 year-old niece to play, it was a sort of encrypted permutation of ‘The Ash Grove’, like a personal message. Maybe ‘The Ash Grove’ is the piece my family passes on from generation to generation.
Listen to Lyle’s composition for Shannon here by clicking play below or on SoundCloud if you are on a tablet and cannot see the player below.
Did you take it up on your own or were you pushed into it?
I asked for piano lessons and I got them. I think my parents didn’t realise the peace and quiet of the house would change because of all the practicing that was required of me by the teacher. It’s gorgeous to listen to someone play AFTER they’ve learned a piece but listening to practicing is, well, an acquired tolerance. There were times when I couldn’t practice because of all the noise I made while people wanted to nap or read.
So I think it was the opposite – no one pushed me, but I did the pushing, of the envelope of comfort if nothing else! In our household no one listened to classical music. As my father recently explained to me, the only classical music on the radio in Malaysia was played very late at night – obviously way past a young boy’s bedtime. So I never heard any. I had an interesting realisation only recently – that the first time I heard Bach or Mozart was when I myself played their works on the piano – Bach’s 2 and 3 part inventions, and all of Mozart piano sonatas. My piano teacher never gave me any recordings. Without an example, I must have just made up my own mind about how the pieces should ‘go’.
What made you start loving it?
This question made me think – when I started playing the piano, it was just an interesting activity, like sport. I didn’t actually fall in love with classical music until I heard the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back. That was the point of no return. Years later, I was blessed to have Conrad Pope as my composition teacher – he’s John Williams‘ orchestrator.
When did you start writing music?
I started writing music after playing the piano became second nature to me. So I must have been 11. At age 12 I had ambitions to write a ballet about Dracula. I tell part of that story in Blood Count (read Lyle’s full blog post here). But just because I started writing music doesn’t mean I continued writing music. I spent a big part of my life irrationally afraid to write. I talk a little about that here (blog post, Untitled, for Steve on solo piano).
Who would you like to do a collaboration with (ultimate fantasy, alive or not)?
I’ve had many fun and unusual collaborations (like with Australia’s Foreign Minister) that I know interesting team-ups will be a feature of my entire professional life. Funny you should ask – earlier this year, it occurred to me that it would be fun to do a project with Derren Brown, the English mentalist. I know he enjoys classical music. I would love to create a concert work where the audience falls into a resourceful hypnosis and accesses their mental resources to create the lives they want.
Your music is so autobiographical, are there any parts of your life you choose to keep private from your music and your fans?
You mean more private than this, Nachtstück from ‘Solo Piano’? Or this “Wachsein ist andersvo” from Voices and Instruments? But seriously, as Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The parts I may be tempted to keep private are exactly the parts I want to come to terms with. We are both our darkness and our light and we must not wish any part away or our consciousness will not evolve to its fullest. (If you’re ready for it, here is a good article by Steve Pavlina on the subject.) As I come to terms with my everything, I create my art about a universe I’m a larger and larger part of.
Stay tuned for Lyle’s tips for young composers with his ‘how to’ approach to writing music and the creative process.
The title photograph of Lyle speaking at A Sense of Occasion was taken by Photographer, Daniel Woo.