27 March 2012

Music Radio

Attending a function yesterday to witness the gift of a cheque for $500,000 from the family of the Singaporean composer Leong Yoon Pin (who died last year) and the creation of a music fund named in his honour at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I walked into the Lee Foundation Theatre just as a video was playing of an interview Leong himself gave in 2007.

In it he railed against local radio stations for not promoting the music of Singaporean composers.  Even in 2007, though, I fear he was wide of the mark; the sole attempt in Singapore to offer a radio station devoted to classical music is so unutterably dreadful that its commitment to music at all has to be seriously questioned.  Certainly live music is way off its agenda, and any hope Singaporean composers might get of an airing is totally forlorn.

Returning, momentarily, to the purpose of last night's event, it was an act of incredible foresight on behalf of the Leong family to create the fund and kick start it with such a generous donation, especially since its purpose is to encourage composition within the Academy.  Training and supporting local composers is essential if the music scene in Singapore is to flourish, and while competitions and showcases might draw attention once-in-a-while to what is going on on the creative front, what is really needed is good, solid, behind-the-scenes support to those who are steadily developing their skills as composers.  We had, at the function, examples of seven of Nanyang's student composers' works, and while these were very much works in progress – indeed, only two of them had been given proper titles – and probably will embarrass those composers when, in the years ahead, they look back on their early efforts, it showed that good, solid and worthwhile work is being done.  The pieces may not all have had the ability to absorb an audience, but they all showed a high level of craft and, in some cases, a certain flair which, given careful nurturing, will grow into something worthwhile.  For my money Muhamad Muhsin's String Quartet movement and Wee Ni Swen's Masquerade showed the most promise. 

The thing is, as Leong said in his interview, composers "work in the background". But Singapore culture is all about up front sexy images, and few are willing to recognise, let alone support, the essential background work of composers in providing the environment in which the Vanessa-Maes and the Min Lees of this world can go on to become role models for today's aspiring musicians.

What is even less recognised here in Singapore is the importance of radio as a means of promoting classical music.  My background is in radio and I have long been a passionate advocate of it.  In Hong Kong I was involved in one of the great classical music radio stations of the world – RTHK Radio 4 – and I have no doubt the thriving and world-renowned status of Hong Kong as a classical music force is in large part fired by what the radio station does.  As for my native UK, I am proud that it still boasts, in BBC Radio 3, a dedicated classical music channel which is the envy of the world - a trawl through local music blogs the other day found one claiming that BBC Radio 3 was "awesome – the greatest classical music radio channel on the planet" – and the commercial station Classic FM is about the most successful broadcaster in the UK at the moment.  The classical music scene in the UK is certainly thriving, but rather than merely reflecting it, BBC Radio 3 positively feeds it – the BBC is the largest sponsor of classical music in the world and their list of works commissioned by British composers alone reads like a catalogue of every great British composition of the 20th century and beyond.

There is no argument.  A dedicated classical music radio station is still essential in the development of a nation's classical music environment.  The argument that "I can download all the music I want from You Tube", or, "I can access all the classical music radio stations of the world from the internet" is plain daft.  The prime function of a local broadcaster is to cater for a local audience, even if those on the other side of the world can hear it too.  People in Singapore know a disproportionate amount about what goes on in the UK classical music scene because they access the BBC online.  People in the UK know absolutely nothing about what goes on in the Singaporean music scene because there is nothing to be found about it online.  (True, the UK ranks second only to Singapore in readership of this blog – 1329 hits there, to be precise, yesterday - but I am hardly the ultimate resource for anyone looking to see what the state of musical life is here.) Radio stations serve two functions; serving the needs of the local community by providing both entertainment and education, and promoting a country to listeners overseas.  Might I suggest that if you access Symphony 92.4 neither of those functions are being addressed in any way?

I spent some hours at the studios of Symphony 92.4 last month and was pretty appalled at what I saw.  When I asked the long-suffering Programme Director what amount of live coverage she handled, the answer was an unequivocal "none".  It was, I was told, "too expensive".  In any other radio station, that would be a ridiculous answer, but to say Symphoyn 92.4 functions on a shoestring is to understate the case.  They don't even have more than a handful of CDs, virtually all their playlists are bought in from an internet company on which they periodically superimpose presentation.  But that presentation is horribly misguided.  "We don't go in for that sterile and old-fashioned 'That piece was…Now we are going to play…", I was told.  Instead they get "celebrities"' to chat every so often, "which is what the Singapore audience wants".

I seriously doubt that the Singapore audience really wants that, but even if they do, is it merely the function of a station dedicated to classical music to provide entertainment?  Is there not both an educational and a promotional role to be played?  I have suggested a series of programmes to Symphony 92.4 which would be both entertaining and educational, and have prepared some ideas for programmes which would serve as both an outlet and a showcase for young Singaporean composers.  It would be cheap – because the composers themselves would produce the recordings and allow them to be played on air – but would it be popular?  Probably not, but there comes a time when service to a community has to take precedence over pandering to their desires.

Clearly the state of classical music broadcasting in Singapore is pretty desperate, but the late Leong Yoon Pin could well do it a lot of good through his words than through his cheque book.  The question is, will Singaporeans ever listen to him or do they only ever pay attention to written figures beginning with $ and ending with copious quantities of 000s?


  1. As always, some very insightful comments.

    One thing the SSO might do is to include some new local music as part of a concert which pulls the crowds in with the usual big 19th century stuff. The BBC regularly do that at the Proms, to (usually) good effect.

  2. Symphony 92.4 is a total friggin' disgrace, a dinosaur that the rapidly evolving classical music scene in Singapore has left behind. It makes little or no attempt to educate or build an audience while it blissfully airs what it thinks people want to hear.

    In fact it has regressed terribly since the 1980s, a time when its used to broadcast SSO concerts one week after the event, feature local musicians in studio recitals, play music from the UK Festivals (BBC Proms, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham etc), run programmes like Anthony Hopkins Speaking About Music or My Music. Now its programme content is NIL. No budget? Plain bollocks, especially when MediaCorpse is thriving. It's just not interested in doing the right thing.

    As Singaporean parlance goes, it's a "gone case". It just needs to be totally revamped. Plain and simple. End of rant.

  3. Marc,
    Your comments on the Singapore classical music station contain so many factual errors that for once, I am doubtful of your ability to report and provide authoritative critique. It is a shame, for I had held your writing style and wonderfully-written concert programme notes in high regard.

    Tou Liang,
    May I suggest that you do actually tune in. Clearly you have missed out on the station's productions such as Mad About Classics, Violin Masterclass, String Masters, String Masterworks, Beyond the Score and interviews with artistes and local musicians. If you are interested in music festivals, tune in this Sat & Sun for German music festivals on the Deutsche Welle Concert Hour, which has often been showcased in the past, and will be, for coming weeks ahead.

    Classical music is my first love, which is further developed in large part by tuning in to the Singapore classical radio station during my adolescence (with my first substantial savings, I bought a radio). Today, as a presenter, it is my passion to introduce listeners to the music I champion so dearly.

    1. Dear Yee Hoong

      I am glad that radio has played a big part in your life growing up in music, as it did with me during the late 1970s and early 1980s. My main regret is that Symphony 92.4 has become a pale shadow of what it previously was. True, the presenters are slicker these days and everything is "better packaged", and there is wall-to-wall music for 24 hours, but there does not seem to be a brain behind all this.

      Previously, one could learn a lot from simple programmes deviced locally (not to mention the imported ones) but these have become little more than sound-bites. In fact, its all a sham these days, mostly driven by commercial interests. Honestly, has Symphony 92.4 actually invested in the expertise of a musical professional (someone like Dr Marc for example) to do actual proper intelligent programming? I think not, which is why Symphony 92.4 will always remain a mediocrity. Sorry, but its true.

    2. Formerly Director of Classical Music Radio I have followed this with interest. I worked with Marc many years ago and know him to be very dedicated and professional. I don't believe he is wrong in anything he says - I have spent the last few days listening to Symphony 92.4 on my computer in London and it is very poor. It does nothing to serve or promote Singapore and its only sense of identity comes with the very weak presenters. Enthusiasm is not enough to run a successful station - there has to be knowledge, expertise and professionalism, all of which are missing from anything I have heard.

  4. Thank you for your response. I very much appreciate it. However, are you sure you are not confusing "omitted detail" with "factual errors"? I'm sure there is lots of the former, but I am absolutely certain there is none of the latter - and I am commenting on the current state of Symphony 92.4, not what it might have been in your adolescence. Factual accuracy is paramount for me, even if it is tempered by personal opinion; so please identify what factual errors you pbsevre and, once verified, I'll certainly correct them.

  5. Yee Hoong, your defence of 92.4 is pretty pathetic, as is the quality of the station.

    I do tune in. Often. I love to listen to classical music on the car radio, because it provides a a sense of the unexpected, unlike listening to a CD, where tracks are predictable. Unfortunately with 92.4 the good tracks are generally overwhelmed by rubbish. Yes rubbish. "Crossover", music that doesn't belong on any classical station, inane ads, station ads with echo-echo, and the persistent message that classical music is soothing, works are "tunes", things are always "happening", and this musician is playing "as well as". There are so many bad habits in presenting and so much dumbing down that the station is a total embarrassment.

    A clear indication that the presenters have no sensitivity to the music is how they bring in a new track way before the previous one has ended. The presenters keep trying to impress listeners that they understand music, yet don't have enough respect to allow the final cadence end and the reverb taper off before the next track is rudely spliced in. It is so crass and kills listening pleasure.

    I do acknowledge and appreciate the fact that 92.4 provides exposure in terms of event publicity (paid and complimentary) and interviews. It's an important service and one that I unreservedly thank the station for.

    The fact remains that Marc in on the mark in his comments. Listening to any of dozens of classical stations around the world immediately show how poor 92.4 programming and presenting is. The Deutsche Welle Concert Hourt is one of the few bright spots on the station. The other is when the automated playlists pick out some gems, many of which are new to me. If pushed, I'd say that the machines have a broader and finer taste than some presenters who insist on playing hackneyed / overplayed works, too often by ensembles and conductors who have not survived the test of time.

    From what I've seen of the music library when I was in the studio for interviews, the CD library is indeed limited. It's pretty clear to me from my listening experience that the station has one version each of the Rachmaninov Paganini Variations (Davidovich / Jarvi), Moonlight Sonata (Brendel), Elgar Cello Concerto (Du Pre)... I could go on and on. And once a presenter brings the CD out, you can expect others to play the same CD over the next few days.

    My greatest disappointment with 92.4 is that the selection of music, the way it presents classical music (soothing, relaxing...), the strong underlying sentiment that classical music alone is boring (hence the need for crossover, and "who says we only play classics?"), the way that music is treated in general, has led to thousands of novice listeners getting a totally sub-optimal impression of how wonderful the experience of listening to classical music is.

  6. On the subject of Marc and radio, let me share a memory of my time as an engineer at RTHK.

    Sent to interview Jessye Norman in her suite at the Peninsula Hotel and armed with the old reel-to-reel tape recorders we gave to our news team, Marc returned to the office with over an hour's worth of priceless material. A trademark of all Marc's interviews with artists was the gales of laughter punctuating juicy gossip and really insightful comments, making them both entertaining and interesting.

    Unfortunately this was totally unbroadcastable because throughout the interview the tape picked up a continual rhythmic sequaking of bed springs. When I asked Marc what it was he confessed that he had conducted the interveiew sitting beside Ms Norman on her bed. Both were pretty big people and the bed springs simply could not suffer the shaking of laughter from all that flesh without complaining!