The local music scene had seen better days in the past. The mid-80s we had a huge local xinyao (新谣) movement and the 90s saw a thriving hardcore punk music scene. Only in recent years, we see the resurgence of local music, with artistes like The Sam Willows, Gentle Bones, Inch Chua, Nathan Hartono, Tabitha Nauser, .gif, Charlie Lim and many more making waves regionally and internationally.
We sat down with Lester Kong, the director of VOCALISE, a music events company established in 2008 that provides quality music entertainment for various big events such as F1 Singapore, Youth Olympic Games, Singapore Yacht Show, Singapore Fashion Week, to find out more about his journey with music and the music in Singapore.
How was your journey with music like, especially in Singapore where the music scene is seen as stagnant?
Kong: The journey in music is no doubt difficult. The only way is to stay true to your beliefs and not be swayed by the opinions of others. Along the way, many in the industry will tell you what’s right and wrong and to conform to the norms, which kills creativity and deters musicians from exploring new sounds. At the end of the day, music connects with an individual’s inner senses and it shouldn’t be something that needs to be approved by someone else.
When I started VOX, a pop-rock string quartet with three of my youth orchestra friends, I was asked by naysayers and industry professionals to be replaced by another girl. However, we stuck with our idea and scored our first big break during an F1 gig in 2010.
What made you start Vocalise?
Kong: There weren’t as many dedicated music management companies back in 2008 for classical musicians. The musicians of the genre were unwilling to perform as there were always issues— ranging from clients’ relentless demand, to the lack of welfare— that deter them from doing so. Our aim was to ensure that there were quality musicians up for the job while giving them space to focus on their music without having to deal with administrative matters. We want our musicians to be at their prime during performance. Most importantly, we wanted to promote independent innovations and uncharted ventures into foreign music. With the help of my wife and co-founder Ziline, VOCALISE was able to grow in the span of 10 years and I’m looking forward to many good years to come.
Do you think that it is easier for musicians now to make a name for themselves in the age of social media compared to musicians in the past?
Kong: Definitely! It is easy to get publicity these days while keeping a low to zero cost. Compared to having a costly press kit in the past, you could now have a similar avenue and reach.
Coming from a classical music background, do you think classical music has a place amongst the younger generation?
Kong: If this art form had survived for more than 400 years, there must be something special about the genre that is indescribable. I feel that it will continue to be around us, as long as we expose people to it. The experience is crucial and listeners have to experience it themselves for them to appreciate classical music. Classics, for some, might appear too “heavy” or ‘ancient’. But appreciating its beauty from another perspective might be a good start.
Any pieces of music/song that you resonate with the most? Why?
Kong: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. One of my first few symphonies that I conducted when I first became a conductor. The piece is timeless, never failing to inspire me and helping me find new insights whenever I listen to it, which helps me when I’m exploring different ideas in making music. I also will be conducting this fantastic work with my orchestra MacPherson Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019!
What’s currently your earworm?
For now, Dua Lipa’s New Rules. I wrote the quartet arrangement for my pop-rock string quartet, VOX, and we are performing this for the first time this month.
Vocals are said to be a musical instrument itself as it produced various tones. How do you define a quality vocal sound?
Kong: Each singer has their own unique voice— their signature, which you can instantly decide if you like it or you don’t. Personally, a good tone sounds natural and does not appear to be mimicking others. The timbre, depth, and thickness of each voice have its own flair. You won’t be able to please everyone. As long as you be yourself, you will create a sound that will touch someone’s heart.
Any hopes and dreams for Singaporean musicians and artists?
Kong: I do wish Singapore's music scene would be as vibrant as any other cities in the world. It should not be a place trend-chasinging. All musicians should be given a chance, a stage to present to others. I also wish for the opportunity and the creative freedom for people to explore and to translate their experiences into music. After all, dreams come true when creative expression is not stifled.
Any upcoming projects that you are working on?
Kong: Currently, I am working with my orchestra, MacPherson Philharmonic Orchestra (MPPO), on Music Day Out, which is happening on 7 October at Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage, Singapore Botanic Gardens. It is an event organised by VOCALISE as part of our 10th anniversary, to reach out to families through music and creating opportunities for families to bond over music workshops and various fringe activities to educate kids on basic orchestra instruments and seating arrangements.
We will also be debuting a commissioned piece by local composer, Sulwyn Lok, where we include a 5-piece Chinese Ensemble for a fusion piece.