Thursday, October 21, 2021

Meditation on the Muse (revisited)

Van Gogh painting stolen in Cairo: [22 Aug 2010] A Van Gogh painting worth an estimated $55 million was stolen from a Cairo museum yesterday and after reporting it had been recovered, the state news agency quoted a minister as saying it was still missing.

VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890): During his brief career he managed to sell one painting (to his younger brother Théo, an art dealer). Van Gogh's finest works were produced in less than three years in a technique that grew more and more impassioned in brushstroke, in symbolic and intense color, in surface tension, and in the movement and vibration of form and line. Van Gogh's inimitable fusion of form and content is powerful; dramatic, lyrically rhythmic, imaginative, and emotional, for the artist was completely absorbed in the effort to explain either his struggle against madness or his comprehension of the spiritual essence of man and nature. [Source: The Van Gogh Gallery]
If you happen to be involved in the arts, you'd probably be familiar with some of the downsides of being a producer rather than a consumer of artifacts.

No matter how shy you may be - and whether you're a visual artist, dancer, photographer, writer or musician - there comes a point when you have to present your efforts to an audience. That's when every self-doubt you've ever encountered (and thought you had overcome) returns to haunt your waking hours.

Many of my painter friends are extremely reclusive by nature and recoil at the thought of being in the limelight. Yet they realize they eventually have to make their private obsessions public and exhibit their work. After the invitations to the opening have been posted, there's the nagging anxiety that only a handful will bother showing up - or that the usual incestuous clique will turn up for the free wine, stand around "networking" amongst themselves, and then adjourn for dinner somewhere chic after a cursory, non-commital glance at the work you sweated for months to produce. And, of course, there's always the scary thought that your exhibition may finish its run without a single piece being bought.

Lying in a hospital bed at the start of 2010, I had a flash of inspiration. Rather than wait till some miraculous windfall dropped a huge amount of money in my lap, enabling me to produce a 7-CD boxed edition of my music archive, I would reissue my 1986 second solo album as a stand-alone CD and flog it on my blog!

It would be a relatively painless exercise, requiring only minimal physical exertion on my part (meaning, no more than 3 or 4 trips to KL). The music had already been painstakingly digitized by Daniel Tang of AddAudio from 27-year-old open-reel masters and required only minimal tweaking by my audio wizard friend in Koh Phangan. I could scan the original cassette cover and program notes and resize it for the CD package. No problem persuading a few hundred curious souls to order the CD by post, I figured, so long as it was reasonably priced. And that should cover production costs, with enough profit to pay for services rendered along the way, and perhaps even cover expenses for a 10-day retreat in Bali...

The original 1986 release of 2nd Coming on compact cassette

As it turned out, the scanned cassette cover proved unusable. A totally new cover design and layout was in order as the original photos and artwork no longer existed. Not a major problem, especially when a helpful artist friend had kindly offered to take care of the technical details.

Finally the CD master arrived by express courier. My audio wizard mixmaster, Sanuk aka Daniel Schwörer (left), had done three versions - one with no equalization or processing, original tape hiss and all; another with souped-up dynamics; and a "mellow" version with a less aggressive personality. His feedback on the 2nd Coming project is well worth documenting in a separate post.

No Commercial Potential

After the excitement of listening to various versions of the mix (through loudspeakers as well as headphones) had subsided somewhat, I began to feel a twinge of anxiety about how the music would be received.

The way I create music in the studio is so uniquely idiosyncratic the results don't fit into any familiar categories or genres. Since early childhood, I have been exposed to an eclectic spectrum of different styles of music - ranging from schmaltzy big-band post-war dance music and Afro-Cuban cha-cha to totally far-out experiments by envelope-pushers like Conlon Nancarrow, Terry Riley, Sun Ra, John Cage, John Coltrane, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, and Henry Cow. I even owned an LP of George Harrison's little-known experiments with electronic music. Apart from this offbeat diet, I also listened a lot as a kid to soundtrack albums (my favorite film composers were Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein).

One of my early musical heroes, Frank Zappa, was fond of mocking record company executives by describing his own prolific output as having absolutely "no commercial potential." Zappa never aspired towards mainstream acceptance, but his genius as a composer, producer and guitarist made him a living legend, respected by musicians of all genres - classical, jazz and pop alike. I wonder if Frank occasionally suffered from bouts of self-doubt about the ultimate artistic worth of his oeuvre.

The Acid Test

Well, I do. That's why my music undergoes stringent laboratory tests before being released. For instance, I would play rough mixes of 2nd Coming on various friends' sound systems to check the dynamics under different atmospheric and spatial conditions - and one evening, under the mind-expanding influence of lysergic acid diethylamide, I listened to the whole of Sting's 1985 debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles; and immediately afterwards played 2nd Coming all the way through. Both albums sounded perfect  to me, even though the musical idioms were worlds apart.

When Sting came out with The Dream of the Blue Turtles, I had been awestruck by the amazing artistic and technical heights the man had achieved. The recording sounded gloriously fresh and every one of his sessionists contributed a magical ingredient to the mix that was truly inspired. Apart from that, Sting's songs were remarkable in their beauty of construction and maturity of expression.

For a long time, Blue Turtles was my measure of absolute perfection in the annals of recorded music, along with the Beatles' ground-breaking Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Cliub Band. Now, I'm not comparing myself to Sting or the Beatles. The music we produce is totally different. What I'm saying is that I was able to enjoy my own stuff as much as I enjoyed Sting's album, without feeling a sense of letdown. That's what I call passing the "Acid Test"!

Not Exactly Easy Listening

I'd be the first to admit that the music in 2nd Coming doesn't qualify as "easy on the ears." I was going through a pretentious phase, so the music is extremely cerebral and demands the listener's full attention. At that point in time I didn't have a strong interest in rhythm, so anyone looking for funky grooves will probably be disappointed. It's not the sort of music you might hear on FM radio or put on at a cocktail party. Unless, of course, you've added a few exotic ingredients in the punch.

1986 ink portrait of E. Manu Eel (now known
as Antares) by Ahmad Fauzi
Why on earth do I make music? That's a question I often ask myself. Of all the activities I have indulged in since my childhood days - writing, cartooning, taking photos, acting, directing, videomaking - making music is perhaps the most intimate expression of my soul.

The hours I spend in the studio laying down multiple tracks in rapid succession, one after another - usually working all through the night - can be counted as my happiest, freest moments. Leaning back on the sofa and listening to the playback of a fresh mix through the recording studio's giant JBL speakers is more gratifying to me than sex.

I did the layout for the cassette inlay myself

It so happens that I have a rather low tolerance for campfire songs and instantly accessible music (such as has made composers like Bollywood whizkid A.R. Rahman and instrumentalists like Kenny G immensely rich). I can admire (and sometimes envy) the catchy hooks and saccharine melodies that constitute the main ingredients of mainstream pop music, but I guess I'm too much of a snob to ever be caught churning out such formulaic stuff.

Or, at least, I was. As one matures, the powerful desire to come across as "different" begins to diminish - perhaps because youth is the appropriate time for us to explore and express our uniqueness as individuals.

Antares (right) plays pots and pans on Chaos at the Supermarket with Rafique Rashid and R.S. Murthi (pic by Syed Zainal Rashid, 1984)

I believe that with my early musical output I went as far out on a limb as anyone possibly could to be totally individualistic - which, alas, automatically disqualified me as a candidate for Top of the Pops. Much as I admired the Beatles (I still do and always will) and at one time yearned to be as rich and famous as the four lucky and talented lads from Liverpool, the influence of Saturn in my Leo makes me distrust popularity and commercial success. This trait can be a serious liability, I know. Another reason why I could never be a politician - I'd lose my deposit at every contest.

I'm not counting on selling a million CDs like Michael Jackson or Cold Play. In fact, I'd be delighted if even 500 people on Planet Earth show enough curiosity to give 2nd Coming a fair hearing - since only 500 copies of this CD exist. And if they find my musical explorations thought-provoking, neurologically stimulating and mysteriously instructive, I'd be positively over-the-moon.

Click here for more background info.
Click here to listen to 2nd Coming.

[First posted 22 August 2010, reposted 10 November 2013 & 17 October 2019]