What Musical Theatre is to me: Part 1, actual music

A few weeks ago I participated in the Summer Musical School at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. For the past few years they’ve been performing shows written by their staff. This year the show was directed by award winning song writer Charles Teo (he’s taken ladies) and written by Louisa Caraffi (she’s also taken). (No not by each other you sick person).

The musical was called “New Kids on the Block”; a jukebox musical featuring memorable songs such as the not-annoying-enough-yet “Let it go” and classics such as “Big, Big, Girl” and “What Makes You Beautiful”. Usually I try to stay away from dance heavy musicals because I can’t dance, but in all honesty I had no idea what type of show this was, just that it would be good work experience for me. No seriously, I didn’t know what character I was auditioning for, good thing I got through eh?

Anyway, I’ve watched quite a few musicals, I’ve listened to a lot of musicals, I’ve been in a few and I’ve written one; so although I’m not professional, I’d like to think I have a leg to stand on when I talk about them. For me, NKotB was barely anything like anything I’ve seen before.

*disclaimer: sometimes I might go a bit too far with criticisms, in all honesty I really enjoyed being in the cast and I would do it again. The songs too, I didn’t like the song choice but GOD I loved the arrangements…*

Despite not being the most amazing show I’ve been in or seen, having a different experience on a topic I’m familiar with really made me think about what musical theatre really means…to me.

Our playwright and director, Louisa talked in rehearsal once about how to think about performance in a musical: “you have to deal with the acting which already a whole lot, then the music which is another lot, then the dance which is also a whole lot”. Yes, in a musical is a whole lot of lots. But seriously, it is. For me dance was never an integral part of the musical theatre genre, but I guess it still is for many people (see dance heavy shows such as: Chicago, Starlight Express and Cats vs Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop Of Horrors). However, this is just the practical side, what about the expressive side?

This question might come as a surprise to some common-goers of Musicals because the genre isn’t usually attached to being a vehicle of expression or criticism, contrary to a lot of modern art. The question therefore is, why can’t it be? I’ve said before that I totally believe, beyond reasonable doubt and to an overly enthusiastic and borderline insane degree, that music in itself can be treated as a language with the ability to express meaning. Theatre has often prided itself also in the ability to express, in fact a lot of modern abstract Theatre exists for this reason (see: Theatre of Creulty, for example). Postmodern Art, yet another example of how Art is used nowadays to express meaning and criticism; just a few days ago I was at an exhibition of Chinese artist Xu Bing who, using pictures, tried to create a universal language (I don’t think it worked but that’s a story for another day).

book from the ground

So back to Musicals. This genre, unlike any other, combines Drama and Music…minimum, often dance too. Sometimes, if particularly ballsy, visual Arts, electronic media etc also come into play. So why can’t Musical Theatre be used as a vehicle of expression? Personally, I would argue that this view is simply a social mindset that Broadway is for gays but then I look at the Musical Theatre boom and I get worried. On one hand, I’m happy that more people are looking into Musicals as an expanding Art form, on the other hand…everything has a Musical now and very few are particularly profound Musicals.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say expression. Compare the ethical dilemmas of Les Mis. or Ms. Saigon against some more modern Musicals such as Matilda or Shrek. Take for example when Javert, after having his life spared by Valjean jumps into the river Seine and dies; of course Victor Hugo wrote the plot, but the expression is just as strong Musically. The song itself is instrumentally almost an exact replica as Valjean’s Solioquy, by sharing the same music but changing the lyrics, the audience contrast what is essentially Valjean and Javert’s inner monologues. The song then ends with an instrumental reprise of Javert’s solo song “Stars” playing as he jumps to his death, the lyrics of “Stars” was when Javert swore to never back down from finding and putting Valjean in jail, even to his death the music shows this. Here, for your perusal:

Now, a more modern Musical: Shrek (Jeanine Tesori, 2008), not a bad musical in it’s own right but not sharing the same musical strength as Les Mis. More often than not, what the song says shares little with what the music says: take for example the song “Build a Wall”, this song is sung after Shrek hears Fiora say “Who would love a hideous ugly beast” and subsequently leaves Donkey and Fiora (in the movie I believe this is during Hallelujah). Have a listen for yourself:

The song, like most of the musical, has a distinctly 70s feel to it although this one might crossover a little into punk rock. One could argue that the grungy feel of the song aids in showing Shrek’s displeasure with Fiora, that’s a valid argument but there’s not much more to say. The ending of the song does bring to mind the overture:” Big, Bright, Beautiful World” which is ironic of course because Shrek is putting himself essentially behind bars away from the world. However, this is barely scraping the level of musical expression that Schoenberg and Boublil were writing in Les Mis. This is just the musical side, without being lucky enough to watch either Musical, this is what I gathered from listening to the album alone. Now let’s add some Drama.

*Second disclaimer: I’m really not saying that all modern musicals are bad, I actually really like Shrek, I just find that some of the more famous shows express a bit better. There are also some old ones that I find express nothing at all, but that’s a story for another day.*


Define for me an opposite

Philosophical rant #2

Last night I was playing League of Legends with some of my friends when one of them failed a flash1 after which the enemy Olaf said “dat fail flash”. We were messing with the enemy team a lot in chat that game so I replied with
“but what is a fail flash”
“one that wasn’t necessary”
“what is necessity?”
“Therefore everything is a failure”
“And therefore there can be no success for success is the opposite of failure”
“Shut up Leona”
And we left it at that.*

Earlier the previous day I was also thinking about something along those lines but in the context of altruism. Altruism is a topic that often pops into my head because as a Catholic it was something that I was taught is a good thing – and a possible thing. However, after four years of high school religious studies and philosophy that seems to have become for me a questionable truth. Here is my reasoning:

Altruism is defined as the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.”2

If this is true then a true altruist receives no pleasure when doing a good act neither by choice nor passively. They cannot be happy that the affected is thankful, they cannot be happy that their actions did something good for anyone else, they cannot be happy even if they believed that their actions will bring them closer to a good afterlife. They are so selfless that in any situation they will put every other person ahead of themselves, they will help in any way possible, do any and all work for another person, however none of that will be for their own well-being as the true altruist would be unable to feel the pleasure. As Ayn Rand put it in “Atlas Shrugged”: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake”3. In short: they must be miserable.

Theoretically speaking, this definition of Altruism is possible but does is it realistic? When a person helps someone then expects a ‘thank you’, this is not altruistic. If someone does charity and expects to feel like they’ve done something good, that is not altruistic. This clip from Friends should explain my point

If we can do good actions, but cannot entirely detach pleasure and self-worth from a good action, then realistically altruism cannot exist. Yet, to a large extent we can call someone altruistic when they put someone else ahead of themselves at the RISK of their own happiness even if they receive a little back at the end. Therefore this could be defined as “Realistic Altruism” as opposed to “True Altruism”.

French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, in his theory of Binary Opposition states that the common logic behind all cultures is the belief of the existence of opposites. Man and Woman, Dark and Light, Life and Death and so on. However, is this a realistic way to perceive the world or is it reductionist? Even if “Man” is described as biologically male there can still be a gray area. The Kleinfelter Syndrome4 is a genetic issue that gives the person an extra x or y chromosome. Therefore a Kleinfelter individual with have neither xx nor xy but xxy. Some males with the condition may grow breast tissues. This makes it so that a male with this condition is not a “True Male” yet he is also not a “True female”. However, if the person is mostly male (as Kleinfelter individuals are still phenotypically male or female), then they can be defined as “Realistically male”.

Having said all this, you might ask then whether any “True” description of an object exists. I believe yes, but only in theory. Just as I have discussed above that “True Altruism” is only theoretical but not “Realistic”, all other such descriptions of objects must also only be theoretical. In reality, most descriptions are more based on a spectrum than binary opposition. It is true that, with the gender example above, that a “True Male” can be defined as a male with xx chromosomes and therefore binary opposition must exist. However, culturally a “True Male” must also exhibit all the stereotypical traits of a male in order to be called a “True Man”. Taking this into consideration the binary opposition of Maleness and Femaleness must be a spectrum where a person is either more male or more female and is therefore called a male or a female (or nowadays one of the many words for physically male but not entirely culturally male etc.).

Similarly a “True” person of any culture must adhere to the stereotypical traits of the culture – for the stereotype is the extreme form of a group and therefore the unmistakably “True” form of the group. A stereotypical Chinese follows all the Chinese cultural rules, believes in a Chinese religion, has Chinese skin, a Chinese heritage, a Chinese look and speaks Chinese – Stereotypically speaking, this cannot be denied. However, this has never been the case in reality, as humans every single person thinks differently therefore even if I had two stereotypically “True” Chinese persons, they would still disagree on some matters. Therefore the one “True” Chinese form cannot exist. Plato would say that these “True” forms do exist and are simply beyond reach, I disagree and believe that they are all only theoretical.

To round off: back to the first point of failure and success. If nothing is necessary, then everything is a failure; but if everything is a failure, then there can be no success (as success is the binary opposite of failure). This is unrealistic as we define some actions such as ‘becoming rich’, ‘achieving good results’ and ‘winning’ as being ‘successful actions’. However, you cannot be infinitely rich, your results are never a true reflection of being best at every single activity and you cannot ‘win’ in the best way. Therefore, success is also just a theoretical description that we place onto an action or a person. A successful person is someone who, within the spectrum of success and failure, achieves more success than failure and vice versa for a failed person.

I hope that any readers have enjoyed this post, if interested please spark some debate in the comments.


1. Flash: a skill in League of Legends where the character teleports a short distance to the cursor. Easily to mess up if not careful.
2. Taken from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/altruism
3. Biddle, C. (n.d.). Atlast Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism. The Objective Standard.
4. More information see: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/klinefelter-syndrome
*. If anyone is interested, the match history is here, sadly I don’t have access to the conversation history: http://matchhistory.na.leagueoflegends.com/en/#match-details/NA1/1506656456/41873578

Story of my life: language is arbitrary

Once upon a couple of years ago, I studied IGCSE Psychology and I fondly remember one lesson when my teacher, Ms Bower, show her middle finger up to the entire class. It was a lesson about body language and we were discussing physical symbols in cultures, we raised points about the soles of your feet or a thumbs up being derogatory in some cultures then someone mentioned the finger. Ms. Bower asked us to be specific, obviously enjoying the unease in the room as every student glanced around sheepishly, no one dared to do the actual action as we didn’t want to flip her over. So she did it to us instead.

“What this?” She says with her mouth as her hand says fuck you “it’s just a finger!”

I think this moment was important to me because I often thought, even before then, about why we have to follow some social concepts but never did I expect someone older than me (and hence should follow strictly these ideals) to tell me, in an academic scenario, that we only follow them because we believe them. It’s just a finger. It means fuck you. But it’s just a finger.

A couple of years later my English teacher, Ms Bruce, made a similar point but this time in linguistic terms. First lesson of English and she tries to get us to define “language”, no easy task. She defined it as “Arbitrary symbols that we attach meaning to”, her point being that if enough people use a word to mean something then a meaning is attached to the word. She made a point of saying that if we got enough people to start calling ‘tables’ ‘Olivers’ (one of our classmates, he wasn’t too impressed by the joke), the object ‘table’ would be known as ‘Oliver’ instead of ‘table’.

To some people this seems to be a huge mindfuck. A table is a table, a table is not an Oliver. That is true but the object of a table does not have to be called a table, in every language the words that describe objects are different. In German a table is einen Tisch, in Cantonese it’s pronounced ‘toi’; yet all these words mean the same object. On this simple premise it seems obvious that language is relative to culture, language is arbitrary, there is no supernatural dictionary that defined words before they came into being. Not to make an existential point about human existence but as Satre said “Existence precedes essence”, in a linguistic sense anyway.

It’s interesting then that many people seem to be ignorant of this point. If you’ve read my previous post “Cups of Poison Tea” (if not you can find it here: https://composingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/cups-of-poison-tea/), the point of drinking the poison tea being the only polite thing to do is an extension of language being treated as having objective meaning, which I also said in that post I find rather short sighted. Having said that, that post was not about language so all these are loose interpretations. However, say that I offered one of my Western friends a cup of tea and they refused it saying they don’t like tea; do I get angry that they do not conform to my cultural expectations of social language? Ridiculous.

The point of this post I guess hasn’t been so much to explore new ideas, as some of my posts try to do but rather just to write a bit about my experiences and why I have the ideas I have now. I do like sharing these little stories, maybe I should do that more.


image from: https://composingphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/a3099-sign2.png

Ist Musik eine Sprache?

Vorstellung: Interessanterweise hat Tiffany meinen ersten Artikel nicht übersetzt. Jedenfalls ist hier die deutsche Variante meines Artikels: Is music a language?
Die englische Version ist hier: https://composingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/05/18/is-music-a-language/

Ist Musik eine Sprache?
Uebersetzung von Tiffany
Also dachte ich, ich könnte nur eine meiner Ahnungen dort hinausgehen. Ich glaube ernsthaft, daß Musik eine Sprache fähig ist, von selbst mitzuteilen. Deshalb war ich in der Tat gegen Strawinski in meinem Beitrag von gestern. Ich dachte, daß er absolut Unrecht hat, wenn er sagte, Musik kann nicht ausdrücken. Das liegt daran, daß jede Sprache fähig ist, zu äußern. Selbstverständlich ist es lediglich meine Meinung.

Sowieso dachte ich, ich könnte eine Unterredung anfangen, durch das Hochladen meiner Abhandlung, die ich vor ein paar Monaten für meinen Internationales Abiturkurs von Sprache und Literatur schrieb. Ich stritt grundsätzlich hier, daß ein Musikstück genauso ein Stück der Literatur ist, aber auf einer anderen Sprache. Ich verglich Mozarts Totengedächtnis mit einer modernen Seelenmesse von Herrn Paul Barker, der nun Musik in Kellett Schule Hong Kong. Nach ich beide Stücke aufführte, dachte ich, es würde interessant nebeneinanderzustellen, wie das Totenamt im Verlauf der Zeit verändert hat.

Die Abhandlung war allerdings ein Misserfolg, weil einige von den Englischlehrern, die meine Kursarbeit moderierten, daß der Aufsatz nicht sprachbedingt genug war dachten. Ich benutzte tatsächlich sprachliche Fachsprache 😦 Ich gab sie anschließend als ein Einzelteil meines Portfolios zu Oxford Brooks ab, und bekam ein Angebot (obwohl ich es für Birmingham Universität ablehnte). Nimm das, Internationales Abitur Studienprogramm!

Zweifelsohne werde ich mehr von Musik als eine Sprache in der Zukunft reden (es ist eigentlich ein von den Gründen, warum ich diesen Blog anfing). Sowieso, genießen Sie bitte den Aufsatz, wenn Sie wollen. Er ist nicht sehr lang, weil es eine 1000 Wortgrenze und 300 Wort Zusammenfassung gibt. Manche Leute, die meine vorherigen Beiträge lasen, schienen sich beleidigt zu fühlen, durch die gänzliche Menge von ungeprüften grammatischen Fehlern, die ich letzte Nacht hatte (Horrorschocker). Ich überprüfte den Aufsatz wieder nicht, also lesen Sie bitte auf eigene Gefahr 🙂

Link zum Herunterladen ist unten.

Wie pro letzte Nacht, sind Besprechungen immer offen.

Cups of poison tea

Hello ‘Netizens’

I’ve taken a couple of weeks off, obviously. During these two weeks I’ve had my graduation dinner, a couple of auditions (I think I nailed them, but that’s not for me to decide L ) and started playing a whole lot of new cool games. That’s all the good stuff. On the flip side I’ve also been through a couple of relationship issues which I’m not going to go into detail in but want to use as a basis of some food for thought.

For my first post back here on Composing Philosophy I offer a mind-game of sorts, or an analogy if you want to call it that. I’m unsure if any actual philosopher has made this sort of idea, I’m not even 18 yet and am quite embarrassed by the amount of philosophy I’ve actually studied….I’ve done it at IB Higher level but that’s all my academic study…currently working through Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols” (or “Philosophizing with a hammer” which I find to be the greatest name for any book. Ever) and “Antichrist”. I’d like to say I love his writings but to be completely honest I don’t have a bloody idea what he’s saying.

tl;dr: if anyone’s made this sort of idea before, tell me so I can read up on their interpretations J

Anyway this idea is based upon a crude understanding and crude summary of the culture of my Chinese heritage. Chinese society bases itself very firmly on relationships between people, family is held at a high prestige, to be docile is to be good. As a result it becomes integral to be very polite. I understand that this is not that different from some more dated Western ideals, albeit these sort of ideals which often undermine the individual, are still prevalent even in the most ‘open’ of Chinese families. From what I understand this comes from the Confucian idea of respect, which is fine and in fact quite admirable: you must respect your elders, must respect others, must be polite etc etc.

However, in modern times where some people are being influenced by cultures outside of their own this ‘respect’ often turns into compressing the ideas and the actions of an individual in order to still appear docile and happy with the way things are because to argue is to ‘disrespect’ your elders. Here is where I draw the line. I think that at this point it is no longer ‘respect’; rather the individual is forced to lie in order to still be a ‘perfect’ person. But in a country where tradition is so strong, it is difficult to break from this mindset: parents can be hypocritical but will never admit to being so because it makes them ‘lose face’ in front of their children. Likewise, the child cannot argue against the parents because it is disrespectful. This carries on forever and ever and ever and quite frankly I find it embarrassing that so many people hold onto an obvious perversion of very good philosophy. Equally embarrassing is that John Stuart Mill already said that in “On Liberty” in 1859….and it still happens today…..

Perhaps though, many don’t see it as perversion and actually believe it to be right. Or maybe I’m completely wrong in what I say. Either way, introduction over, here’s my actual thing.
It’s called the “fallacy of reciprocity” or as I prefer calling it “A cup of poison tea”. Interesting note, I adapted this idea from a local Hong Kong TVB Drama I watched a couple of years ago; if I find the name I’ll put it here.

Let’s say that you live in a culture in which it is entirely rude to not accept a gift. To say no to a gift does not mean you are being polite and returning it, to do so would actually be insulting the other person for being foolishly close to you.

Now let us say that you have an enemy who means to kill you. He brews you a cup of tea and in it he puts a deadly poison, if you drink the tea you will die as the poison cannot be healed in anyway known to man. Out of suspicion you actually watched him brew the tea; you know that it includes the deadly poison.

You eye your cup as he politely pours you the tea, when he is done he signals for you to drink it. If you do drink the tea you are essentially giving up your own life in order to keep within the boundaries of your morality based upon being polite within the situation. If you do not drink it you would have greatly insulted another person, enemy or not this person has given you a gift and it would be incredibly rude to not receive it.

What do you choose?

I’ll confess, I don’t remember what happened in the TV show though I think he drank it.

Image from: https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5163/5359955970_6e0f97a8e2_z.jpg
no copyright infringement intended


Is Music a language?

Edit: This post is now in German as well

So I thought I might just get one of my main ideas out there, I sincerely believe that music is a language capable of communicating on its own. That’s actually why I was against Stravinsky in my post yesterday, because I think that he was absolutely wrong in saying that music can’t express….because any language is able to express. Just my view of course.

Anyway, I thought I might start discussion by uploading an essay I wrote for my IB English LangLit course a couple of months ago. I basically argued here that a piece of music is exactly the same as a piece of literature but in a different language. I compared Mozart’s Requiem with a modern Requiem Mass by Mr. Paul Barker, who’s now teaching music at Kellet School Hong Kong, having performed both pieces I thought it would interesting to compare how the requiem mass has changed over time.

The essay was however a failure because some of the English teachers moderating my coursework thought it wasn’t linguistic enough. I did use linguistic terminology 😦 I subsequently submitted it to Oxford Brookes as part of my portfolio and got an offer (though I turned it down for Birmingham University). Take THAT IB syllabus.

No doubt I’ll talk more about music as a language in the future (it’s actually one of the reasons I started this blog). Anyway, enjoy the essay if you want. It’s not very long because there was a 1k word limit + 300 word abstract. Some people who were reading my previous posts seemed to be very offended by the sheer amount of unchecked grammar mistakes I had last night (shock horror), I haven’t proofread the essay again so read at your own risk 🙂

Download link is below.
As per last night, discussions are always open.

Requiem WA 22

Igor Stravinsky: “Music is…essentially powerless to express”

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p.53-54.

First actual post: some food for thought.
For those unfamiliar Igor Stravinsky was a 20th Century Russian Neo-Classical composer who wrote some of the biggest ballets of the modern ballet repertoire such as “Firebird”, “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka”, considering his great composing skill and the timelessness of his art, it came as a surprise when I first read the quote above.

Stravinsky here says that music by its nature as a combination of different sounds and lengths of said sounds, are unable to perform artistic expression. From my interpretation of this, he doubts the very nature of music as an art. However, I don’t think you can divorce art from it’s expression. Though that is, of course, debatable. It’s also quite interesting how he holds the idea that music is expressionless because of it’s “very nature” and that expression is by no means the “purpose of its existence”, yet I’m not personally quite sure what he thought the “purpose” of music to be. It could be possible that he thought that since music, by itself, is unable to express, it has to be paired with other arts. This would explain why he wrote so much for ballet because by combining the physical theater, the visual aesthetics of the performance and the music, the music can aid in the expression of the performance and the plot itself. Yet, he still wrote music for solo instruments such as his Elegies for strings. Perhaps then he means music, when not used in context of a performance, is to be purely for entertainment reasons and not to make statements. This would actually seem to also fit in with today’s musical contexts: if you want to express something through music, you make lyrics that fit your theme, the music itself doesn’t seem to be enough of an expression. I have a theory on why this happens, but I’ll go on about that in another post.

It’s also interesting how Stravinsky says that we only gather expression from music due to a “force of habit” or a “convention”. There’s something to be said for people forcing analysis onto art (perhaps Stravinsky himself did not mean at all for his art to be understood outside of its overt contexts), but isn’t all Art partly understood through convention? Take for example if an artist paints a red and black square and calls it death, by convention we would understand the red and black to be symbols of death and hence the piece of art has ‘expressed’ itself by drawing on cultural conventions. Is it really that different when a pianist plays a major chord followed by a diminished 7th and we understand it to be a change of mood? I argue that it’s the same social convention in play. In a musical context dominated mostly by the western tonal scale we ‘understand’ a major chord to be ‘happy’ while a ‘minor’ chord is ‘unhappy’, juxtaposing the two create a contrast – though different variations of the chords would produce different results. So if music is unable to express due to us attaching “labels” and “conventions” to the sounds, then does that mean that all art is unable to express? Seems slightly far fetched to me.

Thoughts and opinions?

(Point to note: I’m personally not a huge Stravinsky fan, it’s not because I don’t like his writings, I’m just not as familiar. I prefer the grand, lyrics Tchaikovsky when it comes to ballet)