Personal Reflections On Life and Art...
19 May 2018

Personal Reflections On Life and Art…

Every now and then, I engage in something personal on the site. I know it isn’t often that I do this, and this is something I usually only ever do at the end of the year, for my “year in recap” posts. Today, however, a confluence of factors (which I’ll be telling you about below), led to me feeling compelled to write this reflective type of post, and share a more personal side of me with you, that may have little to do with fashion. Although in chronological order, what I’m going to be telling you about may seem rather disparate and random at first, I promise that I’ll thread them together, so that they will, in the end, make sense. Brace yourselves for a rather lengthy and wordy post, so do bear with me will you, because it isn’t often that I bare my soul on the site.

A couple of days ago, one of the books I’d recently purchased, is entitled Strings Attached. While the title may be suggestive of some illicit affair or romantic entanglement, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s actually a memoir about Jerry Kupchynsky, a Ukranian musician, teacher (he taught string instruments), and conductor. The memoir was jointly written by one of his daughters Melanie Kupchynsky, and students, Joanne Lipman.

From the little snippet in my bio here, some of you might already know that I’m classically trained in flute and piano. Throughout the course of my musical education, I’ve also studied under Eastern European professors. So, as you can probably understand, the subject matter in Strings Attached, really resonated (pun not intended) with me.

Artsy-fartsy shot of my flute and some sheet music.
Credits to Tan Meng Yoe for photography and editing

I really could relate to the tough love approach documented in the book. With Eastern European teachers, there’s no mollycoddling or sugar-coating. They really don’t have any qualms about yelling in class, telling you how horrible you are, and in short, that you suck. Just like Mr. K in the book, my teachers’ favourite words were, “AGAIN!” and “STOP!!! WHAT YOU DOING?!?” while slamming the piano or table, forcefully. I’ve had my fair share of being close to tears, at what I felt was my breaking point, ready to throw in the towel many times during lessons. Yet, I simply had to suck it up, and repeat the phrase, chord, or even note, ad infinitum. Years of tough love really did make me stronger, and more resilient, just like it did, for both Melanie and Joanne. But, though these teachers may come across as insane, stoic, unreasonable power mongers, they really did have a big heart beneath that impenetrable exterior. They were always there welcoming us with open arms and a great big hug after our recital, telling us how well we performed. And, if we messed up, they are there to comfort us  all the same, reminding us that even professionals and the most seasoned performers mess up on stage once in a while.

Bei In the Recording Studio
2007: Candid photo taken In the Recording Studio. We were recording my composition (written for the violin) for a friend’s short film competition submission

I have to admit, I really haven’t thought much about music, nor practiced much (if at all) since beginning my postgraduate studies, despite the occasional tinkling of the ivories and blowing of the flute. Some of you who know me personally would say that I’ve changed, and that fashion has now replaced the love I once had for music. In many ways, that’s true. But, reading this book really reminded me of the days when I ate, slept, and breathed, music – I used to practice 6 hours on the piano and 2 hours on the flute, daily! In fact, when I was talking about this over dinner with a friend recently, he commented, “this means [music] wasn’t really what you wanted after all.” I guess in some way, he was right, but even though I no longer teach and hardly play my instruments, music has, and will always, continue to be a big part of my life.

2011: With one of my students at Monash University, whom some of you may recognise, Indonesian pop star Afgan
2011 : With one of my piano students, in her house
2009: With some of my students in Monash. I taught American Music and Pop Culture

As I was reading Strings Attached, I felt really nostalgic. Since Mr K. taught strings, I began to revisit my classical music collection, and played violin concertos by Mendelssohn, Paganini, and Mozart in the background, while reading, to more fully immerse myself in this classical music environment. On Thursday (and some of you might have seen this), I posted some fun facts of my music background on Insta Stories. On the same day, I even went to my piano and revisited some of the pieces I used to play. Thankfully, I wasn’t all that rusty, and my fingers were still nimble, thanks to muscle memory. And then, as luck would have it, the next day, I came across Australian fashion influencer Margaret Zhang’s blogpost and video, entitled There’s No Space Left in C# minor, a short film which she directed, and starred in.

Zhang is one of my favourite fashion influencers because she’s multi-talented, digs deep into her psyche in her blogposts, and actually has something to contribute to the discourse, instead of merely posting her personal style, unlike so many fashion influencers today. A multi-talented young woman, who wears many hats: she’s known for her flatlays (you’ve probably heard of the #zhangflatlay), a stylist, and a photographer whose self-portraits have earned her collaborations with many designer labels. More recently, she has made her foray into filmmaking. In this film, which took a year to complete, Zhang performs Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu in C# minor, Op. 66, hence the title.

The film is divided into 3 Acts. Act I begins with the sounds of the ticking of the metronome, in a music studio. Here, we see Zhang practising phrases and passages from this piece, and annotating the score. At times, frustration registers on her face, as she tries to figure out the best way to approach and (possibly) interpret the piece. In Act 2, she performs the entire piece in a concert hall, with a few girls in the audience. Although not technically flawless in terms of execution, and certain passages could do with more “voicing” because the main melodic line was sometimes covered up by the other parts, the tumultuousness of emotions, including her drive and passion, were unmistakable. One of the girls in the audience was caught tearing during her performance. No, this was not for dramatic effect – it was because she successfully conveyed the emotive nuances of the piece brilliantly (audience members tearing or experiencing goosebumps during performances is not uncommon, especially if they were moved by the music). If I were to describe her performance, I’d use the musical term, con fuoco (translation: “with fire”). 

Margaret Zhang There's No Space Left in C# minor Still
Film Still, “There’s No Space Left in C# Minor, via Margaret Zhang

In contrast, Act 3 was vastly different in comparison to the first two acts. We were transported to what seemed like the middle of the desert, with several girls in bandeaus and panties. The fast splicing of scenes showed the models suddenly covered in marbled body paint crusted on their bodies, the marbling of different colours of paint in water which ended up looking like fumes, scenes with Zhang in a lace catsuit holding a circular mirror, in a nude dress laying on the desert floor, in a pink dress with the extra material veiling her face, as well as a scene of of Zhang at the piano in the concert hall, from the second act. This montage, edited in quick succession, greatly contributed to the surreal vibes, evoking a sort of a dreamscape. Synthesisers were also used, for distortion effects, and the manufacturing of digitised sounds created a suspenseful and mysterious atmosphere with repetitive alternations between the “F#-E-F#-G “, and “D-C-B-A-B-G-D” melodic motifs taken from the piece, proved to be rather hypnotic.

Margaret Zhang There's No Space Left in C# minor Still
Film Still, “There’s No Space Left in C# Minor, via Margaret Zhang

This final act is certainly open to interpretation. Perhaps, here’s one way of looking at it: as an allegory for one who was once lost, but has found a “new self”. It begins with the blank slate as the starting point (the girls in nude underwear in the middle of the desert). New life is then breathed into the self (the red fumes as a symbol of blood, and the unveiling of Zhang’s face), thus finally leading to the acknowledgement of this “new” multifaceted self, represented by the red morphing into multicoloured fumes, different-coloured body paints, and holding up a mirror to her own face. Haha, I may be completely off-base but this is my reading of the 3rd act. XD Whatever it is, I’d like to congratulate Margaret for producing such an evocative film.

My interpretation of it aside, Fantasie Impromptu was a piece that I’d previously struggled with. I won’t get too technical here, but in short, it was because I couldn’t seem to coordinate the right hand with the left hand. The reason? I was overthinking, trying to rationalise and mathematically subdivide the number of left hand notes to go with the right hand. I played it for my bestie and musical partner in crime, and he immediately identified the problem: what I really needed to do, was to let go, and “feel” instead of “think”… something which I wasn’t able to do, at that point in time. Okay, at this point you’re probably wondering what Margaret’s film had to do with all this?  Well, remember I mentioned that I actually went to the piano to play something after reading Strings Attached? Incidentally, I’d actually tried playing this very piece, Fantasie Impromptu, after such a long time away from the piano. And this was just a day before I’d discovered Margaret’s latest short film. Coincidence much? I think not.

With the previous 4 days of me being so immersed in classical music, I couldn’t help but wonder if it could be a higher power’s way of reigniting my passion, and eventually, leading me back to it? *insert thoughtful emoji here*