As the Associate Professor and Principal Conductor at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Jason Lai is always spending time looking at the fine details the composers have created, examining it and putting it together with the orchestra. He shares with us how he thinks the concept of time and his work are closely related.
What was your first experience with a timepiece?
In my younger days, I didn’t want to wear a watch. As a former cellist, I was always taking mine off; it felt uncomfortable to play with it on. After practising, I would forget to put the watch back on and leave it in the practice room, and it would go missing! As I got older, I started to be more fascinated by watches and the idea that having a nice one meant that you could pass it on to family – that’s when I started to seriously look at timepieces. And after I got my first big job, I bought myself an Omega Seamaster with a black dial. Really loved it, and I felt very grown-up! I have a Rolex GMT Master II now and like to wear it with NATO straps as they have that feel of informality. But I have to say what I wear most days on my wrist is an Apple watch.
What is an interesting analogy that could be used to illustrate the relationship you have with time?
As a conductor, I’m very much concerned with time and tempo. I need to feel the speed of a piece of music before I give an upbeat to the orchestra. And that speed isn’t fixed – the music needs to ebb and flow and sound natural. It feels like a conductor manipulates time, while the world ticks along, sixty seconds to every minute.
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So very proud and thankful of all the team at YST, students and staff, that made the recent Esplanade concert and Korean tour possible. Music is always about that balance of giving and taking: giving something of yourself and receiving joy through sharing; rubato, or giving time in the music here and taking some back there; giving space but taking responsibility. After giving two wonderful concerts I hope the students took away some great memories, I know I certainly did…
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Is there a ‘prime time’ for a profession like yours?
The renowned English conductor, Sir Colin Davis, once said that you spend 30 years learning to listen to the sound an orchestra makes, and another 30 years working out what to do with that sound. Some conductors may have a successful career early on in their lives, but their best work usually happens later on in life. Typically, conductors in their forties or fifties would be considered as being in their prime, because one would have managed to gain considerable experience by this time, and they would be learning how to use that experience to lead and direct. You have the confidence to ask for what you want from the musicians, and to have the orchestra recognise your presence on the podium.
Describe yourself using a timepiece.
I would be one that is simple to read, elegant, classy and light. I’d be in classic colours and materials, and have a chestnut brown leather strap.
Any musicians or composers who have shaped your view towards time?
What I find interesting is how composers write music and how each one uses time in a very unique way. Gustav Mahler wrote in colossal paragraphs spanning arcs of time; Bach used a compositional device of spinning out ideas with a constant sense of motion; Webern’s music is very brief in nature – a sound here, a note there, then it’s over. But in every piece these composers write, you have to inhabit the space and really sense what is there.
Do you see any similarities between yourself and a watchmaker?
In my work as conductor, I see parallels. I’m always looking at the fine details the composer has written on the page, how they all connect and they all fit together. When I rehearse an orchestra, I take the music apart, often concentrating on one particular passage and really examining and exploring what is there. What we find is subtlety: fine lines, sounds and timbres, exquisite ideas. After this, we put the music back together again and, in doing so, the music sounds fresh and new, vibrant and exciting. It has more flow. The watchmaker does the same, honing in on the details, but delighting in the whole.
…constantly moving, so enjoy each moment.
Art direction: Audrey Chan
Hair & makeup: Benedict Choo using Clé De Peau