Ivy Ngeow is a professional musician who had a funk band Satsuma playing all her own songs, and previously had a jazz band St Ives with a residency at Pizza Express in central London. She now writes fiction. For links see bottom of page.
Heart of Glass is her second novel, a crime story in the 80s set in Chicago and Macau, near Hong Kong, China (although is was still British when the novel is set). It has a strong musical theme as the protagonist is a piano player and her boyfriend is a DJ in the new disco culture. Her first novel, Cry of the Flying Rhino, won the 2017 Proverse Best International Novel prize and is published in November 2017 in Hong Kong. Photos from the launch will be on here in November.
I interviewed her about writing music and fiction.
Is there a connection between writing stories and writing lyrics?
Sure. Writing lyrics have to tell stories but only in a poetic or flash fiction way. But stories are much more rich and complex as there is no music in which to emote the lyrics. Writing prose is pure fiction whereas lyrics are both fiction and music.
Is it easier to be a musician or a fiction writer?
It is neither. Both have their complexities and challenges. The musician’s lifestyle is more social whereas writers work alone. It is debatable if anything in the arts can be considered ‘easy’.
Writing fiction or any book is rumoured to be hard work. Is composing music as hard for you?
Composing music is not very hard because there are many reference points to go with. You could start with a melody, a riff or a chord or some key changes. You only need to pick up a guitar or a synth and the sounds are made. In writing prose, you can only start with ideas and words. Even visual images have to be realised into ideas and words. In writing music, all sounds are and become ideas from which you could move around and develop.
You teach music. What is good about that? Does is help your own playing or composing?Teaching develops skills in others and yourself that you would not otherwise develop. For example, my listening and forming critical feedback has really improved as you have to listen quite hard and describe the experience. Usually one internalises experiences or possibly have no strong opinion at all about experiences. The intensity of teaching gives a burst of energy and a buzz to my thinking space. Unfortunately, it is not a creative space. It is nurturing the creativity of others, or helping someone else pursue their artistic endeavours.
I was almost an adult when I realised that I had perfect pitch and was playing by ear. Piano requires a lot of technical skill. You cannot teach yourself piano as it is so complex and varied. It is a full band in a box. There is a lot of theory and reading too, all of which you cannot teach yourself, or rather, you will teach yourself the wrong thing and be stuck.
My family is partly musical. My brother plays trumpet and piano to grade VIII. My parents always had records in the house. My mother played me records when I was five. The first song I ever heard was Old MacDonald Had a Farm. It was a children’s record and I remember with clarity every instrument on it. There was always music in the house. My parents had about twenty records and I listened to them all. There were Chinese and English records. There were ballet music records. My aunt and uncle ran a record shop for thirty years (from the 60s to the 80s) and I listened to music constantly, all kinds of music, not just one. I especially listened to the first eight bars of songs when a record had to be ‘tested’ for customers in the old days of vinyl record ‘tasters’. If they liked the first eight bars, or the hook, whatever the opening was called, they would probably buy it.
My maternal grandmother was very religious and used to sing hymns all the time. I went to church and I was brought up on gospel music. Later I played guitar and piano for the church, all by ear, figuring out chord progressions, improvisations, harmonies, tempo, bass lines, melody, key transpositions being an accompanist for the youth choir.
Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Prince. Three out of four are dead. I admired their work, and their dedication and of course, their musicality.
My first teacher was a lady called Alice Chua. She was a fabulous teacher. It was 1975. She was totally enthusiastic and taught me all sorts of things outside the book. She encouraged me to play what I liked rather than what I should. I still remember her voice to this day. The second and third were her sisters called Rosie and Emily. This was because my family moved to another city so we had to change teachers. I had Rosie and my brother had Emily who was very mean to him (he says). Rosie was kind to me and even took me to a concert in Singapore. I cannot remember what the concert was or who was playing. It seemed very dull, just a classical concert that went on and on. But I remember that it was very impressive as it was in the Victoria Concert Hall, all grand and baroque.
My fondest memories are growing up playing music, going to my aunt and uncle’s record shop in the weekends. It was a fabulous time, being young and playing and listening to music without a care in the world, in fact, without even a knowledge of anything else. The record shop, my piano and guitar were my world. It was a time of real innocence and naivete, to think, live and breathe music, like it was the only thing that mattered.
Try not to make any mistakes. If you do, you need to cover up quickly and move onto the next beat without correcting the mistake. As long as you hit the next beat on the beat, perfectly, there is no mistake. Every second of the present is becoming the past.
If you are nervous, you need to work on your confidence and practise, practise, practise. To be confident requires total dedication to your art and not really caring what people think of what you are doing. Make sure you can play your piece inside out, in the dark, back to front. Know yourself thoroughly, be true and make sure your personality and character fit the performing arts in all honesty.
I do not practise just for the sake of it anymore. I do not need to practise as I play almost every day whatever occurs to me.
Thank you Ivy.
Please go to Ivy’s new novel Heart of Glass is on Amazon and in the shops now.