Green Book



I wasn’t keen when I first heard about the movie called Green Book because it sounded uninteresting. Then, last weekend, I learned about the premiere of this movie sponsored by Steinway Gallery Singapore. I perked up immediately. Finding out that one of my favourite (very) young pianists, Toby Tan, performed live on a Steinway piano before the show piqued my curiosity further. Due to my various commitments, I was only able to watch it yesterday. I’ve been thinking of watching it again. And again. (So I’ll wait for the Blu-ray to be available.)

Inspired by a true story, it is about a working-class Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who becomes the driver for an African-American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) for a concert tour in the Southern states. The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for safe travel through America’s racial segregation.

I was captivated from the opening scene which takes place in New York in 1962, in front of the Copacabana at The Bronx. Here, jazz music and the first song, That Old Black Magic by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, is heard. The nightclub is to be closed for renovations for two months and Tony needs to find another source of income. One day, he gets a call to interview for a job as a driver for a “doctor”; he is surprised (so am I!) to find that Dr Shirley is not a medical doctor but a pianist who lives in an apartment above the Carnegie Hall. This first encounter did not go well as Tony’s flippant, uncultured behaviour clashes with Don’s sophisticated, reserved demeanor: but Tony is hired as Don need someone who can help him stay out of trouble during the tour. Tony feels uncomfortable being asked to act properly while Don is disgusted by Tony’s habits. However, they witness and endure appalling injustices on the road and find a newfound respect for each other’s talents. In so doing, they nurture a friendship and understanding that would change both their lives.

The screenplay is well-written: besides the portrayal of humanity, there are many layers of family, culture, honesty, dignity, genius, respect, acceptance, stereotypes, racism, class, friendship and especially music. There must have been fifty well-known songs and pieces, and I enjoyed every one of them, especially Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, Erik Satie’s Valse Ballet and Chopin’s Etude Op 25 No 11 (Winter Wind). Others include Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies and songs sung by Aretha Franklin, Charlie Checker, Bobby Page and The Riff Raffs, The Clovers, Timmy Jay, The Blackwells, Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Franki Valli and The Four Seasons, and Nat King Cole.

The cinematography is great too. The location managers and crew spared no effort in scouting the tour route – the long drives to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Cedar Rapids in Iowa, Louisville in Kentucky, Raleigh in North Carolina, Macron in Georgia, Memphis in Tennessee, Little Rocks in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tupelo in Mississippi, and Birmingham in Alabama. The director of photography and the teams involved in the visual and special effects (especially the stunts) have done an amazing job. Of course I must not forget to mention the many Steinway pianos featured in the movie!



The Leaky Pot: Session 3 (Poetry as Prosody)



The third session of the Poetry Workshop The Leaky Pot yesterday was the most interesting for me so far. The first few minutes were spent watching a YouTube video (Tom Lehrer’s 1959 studio solo of We Will All Go Together When We Go) and we were supposed to pay attention to the rhymes. This serves as the introduction to the day’s topic: Form as Notation (the trainer, poet Tse Hao Guang, decided to use the word ‘notation’ instead of ‘prosody’, explaining that ‘prosody’ in poetry is the equivalent of ‘notation’ in music). He then showed something like this on the screen:



Notation in music is compared to poetry: the music notes (with the clefs and key signatures) are like the letters of the alphabet which form words; the note values (and time signatures, not shown in the PowerPoint slide or here) tell how long/short a note should be (like the number of syllables in a line); the phrase marks and cadences indicate pauses (like punctuation); the expression marks like crescendo and diminuendo (not shown) indicate dynamics and so on. Poetry contains meter, punctuation, rhyme and intonation, very similar to music.


Tse also talked about the classical poetic meter:



This was very interesting to know. I refrained from asking about quadruple time, or compound time signatures as I thought other participants would probably not be interested or might think me a ‘show off’. Anyway, it was ample information as there was so much more to learn, like mono meter, di meter, tri meter, tetra meter, penta meter, hexa meter, hepta meter and octa meter. I’m also as yet not well-versed with the Iambic Pentameter, covered in the previous session (The Leaky Pot” Session 2).

This is followed by discussion on four poems we had to read as homework; now focusing on five areas: What images/metaphors are used? Where does the poem make least common sense? Is there rhyme? What is the meter? Where are the line breaks?

The first is Frost by Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:


followed by The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins:




followed by I like to see it lap the Miles by Emily Dickinson:




and The Fish by Marianne Moore:




Following this, the participants were asked to write, in 15 minutes, a poem where we had to think about the rhythm/structure of one of the four poems discussed. I came up with a rhyme scheme of ABBABB-ABBABB and the rhythmic pattern 157157-157157, but wasn’t able to complete the last line within the time limit:



in various pieces

of different shapes and sizes


fitting together

to form a complete picture.



for stimulation,

hand-eye coordination,



colours, shapes and (arranging)


After sharing from two volunteers, we learned about what it means to be sonic, with a short poem called To a Poor Woman (poet not credited), and Catherine Wagner’s  six dimensions (how line breaks can affect a poem): Speed (shorter lines seem to read faster, especially without end stop), Sound (how rhyme can break a line), Syntax (line break is possible at an expected or unexpected place), Surprise (set something unexpected), Sense (whether to break it for maximum or minimum effect), Space (line breaks are not necessary all to the left as breaks could be within the same line).

With that, homework is set: one is a Relineation exercise where we have to insert slashes to indicate line breaks, using the six dimensions. The other is to write poems (minimum two) that use images/metaphor, where there’s a line which makes the least common sense, rhyme, meter and line breaks.

And I suppose it is expected that we continue to do Free Writing every day for the next two weeks! (The next session is after the Chinese New Year break.)

The Recluse



Skin rougher than the moon’s surface

Like a walking reptile

He moved forward in great earnest

With expression hostile

His blasphemy were depressive

And disillusion fertile

He’d not with others reconcile

Deeming it recessive

Paranoid and embittered

Unreasonable and cancourous

He needed psychiatric help

Never had he considered

Others becoming acrimonious

Due to tensions unparalleled.


* This poem was written as part of the homework for the second session of The Leaky Pot workshops.

SG Author Series:Xi Ni Er



Since August 2014, the National Library Board (NLB) has been featuring one local author each month in the “SG Author Series” which celebrates local literature by showcasing Singapore authors who have contributed to the development of Singapore’s literary landscape. Today’s event, held at The Pod on Level 16 of the NLB building, features Cultural Medallion (2008) recipient Xi Ni Er (on the left in the photograph below). Presenting the talk with him is another Cultural Medallion (2015) recipient, Lin Gao:




I attended this talk, conducted in Mandarin, because I’ve always wanted to learn more about flash fiction but have never found a talk in English that I could attend. I must have been the only one present who took notes in English; most in the audience spoke very fluent Mandarin with accents that hint of their Chinese education/background (and, indeed, quite a number are Chinese language teachers).

There are four main characteristics of a good piece of flash fiction, which has no restriction on the subject matter (it could even be science fiction, fantasy or wuxia/Chinese martial arts): It has to be small (meaning micro or miniature in length, not exceeding 600 words), new (having new/novel/refreshing content), unexpected (the reader should detect an element of surprise but not overly dramatic) and flash (it should touch the reader’s heart and soul, not so much a shocking impact).

One example is from Xi’s collection (“Signature”) in which he expresses his longing for his father. This is used to illustrate how flash fiction is like Poetry Dancing In The Novel.  The signature of the author for his father’s death certificate brings back memories of when his father signed his report books during his school days.

The similarity between flash fiction and poetry is that there are few words, thus making it more difficult to express ideas. An example quoted is “Woman” by Chinese novelist Mo Yan. It contains only three paragraphs but the imagery used is clear and so are the feelings expressed. There is even a deeper message on the issues of morality and marriage, dignity and intelligence.

Flash fiction showcases the author’s wisdom: the writing has to be simple yet meaningful. The reader has to possess the intelligence to make a judgement and choice in their interpretation. Two examples quoted here are “Buying Coffin” by Xi and “Scar” by Lin.

Both speakers also introduced the wisdom and philosophy of Czech-French writer Milan Kundera (whose many works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being). A quote that is repeated is that Life is a Trap. This is the best takeaway from this afternoon’s session. (A lot of the details can be found on the Internet.)

Dark City



I’ve never actively searched out Science Fiction movies, but when I chanced upon Dark City (1998) starring Rufus Seawell, Keifer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt and skimmed through the synopsis, I thought it intriguing and decided to watch it.

The plot: John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up one day with no memory. At the scene of a grisly murder, he soon finds himself hunted by the police (with Hurt as Inspector Frank Bumstead as team leader), a woman named Emma (Connelly) claiming to be his wife and a mysterious group of pale men helped by psychiatrist Dr Daniel Poe Schreber (Sutherland).

I am sure fans of Sci-fi would love this movie. My first thought when I saw the impressive set design is that it is reminiscent of Batman movies’ Dark City! For me, visuals alone do not make a great movie. I find the story too mind-boggling. Not even the extensive effort of the crews involved in the stunts, prosthetics, make-up, props, carpentry, art, sculpting, special effects by the model makers, technicians, electricians, computer-generated imagery and more, or even the music can make up for an unsatisfying two hours. (Other than the songs Sway and The Night Has A thousand Eyes which are songs I like but do not really add value to the plot.)

The Matador



The Matador is a 2005 movie starring Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear, which is what drew me to it. Besides, when I saw the word ‘matador’ I was immediately reminded of a piano exam piece many years ago and how my tween student at first could not understand the piece (because he just couldn’t grasp the idea of a matador) but eventually scored a distinction for it.

Julian Noble (Brosnan) is a lonely hit man from Portugal who forms an unexpected bond with struggling salesman Danny Wright (Kinnear) from Denver during a chance meeting in a bar in a Mexican City. Their two different worlds means that their lives will be altered for ever.

Nothing terribly exciting happens but it is still gratifying to watch because of the comedic scenes, brilliant acting, good cinematography with great visual detail (such as having different looks for the different countries and seasons, like winter in Denver and summer in Mexico City) and lovely music. Besides some Spanish numbers which add authenticity to the scenes shot in Mexico City (especially the excitement and atmosphere of the bull-fighting scenes), I find Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual apt for the scenes from Vienna, Las Vegas, Moscow, Sydney, Philippines and Budapest. Of the fifteen soundtracks that I counted, one surprise is the inclusion of Joseph Haydn’s Hunt Quartet – Adagio.

The Neon Demon



As this sounds more like a horror movie than a drama or thriller, the only reason that I borrowed The Neon Demon (2016) is my curiosity about the lead actress, Elle Fanning. I think I last watched her in a movie with Brad Pitt when she was a little girl. (Or maybe that was her older sister Dakota?)

Elle Fanning plays 16-year-old Jesse, an aspiring model who has just arrived in Los Angeles. She is an orphan from a small town in Georgia and is determined to succeed. It’s a treacherous road to stardom. Her beauty and youth generate intense fascination and jealousy withing the fashion industry.

The movie’s start is promising, with eye-catching images. The photography throughout is one of the best things about the movie. The plot is somewhat ludicrous which I find quite disturbing. Despite the brilliant cinematography, I find the story lackluster. If not for the music, which adds a sensual element and a driving force that provides ambience for the mystery, I would have fallen asleep. I managed to stay awake because of the dissonant chords and the unusual beats in the rhythm. This is one instance where music plays a more important supporting role than the actors/actresses in emoting their thoughts.

Three Success Factors for Performance



On Monday, Bill Williams gave a lecture on Three Success Factors for Performance at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore. As it was conducted from 4.30pm to 6.30pm, not many of us were able to attend. A friend who attended took many photographs of the slides and handouts given and shared them in our small WhatsApp group of piano teachers late last night. I tried to make sense of them by arranging them in sequence. I’ve compiled the following for easier reading:

A pianist often feels ‘stressed out’ before or during an important performance, or feels like no matter how much practice has been put in, it’s never quite enough, wondering why it seems that the best performances are left in the practice room. This lecture explores three critically important elements for performance success: Stress Management, Attentional Control (which could be broad or narrow, external or internal) and Preparation.

Williams starts the lecture by talking about Music and Flow, and the Stress/Fight/Flight Response. Why do we love music and what is the appeal of music performance? Music making can generate the Flow State. One of the most important reasons is the satisfaction that accompanies continued mastery of skills, another is that music can convey and evoke powerful emotions without words and connects us to others. Also, playing an instrument can be physically satisfying and performing with others can be very rewarding.

Some of the challenges to this flow are boredom, distractions, extrinsic motivators (thinking about what you’ll get as a result of the activity), and anxiety (which can diminish the ability to focus).

The first Success Factor is Stress Management. Nobody knows how to define stress, but the effects can be physical, mental and/or emotional. For many, stress increases as the stakes increase. These may arise from professional opportunities, music school/conservatory, auditions, competitions, talent identification and concerts. There could be two responses to stress: making it better or making it worse.

The second Success Factor is Attentional Control. It can diminish significantly under high levels of stress, and this is one of the most damaging aspects of the Stress Response. Our inability to control our attention prevents us from being truly connected to the music. This is where Williams embarked on an explanation of The Centering Process. One of these is the ‘Mental Rehearsal Concept’, a highly efficient way to practice (such as, “When the mind is clear, the body follows”, “Break mental rehearsal practice into short segments”).

The third Success Factor is Organisation. It is a key for structuring the learning and retention processes. It is important to establish specific goals for practice and make clear decision about how time will be spent. Time constraints can be used as a method of focusing on the work. It is advisable to taper off the practice to avoid burnout.

In summary, Preparation is the key to success. It helps to solidify habits and to build confidence. Building habits take time and dedicated practice. Consistent practice is essential for a consistent performance. It is important to avoid burnout by planning in advance.



A Dog’s Purpose



A Dog’s Purpose is a 2017 movie based on a bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron. I think anyone who has owned a dog (or any pet) would have loved this, but as I’m not a pet owner (having been denied such an opportunity as well as having had unpleasant encounters in my childhood) I find this movie a bit far-fetched though good and wholesome entertainment on a quiet afternoon.

The movie opens with a dog (voiced by Josh Gad) articulating about the meaning of life, and whether there is a purpose to it. Such an approach strikes me as a fantasy: dogs can’t talk! This dog is a newborn stray puppy captured by two men who left it in their locked truck. Along comes an eight-year-old boy named Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Ghesiar) and his mum, who breaks the window so they can take the dog home. It is named Bailey. They enjoy a trip to the family farm. The cinematography is wonderful – lots of beautiful aerial views of the vast spaces and so on. And Bailey’s thoughts that “trying to make sense of life is a waste of life; better to just enjoy life” is interesting. The scene in which Bailey thought of Ethan’s school bus as a “big yellow box” also put a question mark in my head: aren’t dogs supposedly colour-blind? (Even my adult son, who has colour deficiency, would not be able to tell the colour of the said bus.)

What is also interesting is that Ethan’s mum mentioned making a Singapore Sling. I didn’t know this drink has become so famous that it is even worked into the plot of a (Hollywood?) movie. I wonder if this is also mentioned in the novel.

Ethan (now played by K. J. Apa)  grows up quickly enough, and is a quarterback in high school. He is interested in a girl named Hannah (Brit Robertson) and it is Bailey who gets them together. He gets a full football scholarship to Michigan State and she gets an academic one. But an accident means Ethan gets left behind and breaks up with Hannah. Ethan is sad and Bailey dies.

The next scene shows Bailey reincarnated as Ellie, a police dog. She is killed on duty. And becomes reincarnated as Toby, adopted by a college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who takes him everywhere she goes around school. This seems to me a preposterous idea: surely this is not allowed?! Anyway, it eventually dies of depression.

Then it is reincarnated as a puppy picked up by a lady who takes it home. Her husband does not like it and kicks it out. It walks around aimlessly until he comes to Ethan’s (now played by Dennis Quaid) farm. Ethan adopts it and names it Buddy. Buddy finds Hannah (now played by Peggy Lipton) and brings her and Ethan together. They reconcile. Ethan renames the dog Bailey.

There are just too many coincidences in the story. Since studying Thomas Hardy, I tend not to believe in coincidences. So something else must be at play. Is it fate? Is there really such a thing as reincarnation? To paraphrase Bailey’s words: Life is a mystery, so have fun.

That’s a dog’s purpose. The message of this movie seems to be: love and be loved, be the best friend you can be, be in the moment, and dogs make you happy. The question posed at the start- What is the meaning of life? – requires a profound answer. I don’t think this movie provides an answer except to say that we have only one chance to do one thing at a time.


The Leaky Pot: Session 2 (Form as Play)


The poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is one that we are asked to read before the session. On my first reading, I couldn’t make any sense out of it and concluded it is a nonsense poem. (I then googled to understand it.) It turns out to be so.

In this session, the focus is on Form as Play. Nonsense poems such as Jabberwocky (included in the 1871 novel Through The Looking Glass) and  impossible sentences such as  ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ (from Noam Chomsky’s 1957 book Syntactic Structures) are grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical.

This session is so much more interesting than last week’s because the participants could play many games to help reinforce the idea of PLAY, and making meaning out of nonsense. (Although, in all fairness, it is more likely that I was overly tired from a hectic week before the first session.)

Other examples are Incandescent War Poem by Bernadette Mayer and a YouTube video of a nonsensical Italian song (Adriano Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol) created to sound like American English.

Tones, beats and shapes are elements of note. (This is definitely more appealing to me than metaphors.)

After a fun-filled and interesting Word Association Game (1 dialogo, silenzio, sogno, sonno), and making our brain get used to the idea that we can associate with sound and meanings, the participants are introduced to Rhyme and Rhythm.

There are four areas:

Same same but different – identifiable similarities and differences like cat-bat (sound similar but meaning far apart), Jesus-cheeses (juxtaposed), brief-chief, sieve-heave-sleeve, metal-petal

Stress vs Unstress – different stresses for nouns and verbs, for example ‘record’; Singaporeans tend to speak in a flat tone with no stress

Masculine vs Feminine – ‘cat-bat’ is masculine whereas ‘ending-sending’ is feminine; ‘tyger, tyger, burning bright’ is masculine because of the effect created whereas the feminine rhymes are softer

Iambic Pentameter – consists of five pairs of beats (unstress-stress-unstress-stress-unstress); Shakespeare (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ from Romeo and Juliet) and Tennyson (‘To find, to seek and not to yield‘) and a lot of poetry in the past are in iambic pentameter because it was thought that people spoke like that.

We then had an exercise on rhyme with collaborative writing. Through fun and laughter, we learnt about the Heroic Couplet (two lines that rhyme with a sense of closure), ABAB rhyme scheme (a quatrain, with a feeling of waiting), ABBA rhyme, Chiasm (N)/ Chiastic (V) (everything radiates from the centre: CBABC) and the Petrachian Sonnet (abab-cdcd-efg-efg).

The form is both playful and showcases the human mind at work – making sense of what is essentially random.