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Interview: Meng Chan, pianist and author

29 January 2016

‘Bach’s Preludes and Fugues contain layers of complexity and meaning’

I was both a musician and a tour manager for many years. Tour guides need local knowledge and local connections; tour managers travel with a group to safeguard both the interests of the passengers and the travel agency. But I stopped working in the travel industry in 2013, and have gone back to being a full-time musician.


I grew up in Malacca, Malaysia, but our family later moved to Kuala Lumpur. My father was a physician. I have lived and worked in London, Amsterdam, and New York City. When I returned to Malaysia after my years of wandering abroad, with the intention of spending more time with my mother, I was recommended by a friend to work with a travel agency. It’s a desirable profession; so there is fair competition for it. I was hired because of my extensive travels, especially in Europe, one of the favourite destinations for Malaysians.


I came back to Malaya because my mother is now elderly. I don’t want to make the same mistake as I did with my father, not getting to know him before he passed away, because I was mostly abroad. I love her dearly. She takes her spiritual life very seriously, sincerely wanting to imitate Christ: an inspiration to me.


I first visited the UK to further my music education when I was still a teenager, and it was the first country I had visited outside of Malaysia. Everything was curious and novel to me; so nothing bothered me. But, 20 years later, it did occur to me that I had experienced culture shock. For example, in social settings, alcohol is consumed far less in Asia. Also, in Asia, you almost have to be family to voice dissent in social interchanges, whereas lively debate is commonplace in the West. Now I have spent most of my adult life in the West, my Asian colleagues find me too blunt.


I enjoyed the chance to revisit many important cultural and scenic places in the world. For example, the beauty and serenity of Lake Bled, in Slovenia, is unforgettable. I had also the chance to visit many sacred places and monuments, among them the San Marco basilica in Venice, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the Vatican.


I often hear the passengers cry: “Not another church!” “Not another temple!” Personally, I always feel inspired by them, however many times I have visited them. It’s as though generations of noble thoughts and prayers still resonate in their walls.


If you want comfort, don’t leave home. If you travel, prepare for the unpredictable. Anything and everything can happen: flight delays, hotel- and restaurant-booking errors, a political rally on the streets of Paris, a boat-trip cancellation because of bad weather. . . There is lots to test the patience and good humour of both passengers and tour managers. I had to learn to embrace the unpredictable, the uncomfortable, the disappointing — and the wrath of the clients. As with life itself, the only constant is unpredictability.


I was a self-taught pianist until the age of 17, when I was discovered by a music teacher, Wong Pin Lin, in Singapore. Soon after, I went to the UK to study with some other teachers. The late Peter Katin was one.


I feel very fortunate to have found serious music. In the Malay language, classical music is called “musik seriosa”. It has enriched my life greatly, for which I am very grateful. Besides Bach, I love Schubert and Chopin. All great music is healing and uplifting to me.


I first approached Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues like regular music. Then I was struck by the many perplexing and irregular features it contained, many of them not good examples of proper fugue writing.


Then I remembered once hearing that there had been an oral tradition, in which the 48 contain cryptic religious themes. So I started to probe, and was rewarded by the discovery of Bach’s own “Sistine Chapel”, coded on to the musical notations of The Well-Tempered Clavier with themes ranging from Genesis to the Apocalypse: a Bible without words.


My book sets out to prove that Bach used the Bible in a systematic way, as inspiration for this most arduous and complex musical creation. Like solving a puzzle, I offer a sacred image for every one of the 48 Preludes and Fugues.


Bach’s code is astonishingly clear and consistent. The time signature, key signature, note values, number of parts, the interval between the notes, the grouping of notes, the position of the parts, and all the specifics of notation — rests, accidentals, and ornaments — have hidden meaning. Even the absence of certain notation is sometimes significant.


Some meanings are visual; many are by associations, and need to be heard. The prelude “Jesus calms the Sea” has a harmonic range and progression which suggests the gospel story.


I could be accused of reading all this into Bach’s opus; so I was always careful to read each piece independently, usually in random order. This confirmed my reading; and I even discovered some non-sequential images put in by Bach because of some factor like the key signature. If I’m right, it creates another layer of complexity to the genius of the 48 Preludes and Fugues.


I don’t know if Bach told his friends or family. If he did, would they have merely smiled and nodded? Amused and puzzled? This opus was not published in his lifetime, and, soon after his death, it was only admired by select connoisseurs. Its universal acclaim is quite a recent phenomenon. Also, I am not sure how politically correct it would have been to imprint religious images on to musical manuscript at the height of Lutheran Reformation.


I think he specifically honoured God through musical notation, because he had already written many works setting words in God’s praise. The growing complexity of musical notation at that time was very exciting to musicians, and the way in which they could study other composers’ works and develop their art.


This discovery helps me to interpret the pieces musically. Bach’s idiom is so ancient to us that every little detail helps. To know that this piece, for example, is about the death of Christ, and not his resurrection, is a great help in playing — the difference between Good Friday and Easter.


I’m happiest when I’m not under pressure or hurried. That’s when I feel spaciousness in people’s company, in music, in nature, and in creative projects.


The sounds of nature are those I love most. Malaysia has pristine nature in abundance: forests, seashore, waterfalls, where I spent many carefree outings in my youth.


I can never be angry with pets or children: they are truly honest.


I find great inspiration from people who have to overcome disabilities to realise their goals. In fact, many blind musicians are exceedingly fine: they are often extra-sensitive to harmonic subtleties. I’ve also known friends who had to face disability because of war or accident.


I reflect often about my need for sensitivity to other people’s concerns. O grant me love for all people! O grant me more compassion for the welfare of all living beings, for the health of our planet!


Were I locked in a church, I would feel blessed to be in the company of spiritual reformers like St Francis of Assisi, Rumi Mevlana [a Sufi], Buddha, or Jesus. The common thread is their rejection of the reliance on religious observances. Instead, they demanded that their disciples abandon all their baggage, be it material insecurity, greed, social ambition, or pride, to seek spiritual renewal. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a prerequisite for spiritual renewal, I believe. For me, perpetual reformation is desirable for both institutions and individuals.


Meng Chan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Sacred Images of the Well-Tempered Clavier is an e-book. For more information, see www.mengchan48.com. A new CD of recordings of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues played by Meng Chan will be available soon.

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