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Stringing a sweet note

ARCO STRINGS MUSIC being featured on The Star newspaper: An Interview with Mr. Tay.

TAY BOH TSUN comes across like an accountant to most who meet him but in truth, he is a talent with an ear for music. Growing up, Tay, whose family lived in a wooden house in Kuching, found himself inclined to music. In Tay’s early 20s, he was a recording engineer for some of Malaysia’s most respected singers, including Sheila Majid and M. Nasir. In his 30s, the Kuching boy had become an audio lecturer in Singapore, who took up song writing (20 published pieces) and violin making (two sold) in his free time. He has written number one hits for the likes of Hong Kong Cantopop stars Sammi Cheng and Ronald Cheng.

Now, Tay and his wife spend their time as multi-tasking luthiers, business owners and audio consultants, having helped design home theaters, church halls and even acoustically treated children’s playrooms.

With StarMetro, Tay talks about playing records loud, music piracy and why Italian luthiers throw bad violins into the fire.

Skill: Tay working on a violin.

Question: Let’s start off with music. Can you tell us about the kinds of violins you’re familiar with?

Answer: Like most other people, I like Italian ones, particularly from the Tuscany region. Those from Florence are arguably the best in the world. All the best luthiers go to Italy to learn. That’s the centre of the violin world.

Q: How long is its tradition?

A: It goes back three or four hundred years. It’s very commercialised nowadays. Nothing wrong with commercialisation though. The more people learning the better.

Q: Is there a particular model you fancy?

A: It may not look like much, and most people can’t tell the difference, but when you spend time and money to make a violin, you choose a good model, and the Stradivari 1715 is my model. The Stradivari’s two ingredients are Bosnian maple and northern facing Alps spruce. It’s to do with the weather. In tough cold environments, wood grows very slowly and that gives the instruments its unique voice.

Q: What about the off-the-shelf ones from China?

A: They’re not bad actually, but their wood is from trees that grow too fast. When wood grows slowly, they’re denser.

Q: To my untrained ear, will I hear the difference?

A: It’s arguable. A lot of people say they can. Besides the density of the wood, the sound is affected by how it’s seasoned. The best luthiers in the world only use wood that has been seasoned for 10, 20 or 30 years.

Q: I’m guessing most people won’t be able to afford these. What about playability on cheaper ones?

A: Playability is not a problem. You just need to have it set up properly. That is what I do most of the time because, like what you said, it’s a cost problem.

Q: Let’s go back to your childhood. Were you always interested in music?

A: Yeah, together with my neighbour. My family was quite poor, so listening to other people’s music was how I started. Later in secondary school, I learnt playing the guitar then piano.

Q: What kind of music were you listening to?

A: 70s rock, Deep Purple, Karen Carpenter, all kinds really, whatever my neighbour had. I remember none of the other neighbours liked this guy. He played loud. We lived in an old wooden house together with eight other families. Each family had one room. My loud neighbour was upstairs. All seven others complained. [Laughs]

Q: So after secondary school, you joined a chemistry lab? Quite a departure from music.

A: It was a very boring job. After one year, I couldn’t stand it. I found a studio job at Hui Sing Garden here - Synchro Sound, which now is the biggest in Malaysia.

Q: What kind of songs were they recording at Hui Sing?

A: Kampung rock, but surprisingly, in Kuching after a short time, we got to record Malaysia’s biggest performers. People like M. Nasir, Sheila Majid and Zainal Abidin were clients. I was very lucky. I learnt a lot. I started off making coffee, cleaning the toilets, things like that. There wasn’t an audio school in Kuching.

Q: Was your family excited that you were working with all these big names?

A: They never encouraged me, put it that way. My father wanted me to be a pharmacist. At that time, I was only 22 years old. Anyway, in the studio, I found many like-minded people. You learn one or two things from the engineer. You observe. Then on occasions when nobody is around, you take over the studio. [Laughs] It’s like that lah, then people give you more responsibilities.

Q: When the studio moved to Kuala Lumpur after three years, why didn’t you go?

A: I was offered to stay back at Hui Sing to man the studio. It was like my own boss. But with the big names recording in KL, here I was relegated to church albums, radio jingles, simpler stuff like that.

Working tools: The workshop area at Acro Strings Music. A luthier uses specialised measuring tools and common household appliances.

Q: And why did you go to Singapore?

A: When I realised everyone was looking for that piece of paper, a certificate. So I took up an audio engineering diploma there. After that I became a tutor at that college and eventually finished with a masters in music semiotics.

Q: What is this semiotics thing you talk about?

A: It’s a study of signs and symbols. When I was teaching, I found my students had different reasons for liking music and I wanted to learn why. Music is very symbolic. What kind of music you listen to symbolises what kind of person you are. The parts of music you like says a lot too.

Q: How did you write a masters thesis on something as abstract as that?

A: I focused on Chinese pop music of the early 1990s. I wrote about this Taiwanese rock guitarist, Wu Bai. He was not widely accepted by society and did not fit the typical rockstar persona. He was down to earth, he had accent. His music was unlike the commercialised pop music popular at that time. Wu Bai, to his listeners, was a rebel against the norm.

Q: How did songwriting become part of your career?

A: I don’t consider myself a songwriter. I was never very productive in that. In my 12 years in Singapore, I only wrote about 60 songs, out of which only 20 were published.

Q: How was the Chinese music scene then like?

A: Very commercialised. As a songwriter, I’ve never met my clients like Ronald Cheng or Sammi Cheng. I wrote songs for them, but the only communication I had was via e-mails. It was like this: I stayed awake at night, writing down melodies, putting them together, then compiling computer audio files. Once one part was finished, it would be sent over the internet, the producer would listen and get back to me.

Q: Was it hard to write the melodies and trying to figure out the words for the singers you never meet?

A: The melodies come to you anytime during the day, you try to remember it, jot it down or sing it into a recorder. As for lyrics, I almost never write them. Those are figured out in-studio between the singer and producer. It’s up to them.

Q: That sounds quite limiting. As a songwriter, were you able to express yourself?

A: Well, you could do that if you became really famous.

Q: Was the money good?

A: We were paid royalties and in the first few years it was quite good. By the late 1990s, piracy was rampant. Eventually even some of the charts in Taiwan were taken down. But I never did it solely for the money. When I got my first number one hit, I called up my parents and they sounded happier than I was. At that time, they had no idea I was writing songs. Composing songs was also something I enjoyed doing with my wife. Without her, I would be a very ordinary person. She’s very creative. She sees things differently. I don’t have as much courage as her.

Q: Why did the two of you come back to Kuching?

A: By 2005, we were tired. We wanted to be home. We came home a few months prior to scout for a shoplot to start Acro Strings Music.

Q: How did you get started making violins?

A: I had some friends who were luthiers. I was inspired to learn something new. It was a natural progression but in very small steps.

Q: How long does it take to make one?

A: Three to four months. A cello takes about the same time too. But, you know, with every mistake, that’s it, you’ve to start all over again! [Laughs] It takes a lot of passion. For the Italians, one bad mistake, and it’s into the fire. They take great care in putting out products with their names on them. That is different from the industry in China. The day a Chinese violin maker wins an award, that is the day he starts a factory. [Laughs]

Q: How many instruments have you sold?

A: Just two violins. Both were to Singaporeans at SGD$5,000 each. For the first one, I was learning the basics, and the second was about confirming the basics I had learnt.

Q: Is there any local demand now?

A: Nope. People who want to buy a good violin will ask for a German maker, an Italian maker, no one ever asks for a Malaysian maker. [Laughs]

Q: Do you feel musically accomplished?

A: Oh no, not at all. Everybody is learning. For me, it comes back to emotions. When I see someone playing a violin I helped repair or adjust, I’m happy.

Q: You’re involved with music students at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. How do you find the local standard?

A: It has improved heaps compared to just 10 years ago, especially for violins and cello. As you know, piano has been well accepted here for a long time.

Q: Music is not given much emphasis in Malaysia’s education system. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I think music should be given more emphasis. From my experience, I believe kids who are good in music do well in other academic subjects.

Q: It could be the other way around though?

A: [Laugh] Yes that’s right. It’s arguable. But music is character building. Music helps you set goals and then work hard for it.

Q: Are all of us equally talented in music?

A: I think music is innate to everyone in different ways. You might not be a great pianist but you could be a great listener. Music appreciation cannot be examined, so who knows?