A Westerner with interest in South-east Asian music

Composer Eric James Watson is the 126th recipient of the Cultural Medallion and will receive his award from President Halimah Yacob.
Composer Eric James Watson is the 126th recipient of the Cultural Medallion and will receive his award from President Halimah Yacob.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

After nearly 30 years in Singapore, composer Eric James Watson has developed some very Singaporean habits. On returning home, his comfort food is char kway teow.

"Don't remind me about the cholesterol," he says wryly.

Like any self-respecting Singaporean foodie, he enjoys eating at the kopitiam: "That's one of the things that form society in Singapore."

Then there is the weather: "I was back in the United Kingdom in January. It was snowing and I felt like turning around and coming right back."

The 73-year-old Singapore permanent resident is this year's Cultural Medallion recipient and is being honoured for his career as a composer and music educator.

He has written works for both the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. As the composer and music director of the 2001 National Day Parade, he arranged for four orchestras, including Indian and Malay ensembles. Now teaching at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, he has also taught at Singapore's main art institutions Lasalle College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Born in Wales but raised in Yorkshire, the conductor who studied music at the renowned Trinity College in Cambridge arrived in Singapore in 1991 because of his love, not for music, but for his Singaporean wife: "Her parents were in Penang. And they made me promise when I married her that I would bring her back every year. We didn't get to go anywhere else."

Singapore became home base for the Watsons also because he had begun to develop an interest in Southeast Asian music. The couple, who have no children, set up a musical theatre company and Watson recalls that it was hard to make a living as a freelance musician in his early years here.

"The best way to describe the music scene was that it was nascent," he says with a smile. The classical music scene was healthy as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was already established.

"It was a struggle. I started doing a lot of advertisements for television. That was the bread and butter. And I did concerts, a few with singer Frances Yip," he remembers.

Now, he says contemplatively, the scene has grown "exponentially" with more musicians, more performances and more venues: "The standards are extremely high and the external examiners I work with often say, 'Wow, we wish we had this where we come from.' Singapore now is setting the standard."


As a Western musician who has incorporated Asian elements into his work, Watson is also aware of the thorny issues of cultural appropriation as people become more sensitised to such questions: "You have to respect certain boundaries. I'm not a gamelan composer, nor would I claim to be. But as a composer, I think how would a gamelan instrument fit into what I'm writing? Musicians have always played other people's music. Borrowing is not the same as appropriation."

He observes that artists will always find ways to bridge gaps and throughout his career, he has worked with musicians whose language he may not understand but with whom he could communicate through music: "The only way we are going to find balance in the world today is to work with other people."

He is chuffed to receive the Cultural Medallion and adds: "It's an affirmation that the contribution I've tried to make is recognised. It's a great honour and I can't help but be happy and pleased about it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2019, with the headline 'A Westerner with interest in South-east Asian music'. Subscribe