Profile: Elaine Chan

Published on 24 May 2016

Songwriter Elaine Chan is the go-to girl for music projects ranging from theatre hits to telly game shows.

BY JO TAN

“Why be precious? I write songs knowing they may be discarded because they don’t fit in the final show,” says composer Elaine Chan, who for the past 30 or so years, has been creating tunes for musicals, parades, advertisements, game shows… the list goes on. “If it’s a good tune, it will come back to you someday, in a harmony or style of another song somewhere else.”

For a creator of award-winning tunes, Chan is remarkably easy-going about her music getting reworked or even rejected. “Whether you’re writing for a musical, the National Day Parade, or a corporate event, you have to remember it’s a collaboration, and collaborations require give and take. Some people feel that, to a composer, the tune should be the most important and shouldn’t be changed. But if my song doesn’t suit the singer who’s performing it, why can’t I replace or tailor it so it’s more suitable? Then you showcase the singers at their best, and you are also using their voices as vehicles for your writing ability and to carry the message of the overall project.

“I also try to write tuneful, catchy music. If a singer is unable to catch my tune and keeps singing a variation, I won’t necessarily insist he or she gets it right. It might mean the composition isn’t tuneful enough. Besides, music is all about structure. Treat the limitations of a singer, the requirements of the project and so on as part of the structure rather than hurdles to composition, and everything works.”

Composing aside, Chan has been involved in various aspects of the music-making process, from an arranger of other people’s compositions, to musical director, to vocal coach; and sometimes, all of the above.

“When I started doing music for the Dim Sum Dollies, I was rehearsal pianist, vocal coach, music director — sometimes even singing backup vocals in the final production,” she says with a laugh. “In the past, you did everything because budgets were low. As budgets got better, others got hired to fill different roles, and only then did I realise, ‘Oh, these duties can be separated!’ The stress is lessened, but sometimes if you’re a composer, you like to see everything through from inception to final product. I don’t even mind contributing an extra harmony here and there… especially with things like theatre, you can’t go in with the idea of earning money. It takes away the joy of working.”

Chan delights in each and every project. “I love challenges. If something’s outside my comfort zone, it’s a game to be beaten, like when the Dim Sum Dollies need me to write a rap. Or when Mediacorp gets me to create a theme song with the same feel as the theme song of a hit American show, but different. Because they’re not musicians themselves, people sometimes can’t tell you exactly what they want. So I keep listening to everything from period music to dubstep, and watching YouTube to keep abreast of more things to throw into the mix. You can give up on challenges. Or you can keep trying.”

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