"Perhaps it's the idealism in me": a chat with flautist Rit Xu of the Lorong Boys

"Perhaps it's the idealism in me": a chat with flautist Rit Xu of the Lorong Boys

Rit Xu is an award-winning flautist, composer and recording artist. He learned piano as a youngster but turned to the flute at the age of nine. His musical and technical knowledge are guided by considerable formal training at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

He plays classical with Orchestra and has been performing with various bands - both local and overseas - mostly with a keen focus on shaping improvised melodies and pushing boundaries with his craft. He is also a member of the Lorong Boys, a classical-pop fusion group that went viral online in 2014 for a spirited performance they did on an MRT train.

With such a diverse repertoire, Rit is different things to different people. His music transcends musical boundaries: be it paying homage to jazz’s greats and their classics such as ‘Giant Steps’, ‘Trains’ or the melodic ‘Rainbow Connection’, as well as ballads like ‘The Nearness of You’ and even ‘Angela’, a theme song from the 70s sitcom Taxi. While searching for his voice, he draws inspiration from influential instrumentalists and practitioners of jazz.

We spoke to Rit to find out what inspires such passion in him, his childhood and his thoughts on the Singaporean music landscape.

Let’s go way back, when you were in primary school and performing in various settings and occasions. What are some of the memories and is there a show that stuck in your head or that you recalled fondly?

My very first public performance would have been at an old folks’ home and the audiences didn’t seem to express much interest while I was at it. It could be, on that particular day, they were tired and I was imposing on their afternoon naps. I felt a bit disappointed and wasn’t appreciated. But subsequently I got over that.

I had many other performance opportunities following that, primarily orchestrated by my parents who seemed to be connected to the industry. At that age, I wasn’t sure if I knew what I was doing; I wasn’t nervous even though I was thrown into the solo situation since I was very young and I merely played as I was told. As I got older, like about 12 or 13, I became more self-aware. Now, it’s not so much about playing solo and craving the attention but rather about delivering the message and being able to express what I want through the music, and especially with a group of like minded musicians and listeners. That’s the ultimate satisfaction for me.

What went through your seven-year-old head when you quit playing piano, besides giving grief to your tutor? At 11, when you fell in love with flute, how did you know that was it?

At that age, I knew that many people were playing the piano and to me, it was conventional. I just wanted to play something different. And when I heard the sound of the flute, it totally captured me and that seal[ed] the deal. Never looked back since.

Did you know, as a child, that you wanted to be a musician?

At nine years old, I had ‘gigs’ lined up by my parents, primarily my late dad who was an active keyboardist and a music director. All I knew was to show up on time and play the music. At that age, I doubt I [was] thinking of a career in music. All I knew was that when I played the flute onstage, it was something that brought smiles onto the faces and I relished those moments.

Was there any romantic notion of being a musician?

Nope. Right from the start, I knew it [wasn’t] for fame or fortune. The curious and eager part of me, has developed this deep relationship with music and improvisations that I will gladly do it over and over again, especially with like-minded musicians, even if no one is watching. Perhaps it’s the idealism in me.

Share with us your thoughts and insights into music’s ongoing evolution and its role in contemporary society. Has the role of music changed or is it still evolving?

Music has always been part of every culture. All kinds of settings, rituals, ceremonies. Music plays an important role in society. Regardless of genres, music is important to the well-being of humanity. People rely on music for comfort and connection. What’s different today is the delivery of music. Most of it is through devices such as phones, via channels such as Spotify, Apple Music.

Having said that, even though our consumption habits have been altered by new technology, I feel that live music still has a place in society. People need to get out there, perhaps make it a social activity. Live performance is where you get the most impact out of it. Whether it is a connection you seek or to some, it may be a form of escapism (or a bit of both), it’s still worthwhile to go out and see a live concert.

Take us through your preparation before a huge concert/performance - both mental and physical.

I practice. I enjoy, it but there is always the inertia. It’s what Steven Pressfield in The War of Art called the resistance, our inner adversary. I enjoy practicing but getting into it sometimes takes a bit of time. But when I’m in it, I’m totally in it. It’s a bit of procrastination but getting into it was hard at first. That’s my story. More of a mental hurdle. I work pretty well with deadlines and being too flexible doesn’t help the cause.

You’ve previously performed alongside Jeremy Monteiro, Joanna Dong, Nathan Hartono, Inch Chua, to name a few, and also currently an integral member of the Lorong Boys. How have these partnerships and performance opportunities influenced or informed the way you play and your artistic process?

I enjoy working with a variety of artistes and always look forward to such opportunities. Flute is a versatile instrument and it complements and blends in well with many musical instruments and across genres. Over the last few years, I have been fortunate to share the stage with a rather diverse group of musicians who bring with them great energy and a penchant for distinct and catchy melodies. Like them, I believe that memorable melodies resonate and enhance the overall listening experience.

In such occasions, I’m comfortable playing the role of an accompanist. I adapt based on what is needed – be it written notes or tasked to inject my creative take accordingly. Often, I tend to play second fiddle and let the music speaks for itself, rather than trying to overstate or display virtuosity that is self-serving.

Depending on the style of music and settings, I liken classical music performance to a stage play where you are portraying a character and your lines are scripted. Having said that, no stage actors are the same even though it is the same script – and that to me is the ‘magical’ part. Jazz performance at the highest level is like close friends having a candid conversation. You don’t know what is going to happen, but just like any real-life meaningful conversations, it entails listening, trust and mutual support—and that is where the magic happens.

What do you wish or hope to see in the Singaporean or Asian music landscape in the next few years?

It’s been overly mentioned but it’s important that Singaporean support their local musicians. We need to keep alive the audience and having institutional support is also important.

As audiences, we need to be receptive to local productions and as artists, we need to up the game and not merely focused on the business side of things. Focus on the craft and think about how you as an artist can play a role to better shape the music, find ways to connect and bring it across to the audience.

Keep up with Rit Xu by following him on Instagram at @ritxuflute