My name is Joanna Funk, and this podcast is an interview with Aven Yap. Aven lives in Brisbane. He's a classical pianist and he's also a filmmaker. His short film, 'Piano Mums' is being made into a feature film so he talks about that journey, and about what he's passionate about in film.
Along the way we touch on language, studying music, and a bit about being a migrant family from Malaysia.
There's a full transcript of the podcast in my blog, with links to the short film Piano Mums, and where to find Aven on social media.
I hope you enjoy the podcast.
Aven, you're a writer, you're a producer, you're a classical pianist and a composer. Asian creative living in Brisbane!
That's correct. I remembered that you did audition for the role of the mother in Piano Mums, my short film.
You were sitting so quietly. I would not have known that you were the — well I suppose I should have realised you were the writer for this....
(Laughs) The one Asian in the room!
I pitched it in 2016. We were in production in 2017. It was around 2017 when we were casting. We were quite worried about that casting process because we were a bit inexperienced with looking for Asian women in lead roles.
At the time it felt like a groundbreaking thing. It was a big deal for us — trying to cast this Asian-led production.
I have to ask how autobiographical is it? I mean, you're an accomplished pianist and you went into film instead.
Yeah, it's semi-autobiographical
You dedicated it to your mother as well.
Yeah, it's true. Look. One part of me wants to believe that this is the story of me that could have happened if I chose to really pursue music, and wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
In 2014 when I was in Grade 12, I had decided — I'm a Level 4 AMEB (Professional Diploma level). I was overwhelmingly average. I was just a nobody in piano. But I had this love for music and I would spend hours just trawling through videos on YouTube and learning and absorbing as much as I could about music. I just couldn't get enough of it! But there were so many ideas in my head which I just didn't have the skill or the technique to execute with my fingers.
I decided at the start of Year 12, I need to know that I've got a shot. Otherwise I'm just going to live the rest of my life, dreaming of the "could haves" and what I did not. So I talked to my mum, who I've dedicated the short film to, that I wanted to change teachers. She put me in training with this amazing hyper famous, talented Taiwanese pianist in Brisbane, who in my opinion, charged way too much money but she really delivered results. When I started with her, she charged ninety bucks an hour and she would do minimum two hour lessons twice a week, and she expected, cash payments in advance, ten weeks in advance. So, for my family — my mum was a primary school teacher at the time — like that wasn't something that she could afford.
So she started a beauty salon, she was literally bankrolling my training and I just saw the amount of sacrifice that my mother put to support this dream that she didn't even know would be successful or not!
Maybe it's like this immigrant parent thing. They will do anything for their children, and I just wanted to really capture that sentiment in this short film that I wrote called Piano Mums. My mum is nothing like Xiaohua in the film, never told me to practise she never forced me to do anything.
She was such a hands-off parent. When I was doing piano lessons with my Suzuki method teacher — I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Suzuki method, but it's very much about the parents must work together with the teacher to support the child. My teacher at the time always complained: You know, Aven, you're the only one out of all of my students whose parents never show up. They just drop you off and you do your own thing. She was fine because I was a very self-motivated pianist, but she found that bizarre. But no, my parents are just always, just always working!
Now that I'm getting older and my parents are starting to reflect on their lives, giving up amazing careers in insurance in Malaysia to come here with zero transferable skills, pretty much nothing to see their name and no contacts, no networks having to start again.
It blows my mind. I don't think I would have the resolve to do that for my own children.
Oh you don't know. We become different people when we become parents.
So, you're from Malaysia! I only saw that today! It's like Hey! He's Malaysian Chinese! When, where...
All of that.
I was born in Seremban. It's like the state that's next to the one where Kuala Lumpur is, and I grew up in the KL region.
I was there for the first six years of my life and did my first year of primary school there, in a Chinese school. I went to a Chinese school when I didn't know Chinese. English was actually my first language. So I had no friends for a whole year! Simply because I couldn't communicate with them.
You spoke English at home?
I mostly spoke English at home just because my mum decided that was the language she wanted to raise me with. But my dad thought he's Chinese, that's our heritage. He needs to learn Chinese. And in his wisdom he really set me up to fail in my first year of primary school education. I mean, it sucked, but you know, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. In all cases I couldn't understand the culture of the schools that I was going to, just very confused for the first five years of being in Australia.
What are you?
I'm — on my dad's side is Hakka, my mom's side is Hokkien. They speak Cantonese and I speak in English. My dad speaks to me in Mandarin, it's very Malaysian, typical Malaysian to speak, you know, three languages, three dialects.
Both my parents are Hakka. But my dad spoke English and my mum spoke Hakka, Cantonese, cause she grew up as a child in Hong Kong, and Mandarin. And then she didn't want to teach me any Chinese because I grew up in, I was born in London. So she said: I'm not going to teach you any Chinese because you're going to have all English friends and you're going to lose it. Whatever I bother teaching you, you will lose it, because you don't use it.
Then about twenty years later, she was like, Aiya! That was the biggest mistake in my life! But you — you're learning it now.
Yeah, no it's been a bit of a journey. I started really showing an interest in Mandarin when Australia and China were like best mates. So always Kumbaya all the time, holding hands, singing songs together. Both countries were in a really positive place with each other. Chinese films are coming to Australia all the time. I worked on quite a few of them actually, and knowing Chinese and just even being a Chinese face was such an asset, to aggregate the cross cultures of the Aussie crews, who just couldn't understand why the Chinese crews were working the way they did, why they always were shouting all the time! I could be this conduit between the two crews, and that was a real asset. I thought it was a wonderful experience to be able to stand in the gap, and have my third culture be of value to a production company and a team. But of course the story is very different now since COVID started. It's like a new cold war, honestly. Strangely enough when I started learning Chinese again — cause I was one of those typical immigrant kids who went to Saturday Chinese school and resented every minute of it. And just spoke to my Chinese school friends in English and made all the Chinese teachers furious!
"You will speak Chinese! You will speak Chinese!" So I was one of those kids, and my parents eventually just gave up and said, all right, whatever, you just do your own thing. But as an adult and as a professional, I was really starting to see that Chinese is becoming more and more valuable in an industry that's demanding it more.
So I decided to go back for work purposes, but the personal benefit has been a lot more rewarding. Especially because my dad, he's always been the big champion of Speak Chinese in The Family.
So my dad, he has always spoken to me in Chinese. He's always sent me WhatsApp voice memos in Mandarin. Like, Make sure you eat your vitamins, take the bins out, wear a mask, put onion water in your room, to stop COVID. So he's always been like that. I think for many years of my high school life, especially I resented not understanding him and why he would always insist on speaking to me in Mandarin.
But now that I've learned a bit more and I've got my Hanyu Shuiping, my HSK level 3 qualifications that I at least can have Mandarin and conversate with my dad now, and I'm starting to understand what he's trying to say and what he writes to me in Chinese. The connection becomes a lot stronger when you know your heritage and language a bit more.
I bet he must be so happy about that.
Our relationship has really strengthened. I certainly saw the value of it and I think it's given me more than I expected it would.
I went to a high school where if you were in the music program, you were one of the jocks. So many of the friends that I had wanted to go to the Con. Many of them wanted to be musical theater performers, jazz vibraphonists, drummers, guitarists, vocalists and conductors, and those opportunities were there for us in high school.
All of our music teachers, they used to be composers for orchestras and they used to produce shows at the Queensland Theatre Company in QPAC.
That's great to see isn't it? To actually see creative people surviving, and having decent incomes and doing influential things.
That's when it really all started for me when I was in Year 11. A friend of mine was doing Film and Television class said, "Aven, our class is about to be cancelled because we don't have enough students. Please leave Chemistry and join ours." So I did that and fell in love with the medium, with the potential of it. I found that I had quite a knack for it and just like the discipline that I had for music, and the obsession that you need to get something right and perfect. It was just so fitting with filmmaking.
I feel training to be a musician is like learning a new language in a way. Learning that language of discipline, of getting things right. Of phrasing, of trying to communicate an idea in your head through another medium, just was such a natural fit for filmmaking and then writing.
I just really love paying attention to details and the satisfaction of seeing people understand what you're trying to communicate. As you get better with the language and you're able to communicate ideas better, it's just very satisfying when something in here that's just like chemicals and neurons, comes out of your mouth or into your fingers and onto a page or onto a screen and people start crying or they laugh out loud or they genuinely are like, Oh my God, I can't look at it anymore!
That's such a satisfying feeling.
It must be wonderful to sit and watch an audience watching your work and seeing the response.
I remember the first time Piano Mums was screened in front of my lecturers and my other fellow students, I was shaking in my seat, where the leg sounded like rumbling on the wooden floors as it was very hard for me to try and just enjoy the show, I was so afraid of what the response would be. But thankfully it was received really well, and even after we went to film festivals, especially like mothers, would find me afterwards and say: Are you the Aven Yap who wrote that film about the mum? And they would say, "I've never felt more validated of all the sacrifices I gave to my own kids than after watching that movie." Oh my God! That's the highest compliment I could possibly get!
You have a SoundCloud account. You got a load of compositions on there.
I found SoundCloud when I was in high school and...
I'm sorry! Have I dug in somewhere... Do you wanna just skip that?
It's just such a strange bit that no one, I mean, a lot of people talk about my films but no one really talks about my composition background. SoundCloud became quite popular in like the mid 2010s. I got a copy of Sibelius from a friend of mine and I downloaded it into my Windows Vista computer. I just started like messing around making music and I just found it to be so fun to do.
So all the orchestral stuff, that is all you making all the tracks?
It's just me. I had a really nice sound pack which came with my Sibelius CD. So that's probably why it sounded not half bad. Cause I know with the midi, it's like Ughh! You want to sort of shoot yourself, how awful the midi tracks sound.
But with Sibelius I wanted to write music and I became really interested in orchestration. I bought a copy of Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration and learned about what sort of instruments paired well together. How do you manipulate timbre? And how does tempo affect players?
All of these things were quite fascinating to me and it gave me this huge tool belt of things that I could express ideas in my head. Once again, expressing ideas in my head! And so in high school they make you write compositions. The first one that I had to do was like, oh, you have to write a three-minute composition inspired by the Renaissance style in a mode.
And you really just need like one, accompaniment part, one vocalist. I didn't want to do that! I wrote a six-minute piece with descant recorder, tambourines, and the whole Renaissance secular ensemble. I just had so much fun trying to make it feel like something I wanted to listen to!
Of course, a couple of my music teachers went, Aven this is far too much effort A — Plus, but you know, really a pleasure to listen to all of this effort and attention to detail you put into this music.
If you're behaving like that, the calling is just so strong, isn't it?
It felt so clear to me when I just couldn't get enough. I would spend the lunchtimes in the music rooms messing around in Sibelius when my friends were playing hand ball.
In your film how much of the music is also your work?
Well, in Piano Mums, none of the music was mine. There was music by Rachmaninoff. There's music by Ravel — but there was just so much music all that was selected by me. I was doing a lot of music supervision and making sure that the editors knew where to cut the music. It was even in script where things had to be cut to, what music fit well with the scene and what I wanted to say.
On that side of things, in a way I did control all of the music and sound language of that film. Nowadays, I'm writing a feature adaptation of Piano Mums, and I spend more time behind the piano than I do in front of the keyboard. Sometimes, when I'm struggling with a story problem, I like to present it to myself as a music problem.
I don't know if that makes any sense to you?
No you have to keep going, I'm trying to..
Yeah. Cause I find that when I'm really stuck with the character, what I'm doing now is I like to write a song about them or what they would like to sing. If the film was like the Tick, Tick... Boom! version of Piano Mums, or The Greatest Showman version of Piano Mums, and all the characters could sing about what they wanted, what they were afraid of.
If I ever got stuck I would just get behind the piano and I would think of a melody which I knew. A melody which felt like, Oh yeah, that song by Grieg could have lyrics behind it. I would try and fit lyrics and rhymes into them from the character's point of view.
Then suddenly it would become so much clearer what they wanted, what they were afraid of, and when I went back into the script...
Oh that's lovely!
I had this catchy tune in my head. "Oh yeah, this is what I want. I want to know that I've got a shot. I want to know that I don't want to regret what I did not — do."
Suddenly the writing becomes so much easier because you know what the characters want and it's a song that is what feels right. Any way, it's part of my process which I'm really enjoying, and glad that I found this marriage between what I used to be amazing at, but didn't use so much of, and what this new skill that I'm still quite a — I'm still a new writer, and I've never really done much of this before!
But it's like playing to my strengths to really support something that I'm still learning.
Yes! To draw from your strength and take it in a new direction. Are you still with Orange?
Yeah, I'm still with Orange and I'm still their Content Assistant, and also the Longform Business Assistant at The Post Lounge, which I'm sure you would have seen in my LinkedIn.
Even your day job is creative!
It is hard work and it's definitely been a steep learning curve because I came into the job as a first timer. Yes, I have written scripts. Yes, I've done development before, but doing it full-time, in a bonafide company, that's looking for financing and then trying to get things off the ground and trying to make it a profitable business.
That's a whole other ballpark. It took a long time for me to find my footing with the pace of it and the different skills and ways of thinking and approaching a project and talking about your work in a way that gets people really excited.
That's such a skill that takes years to refine and perfect.
That's a very well-rounded exposure.
Exactly. My whole career up to April last year has been in Production. So I've done everything since the money has gone into the bank, until we deliver. Now, I'm learning all about everything that comes BEFORE money comes into the bank.
You must find that being
and Post and everything, must help you tremendously in how you make a pitch and how you approach the business people. Because you can describe the product so much better than somebody who doesn't make, MAKE!
I can start to see where the diversity of experience that I've had in Asia, in Australia, in Production, in Development will be useful. Because my music background makes me know that I know how much it'll cost to train these actors — how to play piano and get these songs right. I know how to choreograph. I think a lot of filmmakers in Australia, they want to show classical music in their films to give it an air of gravitas and whatnot. But I don't think they understand the level of choreography needed....
You don't do the thing where they hide their hands then.
Exactly. I don't want that. I want this to be so authentic where the audience will look at the film and think: Holy crap, these actors actually know how to play or, they actually look like they're the ones playing it. Because it's a film about classical music where you CAN'T cheat.
You can't just cut corners on these things. You need a musician who's played piano, to know how much it's going to cost to train these musicians to make them look virtuosic enough, know where the camera needs to be. As a musician, and as someone who's watched music films and loves films about classical music, it's so frustrating when they get it wrong.
Or cut the scene so that you get the music but you're not seeing the bit you want to see.
Exactly. So I guess the overall point I wanted to make was, when you have a diverse variety of experiences — you've been in the different sides of making movies and making content, you start to know where it really counts to spend your money.
Do you like it? Do you like doing the business end as well?
I think I'm really loving the business end, cause I've always wanted to learn about it, but I don't think I've really had the opportunities until now.
You're an advocate for diversity. I can see that so much of your work and the people that you're associated with.
Actually, I only want white people to be in my movies!
What are you most passionate about in terms of what you want us all to see?
What a question!
What do you really care and want people to know more about? Is there any in particular or just, I want to be a champion of things that don't get seen.
I've never really seen myself as a diversity champion.
In Malaysia, you see it all the time. Like three races living in harmony, effortlessly multilingual families and communities and friendships. That's just what I want to see more of. Especially cultural and linguistic diversity.
It's a big passion of mine. I think so many of the times when Australia has tried, or at least the West has tried to portray cultural and linguistic diversity, it's always been, so I don't know. It's hard to describe — it's quite one note and not very layered or nuanced. Effortlessly multilingual stories is what I really love and want to see more of and those stories are what I'm passionate about.
Effortlessly multilingual. Sometimes you don't even need subtitles. Make the audience keep up with you. Don't try to pander to them.
I suppose I phrased the question wrong. I mean, you're not an advocate for diversity. You're just — we are just considered diverse! More power to you all, young people doing great things. And it is for us because it's not for Chinese people who aren't in the West. They've got their own stuff! I mean they don't care about Simu Liu. It's only for us that it's a big deal.
Yeah. I'm just trying to do my own thing. It's become this amazing coming of age migrant family drama! It's opened up a Pandora's Box of nuance and themes about family, and the obligation that the second generation has to their parents and the obligations the parents feel towards their children. It's very contemporary. It's got as much Grieg and Mozart as it does Stevie Wright and San Cisco and The Jungle Giants. It's going to be such a musical extravaganza!
It must be so hard to distill what to keep in and what to keep out.
It's a big problem I'm having with the script now, which is why I think the consultant that I'm working with has really found something with the music and songwriting, because he said, Aven, every time you write a song, you simplify that into character.
From Piano Mums the short film, to this and even the completion of it. It's a long journey.
It's been six years to date and making the film will easily take three years if you include the post-production and the delivery and the marketing and all that stuff.
I think what I didn't really understand when I was starting this, was how much I needed to prepare for success, not just for failure. Because I pitched this idea to Joe Wilkie, the short film producer. I told him, Oh, I used to perform in eisteddfods and always been beaten by that one 12-year-old Asian kid who just could play Chopin Etude No. 11, like he could do it with his eyes closed. And I wanted to do a story about what it takes to raise a prodigy. It was just such a simple idea. I thought, ah, I just want to pitch this idea, fulfill an assignment and get it over and done with in six months.
And it's been six years. Both state and federal funding bodies are throwing money at this. So many different workshops that are looking for emerging talent, have selected me based on this project: let it be developed into a stage play, let it be developed in more development time and funding.
It's attracted so much support that I never imagined I would get from that tiny, "Oh, maybe it could be this, is this anything?" Sometimes we need to put a higher dollar value on the assets we have that are uniquely ours — that we are uniquely qualified to tell.
Because when I started, I had no money. I had no experience. I had no connections. But had I known that my own unique life experience was one of the most valuable assets now worth — let me try and calculate this, about $40,000 in development investment. Had I known that I would've received that much money today, just because I had a unique perspective, I would have really prepared myself differently.
I would have thought about things in a whole other way so that I could set myself up six years down the track for success.
When they pitch you with funding and stuff, do they, uh, does it affect your creative process? Will it will affect how you make the story?
It's just more motivating because now people are backing you because they now have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. That's how I see money coming in — is that people want to put skin in the game, in you, and that's a really positive thing! You should want to have other people putting skin in the game, aside from yourself, because that sucks! Taking all the risk sucks! But when you have other people who really believe in you and want to put — take money out of their pocket and put it into your bank account! It's such a tick of approval for me, in what I'm passionate about, in what I know works. When somebody else wants to say that as well, you just got to say: Hell yes! People believe in me. Let's just go for it!
I think you're well on your way, Aven! That's a great way to wrap it up. Thank you!
No worries! I'd love to see what you come up with afterwards.