It's Payback Time For Tang

It's Payback Time For Tang

Date
Saturday, 19 November 2011

Media Type
The Straits Times Life!

This has been a year of changes for composer Kelly Tang: he turns 50, receives the Cultural Medallion and is preparing for a new post as Dean of the School of the Arts.

Currently associate professor of music at Nanyang Technological University's National Institute of Education, he is excited about working with younger musicians.

"One of the great things about teaching is that you are learning as well," enthuses the career educator, who began by teaching music in Raffles Junior College in the 1980s.

He also hopes to be a mentor to young talent, just as he was helped in his time by mentors including composer Leong Yoon Pin, who died in April, aged 79.

"Mr Leong taught by example," he says, recalling how the man known as the father of Singapore's composers gave him lessons that lasted a lifetime.

Leong was the mentor assigned to oversee Tang's progress as a young teacher in the 1980s and after some time, the then budding composer "worked up the courage" to ask him for lessons.

The older man told him to first focus on the basics of writing counterpoint and harmony for a few years, then to return when he felt ready.

"I never went back to him," says Tang with a laugh. "To this day, I'm working on the exercises he set me."

The older musician would continue to give him feedback on some of his music but Tang remains most appreciative of that single sentence of advice.

"Underneath whatever musical construction we put up, the foundation has to be very strong," he explains.

"That's what I tell my own students now."

He, too, began his love affair with music in his student days – his banker father and teacher mother sent him for piano lessons at the age of six and in his secondary school days, he played the tuba in the Anglo Chinese School band.

"At the time, the tuba parts were not the most interesting but that was a blessing in disguise," he says.

"As I was not doing much, I was able to observe what the other musicians were doing. I was learning, seeing how all the parts fit together."

He began writing songs in his school days, went on to helm a Christian gospel pop group and continued to play bass guitar in Anglo Chinese Junior College and the army band.

Fully supported by his parents and younger sister, he did a music degree at York University in Toronto, later following up with a master's at Northwestern University in Chicago. He also has a doctorate from Michigan State University.

While exposed to Chinese opera and Malay and Indian rhythms in Singapore, it was at York that he fell in love with Indian Carnatic music and even learnt to play the mridungam drum.

"I figured if I can handle Indian Carnatic rhythms, I can handle anything else," he says with a laugh.

His music draws on various themes, from Chinese opera to gospel pop to Malay and Indian folk songs.

His professional debut, Apocalypso, included all these influences and was played by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2000 Singapore Arts Festival.

Four years later, he wrote a Symphonic Suite On A Set Of Local Tunes for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and this has since been performed by the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra of Japan, the Royal Thai Navy Orchestra and the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra.

He has written about 60 pieces and his tunes have been performed by noted musicians such as local jazzman Jeremy Monteiro and home-grown string ensemble T'ang Quartet – they recorded his score for a 2006 documentary about female soldiers in China, Feet Unbound.

In 2008, he received the Composers' And Authors' Society Of Singapore (Compass) award for artistic excellence.

Still, the father of two sons aged 17 and 13 – he is married to Tan Mui Tin, 48, who works in a non-profit group – finds each new composition a new challenge, perhaps taking a week for two bars.

"Every new score turns me into an amateur," he says.

"When you see something drop out onto the page, it's like a miracle. But then, you still have to write the next bar."

'I never went back to him. To this, day I'm working on the exercises he set me'

Kelly Tang (above) on his attempt to take music lessons from his mentor, composer Leong Yoon Pin.

Source: The Straits Times Life!, sph