You juggle two huge jobs – being a composer while also working as the Director of Artistic Planning for the Hong Kong Philharmonic.
The job of Director of Artistic Planning has been something I’ve been actively interested in for over fifteen years! I’m really passionate about orchestral music and including contemporary programming in a traditional setting, so working in artistic planning seemed like a good fit. Hong Kong is my hometown as well, so it is very special to work with the Philharmonic. When I was completing my masters, I was planning on working in artistic administration; I wasn’t going to be a performer or an instrumentalist, and it is very difficult to make a full-time career out of composition, particularly straight out of study. I started to gather work experience at festivals and arts centers, while continuing to pursue composing. I spent a few years working with Boosey and Hawkes, looking after commissions, which was an interesting insight into the industry. It gave me a very solid base of knowledge and a lay of the land, I suppose. I was concurrently trying to get my music out into the world, studying for my PhD while working full time, and I had no plans when I suddenly got a phone call from the BBC commissioning me for a 20-minute orchestral work to be performed at the Proms. Honestly, I would have been blown away with a 5-minute solo piano commission, so that was exciting. I had worked with them a few years before, through a young composer opportunity and it was great to work with them again for the Proms.
So, they already knew your aesthetic?
They did, and I think that commission really kickstarted my career. A year before the commission occurred, I did a magazine interview where they asked what my dream commission would be, and in three seconds flat, I’d said BBC Proms. It’s always been a special concert for me – I remember being 11 or 12 when I went for the first time and it left such a huge impression. The performance was from the European Union Youth and the theatre was completely packed, and there I was in my restricted view seat! So, it was really exciting to be included as a composer all those years later. By the time the Proms opportunity came around, I had been living in the UK for 17 years, so it felt like time for a change. I ended up moving back to Hong Kong and became composer in residence for the Philharmonic and took up a position as part time lecturer. So really, before I started in Artistic Planning, I had basically just been composing for a decade.
How did you decide which commissions to take during those years?
I tried to find bigger commissions, therefore working on fewer larger pieces every year. Quality was my number one priority - I wanted to write pieces that I would be proud of 20 years on. I wanted to spend more time on less compositions, I suppose. Of course, I did some other things during that time – teaching and arranging – but composing was still my main job until this one came along!
Which was the job you wanted!
Exactly. Somehow, I got it. I think it was partly because I already had a great relationship with the orchestra and Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s artistic director. Our relationship was purely professional, we never chatted about anything but music, but he was fantastic to work with. He is very supportive and expects and wants me to continue composing.
How do you balance both?
Honestly, I don’t know! For a few months when I first took the job, I only wrote three notes! The beginning is the trickiest time; everything is time consuming because you’re just settling in. Now I know my way around better, and understand how things work, so it’s about time management.
I imagine the work you did at Boosey and Hawkes while you were studying brought up similar challenges?
Yes, absolutely – there was always so much happening. In artistic planning, I think it is similar – there are so many things taking place at the same time. It’s all about coordination – of people, of opinions – and making sure everything works for everyone!
Does having such an intimate knowledge of the personnel help when you’re working on compositions for the orchestra?
It helps a lot. I think I can be a little more experimental, and workshop things relatively comfortably, because of my relationship with the ensemble. I think it’s also great looking at it the other way – because the players knew me when I started working in artistic planning. When you’re a composer that has been commissioned by a large ensemble, you don’t have the luxury of time, and you usually work with the players for a week, attend the performance, take your bow and then disappear. It’s really nice to have a pre-existing relationship in place. I suppose now I just can’t program my own music! Of course, this is something that we spoke about at the beginning and if the board or management wanted to commission one of my works they would do so directly, so I wouldn’t have to negotiate with myself.
I’m sure you would be a very harsh negotiator with yourself.
Of course, I would try to bring the price down! But in all seriousness, I’m incredibly lucky to work with such talented and supportive people.
We’ve spoken a lot about how difficult it is to make a living from composition, and I wonder what other skills young composers should be trying to develop while they’re at university to help prepare themselves?
Firstly, I think when you are at university you have a great opportunity to experiment and there should not be any pressure to write in any particular style. You should always write what you honestly want to write, but many people feel that they should write in a certain style that either pleases the teacher or the examiner. I rarely entered any composition competitions because of that. Experiment with creative ideas, then try and create opportunities with your friends. I think it is okay to write things for your colleagues to play, particularly as you’re building your portfolio, but make sure those pieces stay true to your central musical identity. I think that’s really important.
You also spent time concentrating on developing your artistic administration skills – has that helped your career as a composer, overall?
I absolutely think arts administration is something that all composers or musicians should have basic knowledge of, because until you get the job you’re after, you’re going to have to look after yourself. It’s always very useful to know a bit about how agreements work so you can negotiate your own contracts and commissions – it helps you protect yourself. Any kind of industry knowledge will help along the way, that’s for certain. Even if you don’t really want to work in an administrative environment, at least get to know how the industry works. It makes you more realistic about what kind of path your career might take. You learn how important self-promotion is, and how to do that tactfully, because if you don’t write to people and introduce yourself, who is going to come and find you? I think it’s really easy to forget that no one is actually going to come and knock on your door if they don’t know where you live.
And learning from your mistakes will help, right?
You can learn from all things, but I think you learn the most from bad compositions – yours and others. I think you should always be listening, and not just to music by composers you’re a mega fan of. Try and identify what you like and dislike about things you hear and why. I think it’s also crucial that you listen to music that sits outside of the classical world. I listen to all sorts of rock and post-rock bands. I love Radiohead! I am interested in music that is innovative. I also try and remind people that nationalism shouldn’t block your view of the composition world. My music does not specifically represent my Chinese heritage. I think it’s great to explore that, but I don’t think you should feel any pressure to sound like other composers from your country. Music is more about music than it is about nationality. And when you think like that, you invite everyone to listen.
The Hong Kong Philharmonic present The Ring Cycle Part 4 - Götterdämmerung at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on January 18 and 21. More information and tickets available here.