By Saidah Rastam
This is a fairy tale. This is, for me, the ultimate success story.
Chong Kee-Yong, 33, grew up in a palm oil plantation in Kluang, Johor. His mother and father were and are farmers. His father wanted him to study economics. Chong ‘escaped’ from home, and to the Malaysian Institute of Art in Kuala Lumpur, where he became a music student. He continued his studies at the Xi’an Conservatory in China. His professor recommended him to a friend at the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music of Brussels. For two years, he studied in the day, and worked late nights washing dishes and serving in a Taiwanese restaurant. His wife, whom he met at MIA, stayed in Malaysia during his time in China, but joined him in Brussels, where she became an outstanding piano performance student.
Okay, get ready to shake your head in sheer amazement. In 1999 he won the Prix Marcel Hastir from the Belgique Academie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts (BELGIUM) for his String Quartet No, 2 ‘SCAR’ (1999). The following year he won the 1st prize at the 18th Concorso lnternazionale di Composizione ICOMS 2000, Turino, Italy. The year after that the 2nd prize at the 8th International Mozart Competition, 2001, Salzburg, Austria, for his piano solo work ‘Metamorphosis III’ and a ‘Special prize’ from Universal Edition for his violin solo work ‘For Another Better World’. That was followed by the 1st prize at the 4th International Andrzej Panufnik Competition for Young Composers, 2002, Karkow, Poland; the Grand Prix at the 2nd Seoul International Competition for composers, 2003, Korea; the 1st prize at the Max-Reger-Tage International Composition Competition 2003, Weiden, Germany, for his piano trio ‘Epitaphe sans mots’; and the Prix Special from the Academie Internationale de Lutece at the Grand Concours International 2003, music section, for his ‘I hear the wind calling’ which he composed for the MPO Composers’ Forum last year, and was nominated for Best Original Composition at the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards.
At the end of his studies, he obtained his Master of Composition with the highest distinction from the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music of Brussels. His work has been performed at prestigious festivals, and he has attended masterclasses with, among others, Salvatore Sciarrino. Last year alone he completed 11 works, all commissioned, and he is determined to be a composer and nothing else.
What a story. I didn’t know all this before I met him. Chong is back in KL for the MPO Composers’ Forum, and his largest work to date, for full orchestra, will be performed at the DFP on Thursday March 11th. Our first two hours were spent talking about compositional process and training. It was riveting in itself. It was only at the end that I asked him about his personal life. The story he unfolded left me truly agog. I have rarely met a musician so interesting outside his work. So many things to ask, so hard to fathom. The interview was long; I propose to share only a few (amazing) answers here! To questions as follows, and Chong’s answers in his endearing syntax:
Saidah Rastam: New music is not easy to access. From harmonies and developments to timbres and sonic spectra is quite a shift, whichever way you slice it. How did you go from a music-less childhood to being in the thick of new music invention?
Chong Kee-Yong: I heard classical music for the first time, when my friends played me recordings in secondary school. I felt weird sensations. At MIA, I was just a music theory student. When I went to China, Professor YuYan Rao said I had potential as a composer. He said, “Don’t think of yourself as a composer. Just study hard.” He recommended me to his friend in Brussels. Europe really opened my mind. In China, I felt like a student. In Europe I felt like a composer. I spent all my time in the library, analysing scores. Ligeti, Lutoslawski.
For the first 2 years, I didn’t have any social or musical life. I spent all my time in the library or at the Taiwanese restaurant. It was a dark period, struggling, money crisis. Then I started receiving commissions. Thereafter, I made friends, met an ensemble which made recordings of my work for free. After that it became easier.
At the music conservatory, they teach general things – harmony, counterpoint, fugues. This teaches you to be a technician, but not a composer. After that you have to move around, find out what’s suitable for you, what is not, and it’s difficult. Some people give up.
But harmony, counterpoint, when you learn something very strict, all this is very useful as a composer. You don’t lost in the freedom, if you work with restrictions. Otherwise when you go to a bigger space, you won’t know how to handle it.
In Europe, composers follow masterclasses. They don’t teach the technique. The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino for example focused on the impact of the music. You begin also to learn how to be a composer, how to live with your composition, how to live with yourself. Contemporary music is not easy to appreciate. This maestro (Sciarrino) was also struggling for 40 to 50 years, before Europe recognised his music. Then you see a model of yourself. If you want to do more easy work, you have a more easy life. But if you want to do something out of the mainstream, you’ll have a more difficult life.
Speaking of which, how do you earn your living as a freelance composer in Belgium?
If I settle down as a teacher, it will block my ideas. When you spend time with students, your mind goes with your students. I just want to compose. Last year I composed 11 pieces, all commissioned. Now I have a family, I would like a permanent job, but not fulltime; maybe seminars. In Belgium I am recognised as a Flemish composer, so I get Government help. Sometimes I win prize money. My professor calls me “the professional prizewinner!”
Both your Forum pieces have to do with nature. Has this anything to do with your training in China?
If you look at Chinese history, painting, poems, Chinese culture is very deep in nature, and also with contrasting things. I do this in my music too. If I have a stable sound, I choose a very unstable sound. Like the wind. You can sense it, but you can’t see it or smell it. The dramatic thing is the sense of the moment. Like a painting; especially in an abstract painting, you can’t express it, but the colours work together to create this feeling in you.
I don’t see a piece as having a beginning and an end. Not like the western concept of development from A section to B section. For me music is about evoking sensations. Like a memory – no beginning, no end.
Sometimes the notes are not important at all. The timbre is important. But there are some notes I like, such as F#.
What do you mean?
I always take F# very seriously. Same pitch, but different instruments, different timbres, different vibrations. It creates different emotions.
Your piece for the first stage of the Forum (“I hear the wind calling”) was one of the most experimental things I’ve ever heard and seen the MPO do, with musicians standing in the boxes around the hall, and sounds which stirred me in a way I couldn’t understand. Tell me a little.
Well, in Europe, when I work with an ensemble, they work with contemporary music. They have ideas, experience. The MPO has good technique, but mentally they still have an orchestral approach. I needed to go easy with my requirements. In rehearsal, the viola player told me, “if you want me to play this, you have to change the notes”. I said no. If you are a young composer, they sometimes think you don’t know what you’re doing. But I had written my Viola concerto, I have string quartets, I have studied the instrument. I said, “If you can’t play it, or don’t want to play it, then play what you want. Don’t ask me to change the notes!”
When people play your music, sometimes they think, “I am giving you a chance.” I think no, I can wait until I’m 50 years old. You don’t have to play my music. But this is the key to an artist-you want an audience but you don’t want to need the audience.
When I told my professor in China that I was selected for the MPO, he said, “write something easy, with Malay themes and Chinese themes. More people will like your music.” But that’s not me.
But it’s a good start, because they are willing to explore this, especially Kevin Field, who is very understanding about contemporary music. He is an excellent communicator, between the composer and the orchestra.
What about ‘The Starry Night’s Ripples’ to be premiered this week?
I was inspired by a Van Gogh painting of craziness in the sky, stirring around with blue colour. I used two emotional motifs: the full orchestra sound, and a motif more focused on the sound spectrum of the instrument itself. For instance, the very low of the contrabass and the extreme high of the strings. I always used the interval of a fifth, but using these spectrums, they don’t sounds like fifths. In this I am influenced by Sciarrino.
I suppose your Chinese professor was joking, about “Malay themes” and “Chinese themes”. But those ideas are the main thing on the artistic agenda here in Malaysia, it seems to me. What of a “Malaysian” orchestral sound?
I don’t believe we should try to make a “Chinese sound” or an “Indian sound”. What does it mean when you say this is a “Chinese theme”? George Crumb – his music is full of “Chinese” sensations, like the moon. If you want to categorise, I would categorise him as a Chinese composer! There can be a sharing of the cultures. When I hear the rebab, I like it so much, it’s such a beautiful sound. And the tabla. But I hate “rojak”. Rojak is not so good. We need to do something more meaningful than that. But it’s easy to say, not so easy to achieve!
Your time in the Taiwanese restaurant, how did that come about?
Taiwanese cooking uses a lot of vinegar! Mixed with a sushi taste! I washed the dishes and was a waiter. They didn’t want me to cook, because it wasn’t a Malaysian restaurant! My boss was also a composer; he had been a student in the Vienna Conservatory! But he got married and had a family, so he needed to earn a living, and decided to open a restaurant. His advice to me was, “Kee-Yong, if you want to start a family, don’t be a composer”!
Let that be a lesson to all! Your wife, did she work too?
No, I did not want Ka-Ling to wash dishes, because a pianist’s hands are important. She was very supportive, she said, we’ll struggle for a few years, and only look to the future. The restaurant is now, but music is our whole life. We met at MIA, then we separated when I went to China. She came with me to Brussels, and studied piano performance, which is very competitive. She is a very good pianist, and was the first to play my piano music, from memory!
Which, when we are talking about contemporary music, is saying a lot!
Yes! (laughs} I dedicated ‘A Starry Night’s Ripples’ to her.
You’ve moved about a lot in Europe. Where is an exciting place to be a composer?
Germany. Open-minded, and good financial support. In the conservatories in Berlin and Cologne, it’s very difficult to get in, and you need to speak German well. But it’s a bigger scene, more people doing things, there are more chances to have your work performed. And in Germany, when somebody is hired as a composition teacher, they need to be very active in making contemporary music. So students can follow their teacher to festivals, and meet people in the contemporary music world.
For good money, Switzerland, because of Government support. Also a place for a good life. Holland is a conflict of the avant garde and the very traditional. So sometimes great composers come out, such as Louis Andriessen. Also I want to go to Finland. The landscape there makes you change your sound. Many harmonic tones, and the weather is so cold.
Your work was nominated for best original music at the Boh Cameronian awards but you didn’t win. Were you disappointed?
I felt I stood no chance at all. When I saw the names on the jury, I only recognized Valerie Ross. The others were journalists and songwriters. Not surprised by the result. But I felt good being there. I saw so many people. Something is going positive. We need to join as one arts society, helping each other, you make the dance, I make music for you. There should be a sort of composers’ union. And the Government of course should give some support.
Your father must be very happy with you now. Will your parents be coming to the Forum concert?
No, they are not used to these sorts of occasions. They have never heard my music. They think I compose songs (laughs). I would never play them my recordings – I’m afraid they would have a big shock! My father is still not so happy, maybe because of the financial thing. He always says, “You made the wrong choice!”
I don’t come from a music family. My grandfather on my mum’s side was a musician, a storyteller who travelled from village to village. I never heard him but I saw him when I was little. I remember an image of him, lonely, with his instrument. In Europe I dedicated a piece to him. My family is ashamed of him.
You know, it was a bit shameful at that time, music, singing for people, little money.
Yes! I always think, if I don’t work hard, one day I’ll be him!
First Published: 10.03.2004 on Kakiseni