The Unifying Forces of Adeline Wong

It’s tough being a composer of orchestral works. You only acquire skill by hearing how your music sounds when played by an orchestra, but you only get your music played by an orchestra when you’ve acquired skill. This, together with intense competition, far too few commissions and a generally impecunious existence, makes the job of a ‘serious’ composer everything our parents warned us against. Which makes Adeline Wong, who trained at Eastman and the Royal College and now back here delving into film music and making plans to study sound design, special. By the by, she is also one of four composers who will have their works premiered this March 11th by the MPO, as part of the Malaysian Composers’ Forum helmed by Kevin Field.

Saidah Rastam: What have you been doing with yourself lately?

Adeline Wong: Well, I’ve just come back from Berlin! I was there for 10 days in February attending the Berlinale Talent Campus of the Berlin Festival.

Which is?

Mainly a film thing. Out of 3,500 applicants, 300 are picked. This is the first year it’s been open to composers. We worked with film directors, sound designers, and had classes all relating to film. It was so exciting, especially as before last year I hadn’t done any film music. [Last year at the invitation of the Goethe Institute, Adeline created music for a film, Five Mysterious Stories, shown at the Help Institute with Kelab Seni Filem]

Tell us about your time and education overseas.

I was at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, upstate New York, where I read for a Bachelor of Music degree, majoring in piano and composition. It was a large school, but there was not a lot to do in the city, so I think it was good for me to have gone there for a first degree. I spent a lot of time with my college mates. Then I was given a scholarship (for tuition fees) to the Royal College of Music, where I obtained a Masters degree in composition. I explored London, went to concerts, that sort of thing.

Did the two places approach composition very differently?

Yes. London had more European thinking, was more avant-garde. Eastman had American thinking. The sound is different. For example Corigliano, in using an orchestra, makes a very big sound. The European sound is more intimate, even with a full orchestra. Also there is a freer use of harmony. In that way, America is not as crazy as the Europeans.

But that raises the question ­– why did you come back? Orchestral or chamber music commissions here are rare. And it’s hardly a creative scene, compositionally. Overseas, it’s a limited, competitive area of activity, but at least it’s an area of activity. And when you graduated, your chances of making it would have been the same as any other aspiring composer, for better or worse.

Having spent time away, there’s no place like home. There are positive and negative things. The growth of the arts process has been so slow. I’d like to contribute to the arts scene in KL, make the public more aware of my area of music.

Being a composer – what does that entail? Do you discipline yourself to a minimum number of bars per day? Do you lock yourself up with bread and water, forgetting to shave?

Well I can’t sit around being a composer all the time. Also a composer who sits at home writes different music from someone who gets about a lot. I teach – most composers I know teach – which I enjoy. [Adeline teaches at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan, Sedaya College and the Yamaha School]

Your compositional process?

To get started on a piece is incredibly difficult. I believe in doing something new. If I’ve done it before I don’t want to do it again. It can take days, I can just be sitting around, but it’s working in the brain. Being a performer is different – you play what you feel. For a composer to sit down and write the first note, it takes a lot of time and energy. I hate revising my works. I don’t think I’ve ever revised my works. Because the energy is not there any more. The momentum is gone.

‘Synclastic Illuminations’, your Forum piece last year, was scintillating from the start, with fast and frenetic lines which went on for quite a bit. The lyrical section came as a surprise, and then it turned very simple, with that lush piano statement. I didn’t know what to expect next. What were your thoughts when you were constructing it?

I had this idea, of putting together lots of colours, as in a painting, then taking out colours and getting the separate colours that I started with. The piece starts very fast, then there is a deceleration and simplification of the idea. Then there is the recurrent melodic idea of falling thirds. ‘Synclastic’ means something which goes round and round. I see it in 5 small sections. It starts obsessively, then there’s this shaking and quivering section, with lots of tremolos and brass trills. After that it’s an espressivo bit, leading into cascades of falling thirds, ending with a section I marked “Glorioso”.

I knew what I wanted – to have something complex in the beginning and end with something truly simple. The tonality was very important to me. I drew a chart of its transpositions and played through them, and used my instincts to see if the middle section, the expressive part, should be more tonal-centred. In the beginning section and the end, the tonal centre was very different. For the instrumentation of the last part, I brought back the idea of the beginning by bringing back the piano/harp combination.

I first think about the structure. I know where I want to take it to. It’s like the sonata form, the first subject, the second subject. It’s how you get from one to the other, the transitions, that’s the difficult part. But once you get it done it’s effort well worth the time.

How would you describe your Forum piece, to be performed next week?

My concept for ‘Steel Sky’ was an alternation between really hard sounds – jagged, chordal, vertical – played by brass, percussion and woodwinds – and free, fluid music, played by the strings. I like the strings a lot, but you rarely get that many string players. So here, from beginning to end, the strings are dominating, and play almost continuously. It’s a very simple concept.

Have you an interest in sounds, and in using them in your compositions?

I don’t like anything too abstract. If I have a motif I think of what textures I can get. I haven’t done a work which explores sounds, but it’s something I want to do. With computer music and music resources on the net now, you can download anything, you can sample and programme anything. More and more I think the creative aspect is neglected.

Tomato sauce question, but your favourite composers?

Lutoslawski. He’s Polish, I’m Malaysian Chinese, but the way we think is so similar. That’s what’s so magical about music. Structure is important to him. My dissertation at the Royal College was ‘The Unifying Forces Behind Lutoslawski’.

And what is this similarity in the way you think?

It’s difficult to put Lutoslawski in a nutshell. I guess – this is hard – well, finding a balance between structure and freedom. Structured chaos – free sounds, but with a direction. Does that make sense?

Yesss. Anyone else?

Well, they’re all dead. Ligeti, Takemitsu.

That sounds filmic to me.

I don’t mean Takemitsu’s film music. His other music.

Hmm. Where would you like to see yourself, in a few years?

Every big city has an orchestra, and now KL has the MPO. Most orchestras have a composer in residence, who composes just for the orchestra, and helps shape the planning for the year. It’s not every day you get an orchestra to play your work; in that way writing for orchestra is different from other mediums. I would really really like to do this. I also want to work in all sorts of mediums: ethnic, electronic, not just acoustic.

In the immediate future?

I’ve been asked to write something for the ABRSM’s Spectrum 5 series, a series of published music pieces for performers, Something simple but interesting. Also, I’m going into sound design. Possibly I’ll go to the School of Audio Engineering. As I’m classically trained, I want to get to know the new medium, to learn the technical aspect, maybe work towards a piece for electronics. After the MPO Forum, I’ll have more time!

First Published: 10.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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