Kwan Ling is a composer and performer born and raised in Hong Kong. He is currently studying composition at UMKC Conservatory, exploring fascinating new intersections between western and Chinese music. In this interview, Kwan describes how his education in western music accelerated as a result of four hour daily commute to school upon his arrival in the U.S. in 2013, as well as his current projects and creative process. Enjoy!
You recently posted a performance of your composition “Ripples Under the Trees.” Talk about the writing process for this piece. How was this particular work challenging for you as a composer?
The traditional Chinese wind instrument Suona is my primary instrument and I started playing it when I was 10 years old. The musical language of this instrument has been rooted deeply inside me since the first time I picked it up. Most of the music of Suona is documenting and expressing daily experiences. One of the most important pieces of Suona, A Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix, imitates the sounds of birds in the forest, expressing the energy given by the mother earth.
During this pandemic time, nature became my best friend and inspired me to compose my piece, Ripples Under the Trees. Lying on the ground, legs-splayed, enjoying the rays of sunshine tumbling through the trees. Chattering tree leaves, twining shadow and light. A luscious dessert given by mother earth.
In order to share my experience with my audience, I am experimenting with the colors of col legno, strings hit by the wooden side of the bow, imitating the sounds of trees combed with wind. A combination of long, high pitches and micro-tones, emulating a spectrum of light penetrating the tree leaves. A trace of shadow and light, reflected in the sounds of the string quartet.
I think transforming and expressing the sonic ideas of my daily experience into a musical score is the biggest challenging for me as a composer. It challenges me to step out of the box, imagine the similarity and behavior crossing between these two extremely different sound worlds. But, this is the most fun aspect of being a composer.
How long have you been a composer? Who were some of your earliest influences?
I have been a composer for around six years. Bela Bartok, John Cage, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky were my top favourite when I first started studying music.
During the first year of living in the United States, I commuted from my home to the school by buses four hours everyday. It was in the spring of 2013, I started my first semester in the US with a weird class schedule, a 7:30am class in the morning and an evening class. This schedule made me wake up at 4am in order to catch a bus by 5am, so that I would reach school on time.
Although this story sounds like I was in a struggle. I am very grateful that it happened, because it gave me four hours to listen to western music everyday. As a traditional Chinese music instrumental performer, my sense of western music was lacking. So I prepared myself a playlist of western music from the early age till modern music to listen to during the bus rides. Therefore, I think this dark side of my road actually caused my path everyday to be even more colorful.
Describe your creative process. Where do you go to write? What tools (i.e. apps, software, etc.) do you use, if any?
I am currently working on a piece for suona and sinfonietta. And the main idea of this piece is the word Midden. People, objects and incidents pass by us everyday and we may not even notice their existence. However, they might appear chaotically in our dreams, like a midden of our participation in life. And this piece is introduced by a collection of sounds that are selected from the composer's daily life, representing the people, objects and incidents that have appeared within their everyday life. This collection of sounds becomes the theme and motif of the piece, recycled by the ensemble. The leading instrument suona is the tour guide of this journey, working as the brain of this anarchic dream.
Since this is a highly chaotic piece, I started using Ableton Live to compose a suona and fixed media version. And this would work like a reduction version of my suona and sinfonietta. I found that super helpful, and helped my music to be more organic, double influencing the cross between these two media, electronic and acoustic.
This is a collaboration work with my friend Brian Yulo Ng, who is an animator/fine artist from Singapore. Both of us collect random materials from our daily experiences, but the only difference is my materials are about sounds and his materials are about physical objects.
What music are you currently raving about?
I love music which can surprise me and take me on a journey. After six years of western music training, I have looked back to my Chinese musical side a lot, seeking the secret spices of Chinese music. Most of the time traditional Chinese music performs in unison, one of the instrument layers on top of the other instrument. Traditional western harmonic progressions don’t really exist in traditional Chinese music. On the other hand, every single Chinese instrument has a extremely unique timbre. Therefore, the music becomes very interesting when they layer on top of each other with the creative micro-improvise between pitches. And that’s something I am currently raving about.