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02 Sep 2021

CSS Composer of the Month for Sep: NG Yu Hng

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month!

The 9th CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is NG Yu Hng! Yu Hng is a London-based Singaporean composer whose music explores the intersection between temporality and musical quotations. He recently obtained his Master’s degree in Composition (Distinction) at the Royal Academy of Music, and previously studied composition at King’s College London, achieving the Purcell Prize for academic excellence.

NG Yu Hng

Interviewer: GU Wei

Tell us about yourself, your musical background and what you currently do.

Currently, I’ve just graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, having studied under Professor Morgan Hayes. A natural city dweller, I decided to live in London after graduation, where I currently teach and compose. At the moment, I’m working on several composition projects, including a theorbo piece for the Philomel ensemble, and a guitar work to be recorded in France, among others. In my spare time, I explore the many art galleries that dot London’s cityscape, an activity which often inspires my music.

I’ve admittedly embarked upon an unexpected career path given my musical background (or lack thereof). My younger self was a ‘science stream’ student and did not take music as an O Level or A Level subject. The only formal musical studies I had were piano lessons which I stopped at the age of 14. Beyond that, I spent most of my time improvising and playing by ear on the piano. It thus came as a huge shock to my peers when I, after Junior College, abruptly decided to study music at university instead of a STEM subject most expected me to embark upon.

With the brilliant support of my parents (which I’m very grateful for), I decided to risk a gamble to pursue music at King’s College London. During the summer holidays, I studied functional harmony under Mr Phoon Yew Tien, and at King’s, I was taught composition by Dr Edward Nesbit. I am deeply thankful to my first two composition teachers for their formative guidance during those early years. It was also during this time that my first compositions were performed, by the Lontano Ensemble in the UK and through the IMPRINT concert series back in Singapore.

After this, I pursued a Master’s degree in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite the pandemic, the past year had been a time of many fruitful collaborations. I most enjoyed that sense of interaction between composer and performers, that counterpoint of creative voices that contribute to the genesis of a new piece. These collaborations include pieces for the CHROMA ensemble, Hill Quartet and George Fu among others. I was also very fortunate to have studied under Professor Morgan Hayes, whose poetic ability to articulate solutions to my compositional ruts is second to none. Lest I forget, the Academy has many new music enthusiasts. I’ve met so many performers who specialize in contemporary music, and their deft and brilliant interpretations of my pieces have been a great blessing during my time there.

How was your experience studying in the UK? What was the biggest takeaway from being overseas, and what advice would you give to young composers who are considering studying overseas?

My time studying in the UK had been incredibly formative for my musical journey. Since London is an international locus of music, I’ve been able to drink deeply of the rich musical life that London offers. I often frequent Wigmore Hall, a natural habitat for chamber music lovers such as myself. When I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I would scour for corners of experimental music-making: King’s Place, Café OTO and the Portals Festival being favourite hideouts.

I guess my biggest takeaway and advice to young composers considering an overseas education has much overlap.  I would encourage young composers to not just consider the university, but also the city they will live in. Being in London allowed me to experience an abundance of music-making. When I compose, these experiences serve as a deep resource for inspiration. 

How would you describe your music?

Well, I’ve always been interested in musical intertextuality. Music with quotations and allusions from other works always pique my curiosity, such as pieces by George Crumb, Charles Ives, Alfred Schnittke, Peter Maxwell Davies, Kate Soper, Alex Temple and many others. I think this is partly a result of living in multicultural Singapore, a meeting point between so many rich artistic and cultural traditions!

My pieces similarly engage with polystylism. For example, my work The Canonical Hours, performed by the CHROMA ensemble recently, contains allusions to medieval Ars Nova harmony. By juxtaposing an older style with a contemporary post-tonal idiom, I strive to create a piece that is modern yet has faint vestigial memories of the past.

I’m also interested in musical temporality, the psychological flow of time while listening to music. I am particularly fond of the works of the Italian composer Aldo Clementi, whose music sounds like a clockwork gradually and barely perceptibly slowing down. My work Near Stasis likewise consists of a section which repeats, each time its tempo decreases and gradually becomes sparser, as if Time itself is slowly but inexorably coming to a stop.

Tell us about your interest in poetry and if it has influenced your music.

Well, I’m not always sure if I’m a composer who writes or a writer who composes! I’ve been writing far longer than I have been composing, although I’ve only engaged with the art of poetry recently, during my time in the UK. Key poets that have influenced me (off the top of my head and in no particular order) include T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, André Breton, Pablo Neruda and Jen Hadfield. Currently, I am reading the poetry of Amanda Chong, a brilliant Singaporean poet.

Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, wrote of “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In context, he was speaking about claims of ethics and aesthetics which cannot be spoken of in propositional form, but I think a wider principle can be applied here. I write poetry in response to acts of silences, silences that arise not because people don’t want to speak, but because the community lacks the vocabulary to articulate those experiences. Poetry allows me to give a voice to these experiences, after all, stanzas are more than the sum of their words!

I have rarely incorporated poetry into my musical works, although I hope to engage more in this area in the future! There is however, a strong similarity in themes across both my poetry and music. For example, in my recent work Kintsugi for the new music ensemble Luna Collective, I created a musical evocation of the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. Instead of disguising fault-lines, they are accentuated by veins of gold, transforming imperfection into beauty. Kintsugi gives dignity to what is scarred, instead of being ashamed and attempting to silence it.