SOTA: School of the Arts Singapore

Karang guni composer

Published on Aug 17, 2015
Karang guni composer

Dr Kelly Tang, dean of the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), shared about his route to becoming a composer on The Straits Times Life. Dr Tang started piano lessons when he was six years old, but his interest in composing often led to him creating tunes instead of practising set piano pieces. In secondary school, Dr Tang was part of the school's band, and was assigned to play the tuba. In between the tuba's parts in a performance, he had the opportunity to observe other instruments in the band, sparking an interest in orchestration.

Dr Tang attributes his broad musical style to a carefree childhood. He said that his experiences "inculcated a lot of curiosity in me and a fascination with the world" and he considers these the "root of my interest in composition, where I'm thinking about what would fascinate others".

Despite his passion, Dr Tang's parents wanted to him to study law in the United Kingdom. They were apprehensive about the use of a music degree for his future, but they eventually relented, expecting him to become a music teacher after completing his studies.

Dr Tang began his career as a music teacher at Raffles Junior College, then St Theresa's Convent. He was associate professor of music at National Institute of Education before taking up the position as SOTA's dean in 2011. In the same year, Dr Tang received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest honour for contribution to the arts. 

At the age of 39, Dr Tang made his debut as a versatile composer, who is able to mix different types of music easily. His friend from national service days, jazz piano legend Mr Jeremy Monteiro, said that Dr Tang "doesn't think in boxes" and is "adaptable", requiring only a short period of time to understand a musical genre. Artistic director and conductor of the SYC Ensemble Singers Ms Jennifer Tham, who has known Dr Tang since junior college, said that he has a "post-modern sensibility" and is "always evolving, always curious". She added that his work is easily recognisable as it has "insider jokes". Ms Tham also said that Dr Tang is "important as a composer" in Singapore as his music is written for "everyone, not just musicians". 

Dr Tang describes composition as "taking elements of what we already know and creating new things" and is similar to "the idea of karung guni (the rag and bone trade) and the junkyard". He calls himself "a collector of junk". When he first wanted to learn about composition, his then-mentor, late pioneer composer Mr Leong Yoon Pin, told him to strengthen his foundation and work on as many harmony and counterpoint exercises as possible before discussing composition with him. However, Dr Tang did not go back to study composition from Mr Leong. He realised that "the expressive power of his [Mr Leong's] music stems from his thorough grasp of harmony and counterpoint", which can be "earned only through a lifetime of disciplined practice in the fundamentals of music."

[17 August 2015]
The Straits Times Life

Source: The Straits Times Life © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.