THE LIFE INTERVIEW

Karung guni composer

Dr Kelly Tang.
Dr Kelly Tang.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
Composer and educator Kelly Tang at age five.
Composer and educator Kelly Tang at age five. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELLY TANG
Dr Tang (left) with jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro in 1981 during a SAF Music and Drama Company tour in the Philippines and with his wife, Ms Tan Mui Tin, and their first-born son, Brendan, then aged two, on a trip to Germany in 1996.
Dr Tang (left) with jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro in 1981 during a SAF Music and Drama Company tour in the Philippines and with his wife, Ms Tan Mui Tin, and their first-born son, Brendan, then aged two, on a trip to Germany in 1996.PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELLY TANG
Dr Tang with jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro in 1981 during a SAF Music and Drama Company tour in the Philippines and with his wife, Ms Tan Mui Tin, and their first-born son, Brendan, then aged two, on a trip to Germany in 1996 (above).
Dr Tang with jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro in 1981 during a SAF Music and Drama Company tour in the Philippines and with his wife, Ms Tan Mui Tin, and their first-born son, Brendan, then aged two, on a trip to Germany in 1996 (above).PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELLY TANG
With Lt Col Nick Grace, director of music with the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines and SAF Bands conductor Ignatius Wang in February at the British premiere of Dr Tang’s Three Portraits For Symphonic Band, which was commissioned in 2008 by Si
With Lt Col Nick Grace, director of music with the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines and SAF Bands conductor Ignatius Wang in February at the British premiere of Dr Tang’s Three Portraits For Symphonic Band, which was commissioned in 2008 by Singapore’s Ministry of Defence.PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELLY TANG

Dr Kelly Tang stores away slivers of sounds and creates new tunes with them

Cultural Medallion recipient Kelly Tang used to earn the wrath of his piano teacher for wanting to do what he is now acclaimed for doing - composing.

Influenced by a family culture that values the arts, his mother started him on piano lessons at age six. As he grew older, however, his fledgling interest in composing succeeded only in making his music teachers "cross".

Preferring to try his hand at inventing fragments of tunes, the boy avoided piano practice and failed a few exams before finally completing Grade 8 at age 18.

"I felt the urge to write new things, to make up something that's entirely my own and not just play Bach, for instance," says Dr Tang.

While studying at Anglo-Chinese School, he exasperated the teacher in charge of the band.

Composing is not a hobby. It becomes an obsession. It feels like an electric current passing through you. It’s quite an excruciating process, working out every bar.

DR KELLY TANG on his creative process

His glee at being invited to join the band in Secondary 3 was marred when he was handed the tuba - those in charge figured he could lift the large instrument easily as he was slightly "tubby" then, says Dr Tang, 53, dean of Arts and Special Projects at the School of the Arts (Sota).

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He had found the infrequent passages for his tuba "mundane" but being idle for part of the band's performances gave him the chance to "look around to see what the other instruments were doing", sparking an interest in orchestration.

Wanting to "learn about the qualities of the instruments", he surreptitiously brought home a different one each week - flute, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, French horn and, with difficulty, a drum set.

"Mum was horrified to see these instruments suddenly appear at home," says Dr Tang, adding that he then "cajoled" his band mates to convene at his house for private practice, after he procured the instruments.

His mother, Madam Yap Soo Kiow, now 78, also disapproved of pop bands, which she associated with hippies and drug-taking.

Nonetheless, Dr Tang, a child of the 1970s, "fell in love with music through pop" when he was 13, listening to the radio in secret.

During his teens, he played in various bands, performing pop, rock and gospel music.

He attributes his eclectic approach to music to a carefree childhood.

The elder son of a banker father and a teacher mother, he used to cycle around his leafy neighbourhood in the Holland Road area - sometimes after sneaking out of his house at night - inspecting flora, fauna and abandoned attap huts.

His dad, Mr Tang Guan Gim, now an 80-year-old retiree, took him on hunting trips to Kota Tinggi, Malaysia, and "used to bring back baby animals to Singapore", says Dr Tang, recalling creatures such as a monkey, a flying fox and even a deer, which "lived a few years in my garden".

Such childhood experiences "inculcated a lot of curiosity in me and a fascination with the world around. It's the root of my interest in composition, where I'm thinking about what would fascinate others," he says.

The career educator, who made his debut as a composer at the age of 39, mixes high-brow and popular culture with ease. For example, he wrote a work for string orchestra titled Tian Mi Mi, after the ballad by the late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. Its melody, taken from the Indonesian folk song Dayung Sampan, is mixed with the theme music from The Simpsons.

Jazz piano legend Jeremy Monteiro, a friend and collaborator of Dr Tang's for more than 30 years, says: "Kelly's music upbringing and education is so diverse. He doesn't think in boxes."

Monteiro, who first started playing gigs with Dr Tang during their national service days in the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company, adds that Dr Tang is "adaptable", needing, for instance, only a months-long crash course in Chinese orchestra to understand the genre.

Montage, a jazz piano concerto Dr Tang composed for Monteiro in 2010, has been performed in two formats by Chinese and Western orchestras.

Ms Jennifer Tham, artistic director and conductor of the SYC Ensemble Singers, has known Dr Tang since their school days at Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC). One of her earliest collaborations with him was a 2002 choral work he wrote: a version of Michael Jackson's She's Out Of My Life, which uses the complex motet form that first emerged in mediaeval times.

"Kelly has a post-modern sensibility," says Ms Tham, who adds that she can always recognise his work as it has "insider jokes". "He is always evolving, always curious."

In 2011, he received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest honour for contribution to the arts.

A regular at Faith Methodist Church, Dr Tang has been volunteering at Christian non-profit organisation Eagles Communications for the past 37 years.

He credits the group with instilling drive in him by appointing him its music director at just 19, a position he still holds. He made his first foray into commercial music with the group and has produced several gospel pop CDs.

He met his wife, Ms Tan Mui Tin, 51, through Eagles Communications, where she now works as an administrator. They got married in 1990 and have two sons, Brendan, 21, who is studying engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and Andrew, 17, an ACJC student.

Andrew enjoys bonding with his father as musicians on an equal footing when they occasionally jam together - dad on bass guitar or piano and son on South Indian mridangam drums or saxophone.

Dr Tang encouraged his son to think beyond Western music and helped him cultivate an "open- minded attitude", says Andrew. He and his brother used to play in their school band at ACS (Independent). Brendan plays the piano, French horn and bass guitar.

At York University in Toronto, Canada, where Dr Tang did his undergraduate studies in music, he first learnt how to play the mridangam drums under Trichy Sankaran, a famed virtuoso of carnatic music. He did his master's in composition at Northwestern University in the United States and gained his PhD in music at Michigan State University.

South Indian drumming found its way into Dr Tang's debut work, Apocalypso, which included jazz harmonies and Eastern European orchestral styles.

The piece, whose tragi-comic elements were inspired by a dream Dr Tang had about a singing suckling pig being cut in half, was played by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2000 Singapore Arts Festival.

Possessed of impressive auditory recall, Dr Tang first heard carnatic music as a child at Indian barber shops.

The Cantonese operas that his childhood nanny, a long-plaited ma jie (a domestic helper from China), listened to on Rediffusion became a Chinese opera about the intrigues of the Qing imperial court, which Dr Tang composed for a Western orchestra in 2007.

He mentally tucks away slivers of sounds for possible use in the future: the crash of a piledriver, a trill of birdsong.

Using a humble Singaporean trope to describe this creative process, he says: "It's taking elements of what we already know and creating new things. It links to the idea of karung guni (the rag and bone trade) and the junkyard. I'm a collector of junk."

Says Ms Tham, the choral instructor: "Kelly is important as a composer in the Singapore context. He is trying to keep music relevant to everyone, not just musicians. You can hear the city in his songs."

Singapore folk and popular songs play a role in Dr Tang's oeuvre, including in works such as Symphonic Suite On A Set Of Local Tunes, which incorporates tunes such as the Malay song Chan Mali Chan and Dick Lee's Home. Written for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra slightly more than 10 years ago, it has been performed by the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra of Japan and the Royal Thai Navy Orchestra, among others.

It will be performed next month at the Piano Concerto Festival 2015 by the Addo Chamber Orchestra.

This self-described composer as karung guni man has written about 70 works and received the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (Compass) award for artistic excellence in 2008.

Yet he could have taken another path.

In his early 20s, falling in with his parents' wishes, he secured a university place to study law in the United Kingdom, but got cold feet.

"I told my parents I wanted to study music instead. They were wondering what I would do in the future with a music degree. They were apprehensive," he recalls.

They relented and financed his education after they realised he was too deep in music.

"There was the assumption: Come back and get a steady job as a music teacher," says Dr Tang.

He started his career teaching music at Raffles Junior College, then at St Theresa's Convent. He was associate professor of music at NTU's National Institute of Education for 15 years before taking up his post as Sota dean in 2011.

As a mentor to younger musicians, he is hands-on.

Full-time finger-style guitarist Shun Ng, 25, who is based in Boston, was diagnosed with dyslexia at eight and struggled in school.

He says Dr Tang, a family friend who mentored him since he was 15, was "the first person to believe in me".

"Kelly and I would study the music of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Debussy, Ravel. He helped me understand music in a more organic way.

"He helped me love life. Kelly treated me as a son."

In person, Dr Tang comes across initially as cautious, with his precise and unfailingly polite answers. But a warmth soon breaks through, especially when he talks about music and his mentors.

One of his primary mentors was the late pioneering composer Leong Yoon Pin, who was assigned to train Dr Tang as a young teacher in the 1980s. After a few months under Leong's tutelage, Dr Tang finally "gathered enough courage" to ask him if he could study composition with him.

"For several embarrassing moments, he studied me in silence. Just as I was about to apologise and withdraw, he said, 'For the next two to three years, strengthen your foundations. Work on as many harmony and counterpoint exercises as you can. After that, then let's talk about composition.'"

Dr Tang never went back to Leong about taking composition lessons.

"It gradually dawned on me that the expressive power of his music stems from his thorough grasp of harmony and counterpoint," says Dr Tang. "Such mastery can be earned only through a lifetime of disciplined practice in the fundamentals of music."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Karung guni composer'. Print Edition | Subscribe