Profile: Julian Wong

Published on 21 July 2015

Julian Wong is one of Singapore’s leading music men: composing, arranging and musical-directing everything from fireworks displays to pantomimes.

BY JO TAN

“I wouldn’t call myself a composer,” states Julian Wong. “Composers have a manic urge to create, an unstoppable stream of ideas they must put down on manuscript to even function. That desire doesn’t come to me naturally.”

Naturally or not, 27 year-old Wong has been composing since 2007, when he was roped in as rehearsal pianist by Cultural Medallion recipient, the late Iskandar Ismail. Tasked to write incidental music for stage productions, Wong quickly graduated to writing scores for both homegrown and foreign productions, including the grand fireworks display at Singapore Countdown 2015.

He has also served as musical arranger/musical director for operettas like The Flight of the Jade Bird, large-scale concerts, pantomimes, and now, Returning, for the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015, a dance collaboration between five choreographers showcasing Chinese, Indian and Malay music traditions, all of which Wong must combine.

“Returning has been a huge learning journey. For example, composer Ampili Pradeep and her team from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy learnt how to interpret Western notation from me, and taught me their systems of ragam and taalam. My flautist Rit Xu joins them on the bansuri, and I wrote his scores with a mixture of swara and Western notation.”

Luckily, Wong has ample experience using his Western classical training to approach a boggling range of music genres: from orchestrating xinyao in the hit Mandarin musical If There’re Seasons to playing Malay music with traditional instruments at the annual Bulan Bahasa festival last year.

“My greatest music teachers, Mr Iskandar Ismail, Ms Belinda Foo and Ms Sylvia Khoo, instilled in me a strong classical foundation, but gave me many opportunities to be flexible and compassionate with it. My foundation gives me a system for understanding others.”

Despite loving different types of music, what Wong requires regularly is the sound of silence. “When I’m not working, I like to keep my life as silent as possible. As a musician, I need to be highly sensitive. If you’re constantly surrounded by noise, one’s senses become stultified. I knew from Day 1, when Mr Iskandar Ismail gave me my first job, I needed to work very hard, and you cannot work at 100 per cent when you’re distracted.”

Wong is committed to nurturing young musicians, serving as music director of both Joyful Strings (a children’s string ensemble) and last year’s 10th anniversary of ChildAid. After all, he knows what it’s like to have begun young, even as he remains one of the industry’s youngest players, managing musicians twice his age.

“It’s common for the older generation to put down the younger ones. I know how direct and indirect bullying feels. But my age never mattered to the people who really mattered, those who fought to have me in their teams, who saw something in me which I never saw myself. Were it not for their kindness, I probably wouldn’t be a musician today. Now, I try to pass down the generosity, love, and patience that those seniors showed me to the young musicians I work with.”

Returning is on 13-15 August at the Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets via Sistic.

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