Published on 24 November 2017

Chong Li-Chuan

Chong Li-Chuan composes music for theatre, dance, film and visual art, finding insight and inspiration from these various art forms.

By Melanie Lee

Chong Li-Chuan’s foray into music composition began in his second year of university, where as a music student at Goldsmiths College in London, he realised that he “wasn’t that great a pianist”.

Instead of training to becoming a concert pianist who performs solo, he opted to become a piano accompanist where he was “playing other people’s music with other people”.

As an accompanist, Chong had to learn other people’s parts, familiarise himself with how different instrumentalists and vocalists articulated their sounds, and how to support them well.

“I think that was an important step towards becoming a composer,” he recalls. “I was introduced to arrangement, orchestration and instrumental colours.”

He began to study composition and enjoyed it so much that he went on to pursue a Masters in Music focusing on composition. It is here where Chong’s thesis supervisor Katharine Norman introduced him to electroacoustic music. During this period, he began to consider the possibilities of the kind of music and sounds he could create as a composer with these new audio technologies.

Upon returning to Singapore in 2005, he took on a variety of composition projects while juggling teaching work at a polytechnic. For example, in 2006, he collaborated with visual artist Donna Ong for an installation titled “Etymologies (I)”, where he worked on manipulated recordings of news bulletins read in Chinese dialects to accompany her digital print collages of caves. More recently, this year, he worked with long-time collaborator, director Nelson Chia, to compose the music for Nine Year Theatre’s acclaimed SIFA production, “Art Studio”. For this play, Chong had to come up with four distinctive yet intertwined melodic motifs to portray the lives of the four lead couples.

“The act of composing is a solitary activity. It’s very easy to make a lot of stuff without any intention of showing them to anyone. Either that or just getting depressed because no one want to listen to your work. Collaborating, however, puts me into a situation where I have to show something to my collaborators, and ultimately a public audience. I want to learn how people respond to my work. To me, this is a mark of maturity in your practice,” he explains of his approach.

Currently, Chong is composing the music for “Cut Kafka!”, a multidisciplinary dance-cum-theatre production by T.H.E Dance Company and Nine Years Theatre for next year’s Huayi Festival at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

On his decision to do part-time teaching alongside his composition projects, the 42-year-old father-of-two boils this down to needing a regular income to provide for his family.

“I think I would have to do a lot more projects in order to sustain a career as a composer. But I notice that even the younger composers who take on many jobs are also teaching! This begs the question: Can one survive doing composition alone in a small market like Singapore?”

Listen to Chong Li-Chuan’s music here:

While Chong has done some philosophical meanderings on this pressing question, he is content to leave it as a question mark for now.

“You can come up with different blueprints for your life, and you don’t just have to settle on one goal,” he declares firmly.

In fact, Chong makes it a point every few months to do live performances as a free improviser – a musician who works with different types of music materials to play off-the-cuff, unexpected things.

“It’s an antidote to fixing sound and notes.”

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