From mechanical engineering to composing for the Philharmonia Orchestra, Austin Leung has been traversing new territories since his early student days in Hong Kong. In this blog he shares with us what he learned from the RPS/Philharmonia Composers’ Academy, and why world music matters to him.
“World music is a kind of cultural heritage which, like a capsule, stores the history of different communities and regions. By incorporating the genres into new works, we can give a renewed value to history in our current generation. From this we get the feeling we’re crossing boundaries and space-times, bringing people together who have existed throughout the ages into a piece of work.”
As I write this, I cannot believe that my time in London is coming to an end. I came to the city two years ago to do an MMus at the Royal Academy of Music – my first time ever studying abroad. Back in Hong Kong, where I was still an Engineering student, the idea of leaving my country for my studies had never even crossed my mind. Like everyone else, I wanted to graduate from a local university, find a steady job and basically “survive”. The purpose of studying was never about gaining new knowledge for the sake of it, but for finding a better job and having a nice, easy life. However, after I discovered music in my second year of my undergraduate degree, everything changed. My whole outlook to life shifted and, fast forward a few years, I found myself in London.
Last year, I was absolutely delighted to find out that I was a winner of an RPS Composition Prize. I won a place on the RPS/Philharmonia Composers’ Academy, led by Unsuk Chin, had the honour to be commissioned to write a chamber piece for the Philharmonia Orchestra players. The commission was prepared throughout the year as part of the The Academy consisted of lessons, seminars, workshops and instrumental experiment sessions. I still remember how shocked I was in our first meeting after I learned that the two other participants (Eugene and Freya) were already teaching in major universities and music festivals, where I was a frustrated student who had only just finished his first year! It was like attending a course alongside your professors.
One of the most memorable moments at the Academy was a workshop which took place in March. At that time, I had prepared a few texturally complex sections of my piece to try out in the workshop. Imagining that it would sound magnificent, it turned out absolutely disastrous! Not to mention that the foreground materials weren’t clear enough; they were hardly even heard due to the over-scoring – my fault for writing too many notes in the music. We repeated them a few times, with some important lines a little louder, but the result was still not satisfactory. After a few failures, I spent a minute describing to the conductor and players about my true intention and how it sounded in my head. With the conductor, players and fellows actively involved in giving comments and suggestions, I finally figured a way to fix the texture. After the workshop, we had more than one month to amend and finalize the score, and I was really satisfied with the final version performed in the concert.
This wouldn’t have been possible without the invaluable expertise and time made available through the workshops, the well-planned timeline of the Academy and the friendly, supportive environment provided by everyone. It was such an inspirational experience to create music in such an encouraging atmosphere.
So, let me introduce my commissioned piece. It is titled Music from the World and comprises a series of short movements that utilises materials from different world music genres, which interact with one another throughout. The first two movements, commissioned by the RPS, are named Dance and Meditation. Dance is a humorous movement which borrows sounds and materials from Argentinian tango and Viennese waltz. For this I imagined a busy scene with the two groups of dancers dancing side by side. In contrast, Meditation uses materials which are slow and calm including Indonesian Gamelan and Asian traditional flutes.
I love to take inspiration from existing materials and evolve and develop them into my own style; presenting it in a way that makes them recognisable to the listener, but with a new, refreshing flavour. I feel that world music is a kind of cultural heritage which, like a capsule, stores the history of different communities and regions. By incorporating the genres into new works, we can give a renewed value to history in our current generation. From this we get the feeling we’re crossing boundaries and space-times, bringing people together who have existed throughout the ages into a piece of work. I think this is a very meaningful series, and I’m really looking forward to finishing more movements with more crossover in the future.
If I had to choose just one word to describe the Academy, it would be luxury. It was such a gift to work with such brilliant composers and exceptional performers throughout the year. The investment on us was huge, and the Academy was flexible and tailor-made to suit our needs.
The RPS Composition Prize also has also given me considerable exposure in the music scene, helping me to secure several more professional commissions. This was a significant milestone for me and has been the absolute highlight of my time in London.
I am writing this last paragraph while listening to the recordings from the final concert and the dress rehearsal. I’m about to choose the best takes for the recording, which will be released online by NMC in a few months. I can’t believe how awesome it sounds – and I hope you will enjoy it too!