SIMON KONG : Fusionist composer, Chinese orchestral music

This is the third and last in a series of stories about the development of the Chinese Orchestra in Sabah. I would especially like to thank Yap Keng Vui for bringing me to this world and helping me meet the people within it.
Simon Kong and his wife, Guzheng Master Liu Yen

Simon Kong and his wife, Guzheng Master Liu Yen

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At 36, Sabahan Simon Kong has written orchestral scores which have won international awards. His fusionist heart has led him to transcribe Japanese and European scores, so that the music could be played on traditional Chinese instruments by the national orchestras of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. His work has been performed by the renowned UK percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, in both Taiwan and in England.

Simon was born and raised in Kota Kinabalu. He came from a Chinese background which had no concept of music having any value, either spiritually or financially.

In my family there were no musical people. Nobody knew that music could do anything for our lives.

At six, he was writing out melodies from the television, using a toy piano which had numbered keys. “I worked out the notes, but wrote them in numbers,” he said.

At eleven, he was leading the marching brass band at Shan Tao Primary School, and having Technics lessons at home for the electric organ.

The Age of Discovery

At 13, Simon chose Chinese Orchestra as his extra-curricular activity at Sabah Tshung Tsin Secondary School. He learned about orchestral scores and notation, and his mind filled with the limitless possibilities of bringing together the multiple voices of instruments; in particular, traditional Chinese instruments.

“But at first it was so boring,” said Simon. “When you enter the orchestra, the first instrument you learn is the double bass. We learn two notes: V-I, or So-Do, and for ten months it was just like that – boom-boom, boom-boom. I wanted to quit. I slept many times during practice. Then Mr. Teo – the head of the orchestra – brought us to West Malaysia, to the outside world.”

Simon conducts a rehearsal at Tshung Tsin Secondary school

Economy flights did not exist in the 1980s and there was not much interaction between West and East Malaysia, compared with today.

“There was no AirAsia in those days, our tickets cost RM600! We really felt we had to learn as much as possible. There were 30 of us, and the trip went from KL, to Malacca, Johor, and Singapore.”

In Malacca, the students visited a well-established Chinese Association orchestra. “But most of the people were senior citizens! I watched a double bass player who was about 60. He enjoyed playing a lot! I thought, does it mean I have to be 60 before I can enjoy playing like him..? But it opened my eyes, and for the first time I started to ask myself, how can I enjoy playing this music?”

There wasn’t as much cultural exchange as you would think. The students saw many Chinese instruments for the first time, and Simon asked a lot of questions. He was rebuffed with answers like: “You’re a beginner. No need to know so many things!” In Singapore, he saw a double bass player who had a German bow. “It was longer and held at a different angle from my own French bow. I asked him ‘What kind of bow is this?’ But he wouldn’t talk to me.”

Despite a general reticence of other people to share information, the trip and the external stimuli was hugely important to the students.

“In KK we had nothing then. No internet, very limited books. After the trip, I started to think, how can I get information myself? I started to learn by myself. I read a lot of books. That means I read all of Mr Teo’s books!

“Mr. Teo is a special teacher in that he spent most of his time with us, and he shared all the things he has: his knowledge, his books, his cassettes, videos, everything, even his meals. He gave his life to us, not just a few hours a day.

“Mr. Teo played cassettes of Chinese orchestra music to us. He made us listen to the different voices, and then write them down line by line in Chinese notation, then transcribe them onto an orchestral score. This is very good training, especially when you have to listen on your own and write. Then when your fellow orchestra members play what you wrote, they shout at you, “What is this you are writing!”

Good training. Transcribing Chinese notation [right] onto an orchestral score [left]

Good training. Transcribing Chinese notation [right] onto an orchestral score [left]

Making Choices Against the Odds

Simon was definitely swimming upstream with his ideas. His classmates listened to Cantopop and fell about laughing when Simon brought an Erhu into class. “They said things like, ‘What are you doing with that ugly, old antique? Wah, those things still exist ah?'”

Chinese bowed instrument ERHU

Television was worse. Players of traditional instruments were depicted as beggars in all the popular Hong Kong soap operas.

“At that time, it was what the general public thought: If you play music you will be a beggar. Especially if you are playing traditional Chinese music!”

Before leaving secondary school, Simon’s organ teacher urged him to dump Chinese music, accept a Technics scholarship offered to him, and train in Japan to be a teacher. This was a guaranteed job, while there was no forseeable future playing obscure traditional Chinese instruments like the Erhu and the Suona.

But to me, Technics was a system. Many people go through the system, and the results are there, everything is known. If I choose Chinese music, the outcome is unknown. Whether it is good or not, it is still unknown.

Simon’s father was from a government background. He was worried about his son’s future. He asked Simon, “What can you do with this kind of music? Does Malaysia, or Asia, or the Western world like it, or even know about it?”

Simon was soon to graduate from secondary school. The Technics option loomed over him like a cloud.

“I had a friend who was going to England to study Fine Arts,” said Simon. “I wrote something in her autograph book like: You’re doing so much better than me, you are going to study something you really like. If I get the chance, I will do the same and study Chinese Music, and then I can come back and serve the community here.

“My friend’s father read her autograph book, he found me and said he would sponsor all my expenses to go overseas.”

Simon went to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. After two years his benefactor could not fund him, following the impact of the Asian financial crisis. At that point, Mr. Tsen, the then Principal of Tshung Tsin school, agreed to take up the cost for the remaining years, with the agreement that Simon would serve the school for five years upon his return.

So Now It Begins

Student Simon Kong’s biography

Tshung Tsin school is known for being rigorous about academic achievement, and Simon was a strong student. But in Shanghai, he was in a state of shock.

“Compared to them, I was nothing,” he said. “The Conservatory set aside some places for overseas students, but among the local students, the competition was so fierce, and the standard was so high.

“Imagine: the children are picked from millions to get into secondary school. Then they pick a few to go to university. I saw very young kids going for a music lesson, both the parents and the grandparents go into the room with the kid. The grandparents take notes to reinforce points on the child afterwards. Resources are scarce and it makes competition like this.

“At the Music Conservatory, the students learn music from the age of 5. By 18, they have a very strong foundation and things come to them very fast.”

Simon’s romantic idea of studying Chinese Music was disintegrating before his eyes. When he arrived, he discovered the Conservatory did not even offer a course for Composition in Chinese Music. Simon could not believe this. We are in China! How can they not do Composition for Chinese Music?

Adding insult to injury was the Conservatory’s own grading system, which outlined what aspects of music it considered to be the highest form of the art.

A major in Composition & Conducting [for Western Music] was considered the highest form, listed Grade ‘A’. Musicology was ‘B’, Piano was ‘C’, Other Western instruments was ‘D’ and at the very bottom was a major in Chinese music, graded ‘E’.

“Of course I was depressed about this,” said Simon. “We are in China and even here they put their own instruments at the bottom! What hope was there for me?

“Mr. Teo said in an email, although they put it at the bottom, I am still studying Chinese music in the best place to do this in the world. In the whole of Sabah, only me – Simon Kong – had the wonderful chance to go to China and study Chinese music.”

So Simon persevered, choosing the Suona as his main instrument. There were new challenges every day: he struggled with the Conservatory’s Russian system of teaching music, and had problems interpretating the Chinese musical terms in the same way as the Conservatory professors.

TEO Seng Chong playing the Suona

“For aural tests, out of every ten questions, maybe I could do two. The local students would get ten correct with no effort. I had to find a sympathetic teacher to teach me the basics, so that I could get through the year.” He did find somebody, in the form of a Chinese folk music teacher.

In his third year, the Conservatory said they would consider, for the first time, offering the course Composition in Chinese music, if Simon wanted to take it up. This created some bureaucratic setbacks for Simon too; he had to start the degree from scratch. But Simon accelerated his studies to save Tshung Tsin money, cramming five years into three, and graduated with a major in Composition, Chinese Music.

An internal concert was held to celebrate the several ‘firsts’ achieved by Simon: the first student to take this major, and also the first foreign student to do so. Teo Seng Chong brought the Tshung Tsin School Chinese Orchestra to perform Simon’s work alongside Simon’s Shanghai colleagues. This was another first, that foreigners were permitted to perform in the Conservatory.

Simon was the first, but the following year the Conservatory accepted 20 students to do Composition in Chinese Music.

And the music..?

If music is a reflection of your heart, it’s not surprisinig that Sabah keeps appearing in Simon’s work.

In 2006, Simon’s work Izpirazione II won 2nd prize at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra International Chinese Music Composition Competition, competing with composers from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

Izpirazione II has 3 movements:

I. Durian
II. Rambutan
III. Tarap

Simon, Yap and I were in the car listening to the CD.

Yap said, “It’s Movement I. We’re in the durian plantation now, feel the heat and humidity in the dark, green jungle.”

The very atmospheric music took on a insidious tone. “Can you smell the fruit? The aroma is creeping up on you. Now a durian falls from the tree!”

Before Movement II began, Yap asked me, “What comes to mind when you think of rambutans?”

Small, spiky, red, cute…

“Right, now what does red represent?”

Chinese! Indeed, the music started in a blaze of Chinese redness, there was no mistaking it, that and the cuteness as the Chinese flutes flitted in and out, like little red rambutans.

Movement III has rhythms and bold percussion which can only be associated with Sabah, since Tarap is a fruit native to Borneo.

I then watched a video of a group from the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra perform Bizet’s Carmen, in Hong Kong in 2011. Two female musicians played round Ruan guitars with panache, as Chinese percussion, and wind and stringed instruments sang out boldly, ebbing and waning in that intense Spanish way. Awesome! The very cross-cultural Hong Kong audience thought so too: the applause was euphoric, as were the musicians’ faces. Fusion in the fine arts! All arranged by Simon Kong.

Similarly, also in 2011, Simon arranged the orchestration for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major for the Taipei Chinese Orchestra, and a Taiwanese pianist.

Image of Dame Evelyn Glennie was taken from her gallery. The photographer is Jim Callaghan Studio 44

Simon wrote the orchestral arrangement of Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra, which was performed by Dame Evelyn Glennie with the Taipei Chinese Orchestra. The recording is on her album Ecstatic Drumbeat – Evelyn Glennie

In May 2012, “The Shaman” by Vincent Ho, was arranged by Simon, and performed by Dame Evelyn Glennie and the Taipei Chinese Orchestra, at the National Concert Hall Taipei, Taiwan, and at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester UK.

Simon left Sabah and sought out the unknown. Now he is back, sharing the knowledge he learned, serving his community, and writing his own brand of music – Chinese music with the flavours of Sabah. He is Teo Seng Chong’s protégé, and together they are creating a marvellous legacy, here in Sabah.

Simon Kong conducts a rehearsal at Tshung Tsin Secondary School

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