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More students are studying creative arts at HKUST

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 2:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 2:25pm

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s (HKUST) humanities and social science department is experiencing a significant surge in the amount of students studying creative arts topics, as it enters the year of its 25th anniversary.

Over the last six years, student enrollment in music composition and participation classes, creative writing, and contemporary literature programmes has grown from a few hundred to more than 2,000. This represents more than a quarter of the HKUST student population.

Audiences for music shows on the campus have grown, too, with more than 10,000 students attending performances annually. “Student participation in arts and cultural activities has gone through a transformational stage that is set to continue,’’ says professor James Lee, the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science.  

Lee says it is part of the HKUST’s vision to provide students with a broad range of creative and cultural educational experiences, while establishing the university as a centre to bring high-quality arts into the Hong Kong community. With a faculty of about 60 professors covering 15 disciplines, the HKUST is believed to have the largest interdisciplinary university-level curriculum in humanities and social science in the Greater China region. “We are always looking for new ways to strengthen and expand our programmes, and we have several plans that will come to fruition soon,’’ says Lee.

A creative writing and poetry programme designed by visiting professor, and award-winning novelist, Yan Lianke is a good example. Yan is the author of the imaginative satire Xia Ri Luo (The Sun Goes Down), Dream of Ding Village, and Lenin's Kisses, an absurdist historical allegory about the money-making fever that swept the mainland after Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy in the 1990s.

Lee says the HKUST’s arts curriculum features several unique characteristics. For instance, it offers minor instead of major degree topics, and this opens the way for developing more engaging, creative, and innovative programmes. “Unlike many arts programmes, our students are given the opportunity to understand the arts from the perspective of creators and producers, rather than critics,” Lee says. This way students are more inclined to show a genuine interest in deepening their understanding of the creative process, and a willingness to become creative themselves, he says.

“Many students who begin with appreciation-oriented courses choose to continue with participation-oriented courses, such as music theory and music composition,’’ Lee notes. Other courses include music of the world, enjoyment of classical music, a new approach to music making, and making chamber music. “Our students really appreciate learning about music in a less formulaic way,’’ he notes.  

The arts are a lifelong learning process, and Lee believes that a focus on creativity, rather than passive music and arts appreciation, enables students to fully engage with their chosen disciplines. An understanding of what makes successful art good helps to enhance the students’ arts appreciation, he notes. The courses are developed to instill openness and foster new ways of thinking, curiosity, creativity, and adaptability into the students. These qualities come in use later, as students join the workplace, and benefit society as a whole, Lee says.

Science, engineering, and different arts disciplines are offered separately in many teaching institutions. But Lee believes courses in which students from different study areas learn the value of creativity and collaboration are beneficial. In ancient China, the “Liu Yi” (the six arts) saw music taught alongside mathematics, literature and science. Albert Einstein, considered one of the greatest physicists of all time and a gifted amateur pianist and violinist, once said, “The greatest scientists are artists as well.’’

“Having engineering, science, and business students in the same class builds collaborative skills, and this is representative of today’s multi-disciplinary work environment,’’ says Lee, citing the example of a HKUST student who uses the creative principles he learned from playing the violin in his management role.

“The former student says that a musician needs to be responsive to an audience, listen to his colleagues, be flexible when it come to exploring new topics, and look for new ways to engage with others,’’ says Lee, who is a John Simon Guggenheim fellow (2004), and the co-recipient of six best book or equivalent honours. 

Lee says events such as “The Intimacy of Creativity” (IC), hailed by the Financial Times as the “city’s most innovative musical experience”, help boost interest in the arts and cultural topics. The two-week programme, now in its sixth year, is part of the HKUST Music Alive! concert series, which promotes the university as a global centre for a creative and well-rounded education. The IC is designed to explore the creative process of composing chamber music.

IC is coordinated by Artistic Director Bright Sheng, Y.K. Pao Distinguished Visiting Professor of Cultural Studies of HKUST. He is also an internationally-renowned composer, conductor, and pianist. Established and emerging international composers are invited to present and revise their chamber music compositions after in-depth discussions between composers, performers and students during on-campus open discussions. “In a similar way a play is often revised before its first major performance, the selected works are revised following an exchange of dialogue,’’ says Lee.

Over 140 composers from 30 countries submitted their orchestral works to the IC 2016 call-for-scores, and three have been selected to have their compositions featured at special events.

The 2016 revised compositions will feature at a world premiere concert at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall on April 16-18, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.  Lee says in addition to the enrichment and appreciation HKUST students gain, the IC project provides students with a window into the artists’ creative and collaborative processes.

 “The way that our students are exposed to such excellence is uplifting. It increases their awareness and makes them ambitious,’’ says Lee.