Hong Kong composer Lam Fung on making music to order

Flautist Maggie Holmes wanted Lam to create a piece to commemorate some personal milestones and a place she loved. Lam relished the unusual opportunity. ' People just don’t think about commissioning a piece of music for commemorating an occasion,' he says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 October, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 3:25pm

For a special anniversary, some people might want a party or a new brand-name handbag, but for Maggie Holmes, commissioning an orchestra piece seems like a better idea.

A flautist with the SAR Philharmonic Orchestra, Holmes – who this year celebrates her 25th wedding anniversary and 20th year in Hong Kong – realises that there are two areas of life that give her great pleasure: playing with the orchestra and hiking in Tai Tam Country Park.

“It’s gives me profound happiness when it’s a beautiful day and I’m walking in such a beautiful place. I thought it would be nice to gift a piece of music to the community of musicians here.”

This piece has now been written. It is called Tai Tam Reflections, by local composer Lam Fung, and will be performed by the SAR Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hong Kong University Grand Hall on November 8. The programme also includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2 with soloist Rachel Cheung and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

Lam, who recently completed a stint as the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, says this is an unusual opportunity. “A private commission is very rare in Hong Kong, especially for orchestra. People just don’t think about commissioning a piece of music for commemorating an occasion.”

The composer recalls Holmes describing to him the kind of things she likes about Tai Tam. “Sometimes when we walked past certain places she would even tell me what she had imagined [could be] played there,” Lam says.

“For example, there’s this dam, and she said because of the way it looks, she always imagined a group of brass players, then she would imagine some others answering from far away. So that echo needed to be in my piece. She also told me very early on she wasn’t expecting some sort of pastoral music with imitations of birds or something like that. She is a flautist herself, so she said she has had quite enough of the flute playing bird-like melodies.”

Holmes, who has been with the SAR Philharmonic for more than 15 years, had a vivid inspiration for the new piece and chose Lam because she liked his modern but lyrical style.

I’ve learned to compose seemingly simple things on the page. By layering, hopefully the effect will be less simple

On a recent walk in Tai Tam she showed him what moved her about the landscape: the open space, the massive structure “almost like a bass line” of the mountains and dams, the black kites soaring and hovering, the natural acoustic of people chatting combined with cicadas, frogs and birds “going insane”.

Lam described his new composition as “four sections of reflective moments”, an impression of the openness of nature.

“In musical terms, that translates to a more transparent texture, more pure intervals, a lot more reference to conventional tonality,” he says.

Since the piece commemorates both important anniversaries for Holmes, Lam used musical techniques to create a feeling of nostalgia: among others, repeating patterns and seemingly random pitches that later coalesce as a melody.

The “reflections” part of the title refers to both reflective moments and reflections in the water in Tai Tam Park. He used musical mirroring, with instruments playing in parallel or opposite directions. “On top of the sound-world atmosphere of that movement being kind of nostalgic, I also use memory as a structural starting point.”

Last week, Lam played a concert for the World Cultures Festival called Hong Kong Episodes, an event that also launched the Hong Kong Contemporary Music Group – classical strings and flute led by Amelia Chan, concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong.

Lam is aware that the SAR Philharmonic, although accomplished, is amateur.

“I definitely made adjustments [for them]. It’s never about showcasing virtuosity too much. I’ve learned to compose seemingly simple things on the page. By layering, hopefully the effect will be less simple. Sometimes it’s good to have limits.”