Escape Velocity with Kelly Tang!

Escape Velocity” is the set piece commissioned by the Arts Education Branch (AEB), Ministry of Education for this year’s Singapore Youth Festival 2017 (Junior College & Centralised Institute) Level.

The Band Post is pleased to speak to Kelly Tang, composer of the work, as part of the SYF set piece interview series.

TBP: Would you like to talk more about your work, why the title and style?

The whole idea for the work is to convey the unfolding of music as a series of escapes. We need to have a narrative of how music should move forward – like a scenario in a story where something has to happen; either by breaking away from the current pattern or to create something new.

So when we look at music, there should be excitement in the original setup where something new sets up another pattern, which in turn sets up for something to be broken again, and so on and so forth. Every passage gives birth to something new, like a chicken breaking out of an egg, or how animals give birth to the young.

Escape Velocity tries to put a spotlight on this excitement and the breaking of patterns in music. It is like how films are made, and how stories are told; by creating a pattern, breaking it up, moving forward and finally coming to a close.

TBP: You have been commissioned twice to write for SYF, namely “Two Overtures for Band” in 2009, “Sarabande and Gavotte” in 2013, and now “Escape Velocity” in 2017. Are you pleased that more Singaporean works are commissioned for SYF?

Yes definitely! In the past it was widely assumed that Singaporean composers could not write band music. I think it was a breakthrough for me in 2009 when CCAB (now AEB) commissioned me to write for SYF. Subsequently, another Singaporean composer Benjamin Yeo was commissioned, and now Wong Kah Chun too, for the Secondary School level.

This was a big step for the scene because it showed that not only Singaporean composers can write band music, but we can also write a certain type of music that is different from other people. My goal that time was not to write another work to imitate the music of band composers from other countries like Japan, but to ensure that Singaporean music has something new to present and offer to the band world.

It is important that Singaporean music does not imitate any other country music so that we can remain unique. I do believe that Singaporean bands and organizations like the AEB would not expect composers to simply follow what other countries did, but instead create our own style.

TBP: Would you say that this year’s set piece differ in style compared to the set pieces you wrote in previous years?

This year, I was tasked to write a JC piece. The goal is the same – to be educational in nature, but I wanted to present band musicians with something different; something that they have never played before.

In some band music, there is a certain formula like an A-B-A style, or a formulated way of presentation. It is easy for students to pick up the piece and play because it is something that they have done previously. This has become very comfortable for students and conductors due to a lack of challenges, hence things don’t move forward.

Since I already wrote two overtures in 2009, and two contrasting works in 2013, I thought why not write something different in 2017? I wanted to present something that challenges students, not just technically such as good tone production, but also conceptually, that allows them to think of new configurations in music.

As the mind is the hardest thing to work with, we need to mold the traps that affect how the mind is thinking and break its patterns. Once the mind is trapped onto a certain thinking of band music, people get bored. Maybe these are the people that left the band scene because they kept doing the same thing again and again. Maybe these are also the people that get bored in their lives because they do not challenge themselves. Hopefully this work will give them something decent to look forward, and to change their thinking about band music.

Every time I write a new piece of work, musicians should present something differently, if not why else do it? Escape Velocity is similar, to break molds and ensure that everyone has their own interpretation. Like Sarabande and Gavotte, Escape Velocity is a pair by itself, with the first section straight in timing, and the second part more free.

TBP: What did you intend that the students learn when playing your work?

It would be the understanding of music and how it moves forward. It is like a spaceship moving at a certain point and speed for some time, where it suddenly breaks away from the gravity pull into space and discover something new.

The idea of discovery is so important in music – to be able to wander into empty space and see something new for the first time. One can hear Beethoven Symphony 5 or 6 a thousand times, but every time you hear it, it is almost as good as listening to it for the first time as the transitions between passages is like a breaking away sign to create something new.

Similarly in Escape Velocity, the idea is for students to hear this sense of breakaway, which is carefully designed through the changes in rhythmic texture and harmony and instrumentation.

TBP: Would you describe some of the composition techniques you have used in your piece?

The idea of breakaway is achieved by different registers. When you keep using low registers, people get comfortable and want to listen to higher registers after some time – this causes the breakaway.

For example in the piece, flute textures are beautiful but they create desires for something else, such as the entry of the horns. The purpose of the flute sound being there is to make the horns sound beautiful. In another part where the rhythmic intensity is slow and sparse, it creates desire for the woodwind intensity to increase. The music is all about economics, to create desire or demand for something new by depriving.

I hope that students can look at their lives as a series of escapes and discovering new territories, and not a routine where they just do the same thing again and again.

TBP: Do you have advices for the students and band directors involved in this music-making process?

Listen to everything on how it works together.

This is something I enjoyed most as a bandsman. It is not about sitting there to rest because a machine can do that; it is about listening to what other parts are doing, and that is the most satisfying aspect. As a human, you need to listen to what others are doing and you will know how to add your part in to coordinate with what everyone else is playing. So I will ask that people don’t just play their parts but understand what other parts are doing as a whole and ironically, it makes you play your part better.

For conductors, please be open minded because this is what the piece is for. If you aren’t open minded, you will be trapped. The idea is to escape the trap of seeing band music as a certain format – I don’t think we want to see music as how we bake the same cake using the same recipe again and again. Of course music like this makes it easy to play and rehearse, but how exciting is it?

What I am most fearful of is that people start to be very close minded and avoid trying new things. The piece provides the opportunity to approach music from a different aspect which may force people to break out of their comfort zone or pattern. Nevertheless, I hope they are open about this.

In the end it is not about Escape Velocity. I hope they will escape this piece itself and go on to discover new music that are not heard before or played before, be it music of the past or future.

It is about the discovery of the new that is most important.

Band Post
Band Post

A contributing editor at TBP.

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