Sunday, 17 April 2011

DR KELLY TANG: Three Anecdotes in Tribute to LEONG YOON PIN

DR KELLY TANG, well-respected Singaporean composer and music lecturer at NIE-NTU muses about the lessons he learnt from the late LEONG YOON PIN (1931-2011). Here is a case of a lifelong wealth of learning being handed down from one generation to the next. A great teacher will be an inspiration to all he encounters.

I. Learning in Search of a Lesson

After completing my music degree in 1986, I returned from Canada to train as a music teacher at the Institute of Education and was placed in Mr. Leong Yoon Pin’s music pedagogy class. As an aspiring composer, I desired to learn more from him than just the teaching of songs in classrooms. Being in absolute awe of the man, it took several months before I gathered enough courage to pop the question. “Mr. Leong,” I enquired meekly after class one day, “Could I study composition with you?”

For several uncomfortable moments, Mr. Leong studied me quietly. Before I could withdraw in embarrassment, he broke the silence. “For the next two to three years,” he proposed, “strengthen your foundations by doing a lot of harmony and counterpoint exercises. After that, then let’s talk about composing.”

I mulled deeply over those words. In the ensuing years, I delved into every book that I could find on 20th century, Baroque, Renaissance & Medieval polyphony. The writing of fugues, chorales and inventions became a rigorous daily regimen. I enrolled in advanced harmony & counterpoint courses. While performing daily chores, I unconsciously developed a mental habit of creating and solving contrapuntal problems.

Interestingly, I never got back to Mr. Leong about those composition lessons. The reason is simple: After twenty-five years, I have not stopped labouring to improve my harmony and counterpoint skills. It gradually dawned on me that the expressive power of Leong’s music stems from his thorough grasp of the “science” governing the interplay of pitches and rhythms. Such mastery could only be earned through a lifetime of discipline and practice of the basics. Thus, Mr. Leong’s brief words expanded into a lifelong lesson for me.

II. Teaching through Silence

During my teaching practice at Raffles Junior College in 1987, Mr. Leong was assigned as my supervisor. When he came to observe, I decided to showcase my lesson on “John Cage & Chance Music”. I will confess that this was prompted by a naughty curiosity to see Mr. Leong’s reaction to this content.

For forty-five minutes in a darkened room, students flashed multi-coloured lights wildly across the ceiling, and tuned their radios to random Chinese, Tamil & Malay stations. One student (violist Judy Tay) recited text from an Archie comic through a toilet paper roll, while another thumped forearm clusters on the piano at will. Scraps of paper were tossed into the air, and in the corridor outside. In the corridor outside, a student violinist (Dr Hoh Chung Shih) bowed a micro-tonal rendition of Massenet’s Meditation.

When the bedlam ceased, Mr. Leong took me outside and subjected me to another of his lingering inscrutable looks. I was dying to hear what he would say. Finally, the verdict was pronounced in a soft murmur, “I don’t know what to say.” After Mr. Leong quietly took his leave, it all came to me in a sudden flash of enlightenment. In a nutshell, Mr Leong's unpretentious response had captured the tru meaning of that "Silence" which John Cage had written an entire book about.

For Mr. Leong’s next observation, I taught Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

III. The World in a Mouthful

In 1990, I composed the first piano quintet for my upcoming wedding ceremony. More than anything, I wanted Mr. Leong to approve of this work, so I stuffed it with as many diverse styles and techniques as the staves could hold. It incorporated elements of Bartok, Debussy, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Schoenberg, as well as a quote from Rachmaninov. Loaded with contrapuntal and harmonic intricacy, the music was fully insured to dazzle my composer hero.

After I delivered the score to Mr. Leong’s new Bayshore residence. He said he would study it for two weeks, so I waited in agony and anticipation.

On the appointed "Day of Reckoning", Mr. Leong met me in the RJC Music Room. My heart pounded as we sat at the piano and he whipped out the score which I had sent him. Trying hard to restain his amused smile, Mr. Leong looked at me and chuckled, “You know, you should try not to swallow up the whole world at once, in a single gulp!”

Mr. Leong Yoon Pin showed us how to be Singaporean composers; not by blindly imitating him, but by composing in a manner that would be true to ourselves. He paved the way by showing that it was indeed possible for a Singaporean to compose to the loftiest artistic standards. As a giant, he challenged each of us to be larger than what we thought we could be. Like other seminal figures, Mr. Leong’s spirit continues to live and breathe within each bar of music composed by a Singaporean.

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