Of the 1,104 musicians to have passed through the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY since 2004, a significant majority live and work in either Europe or North America. Whilst this will undoubtedly remain a fact for the immediate future, Asia is rapidly increasing in significance as a hub for musicians eager to explore their artistic potential and creative opportunities. We approached some of our alumni based in Japan, Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong to ask for their reflections on living and working in this diverse, complex, and continually evolving part of the planet’s contemporary musical landscape.
One of the foremost groups exploring contemporary classical repertoire in the region is The Hong Kong New Music Ensemble (HKNME), a collective that has had the privilege of presenting a number of regional premieres, including Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals, György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, Brett Dean’s Carlo, and Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze. The ensemble was founded in 2008 by alumnus and Australian violist William Lane (participant in the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY in 2005, 2007, and 2008).
Before founding the ensemble, I researched (and in some cases visited) other cities in the region, and what set Hong Kong apart from the likes of Singapore and Beijing was that it had (and continues to have) an independent arts funding structure, allowing for experimental musical production to thrive. There is some truth to the clichés that Hong Kong is “Asia’s World City” where “East Meets West”; it still retains an international flow of artists and ideas, whilst arts funding here is increasing rather than decreasing, which definitely makes it stand out.
This is not to say that Hong Kong provides the ideal artistic support; flautist and ensemble member Angus Lee (Academy participant in 2013, 2015, and 2016) notes “the city’s infamous miserly expenditure on art – less than one percent of the total government budget in 2014, for instance,” but describes HKNME as “a beacon of hope in the dark, among the few independently launched art organizations that have survived their initial difficulties.” Lane also notes the difficulties of starting from a blank slate: “We’re still in a position of building a ‘scene’ – an infrastructure, an audience community of like-minded individuals, supporting funding bodies and institutional partnerships – which in some cases might be taken for granted in Europe.”
Experience working in more established musical organizations is therefore of paramount importance. Lee worked first with HKNME in 2013, the same year he first attended the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY, and he recalls the reciprocal benefits gained by rehearsing intensively with both ensembles around that same time.
At the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY I had the fortune of meeting Pierre Boulez, who paid his last ever visit that summer. What was truly inspiring was that despite his less than ideal health condition, maître Boulez attended every single orchestral rehearsal, as well as paying visits to the various chamber groups rehearsing around the town. His passion for training young musicians and educating the public in contemporary music motivated me to join the few ‘pioneering’ new music performers in my home town, and after finishing two years of studies in London, I was offered a position at the HKNME by William Lane.
In recent years the ensemble has embarked upon ever more adventurous projects, with their current residence at the Spring Workshop on the southern side of the Hong Kong Islands leading to the creation earlier in 2017 of Kunsthalle for Music: An exposition, not an exhibition. Curated by visual artist Ari Benjamin Meyers, it included a set of performative instructions to be followed over the course of three weeks, requiring the musicians to ‘deconstruct’ and then ‘reconstruct’ pieces ranging from Cage, Stockhausen and Boulez to Glass, Reich and Tenney. The ensemble’s Modern Academy meanwhile has been providing education opportunities for keen, emerging contemporary music performers since 2013. Initially a summer course, the Academy today features a short course of ‘modules’ spread throughout the year, whilst a ‘side-by-side’ format is being developed for future years that enables students to glimpse into the working routine of a professional contemporary ensemble. Notably, the Modern Academy is credited with having trained the founding members of some of the most vibrant, young new music ensembles in Southeast Asia, including the Ripieno Ensemble (Philippines) and the Asian Contemporary Ensemble (Singapore).
Meanwhile on mainland China, Spanish oboist Juan Manuel García-Cano Ruíz (Academy participant in 2013) today works as a professor at Soochow University School of Music (Suzhou, Jiangsu province) where he also conducts the SUSM Wind Band and coaches several chamber music groups. He believes that, in an age of ever-increasing globalisation, there is no need to consider China as an unknown or remote place to be making classical music, despite the linguistic challenges presented to many.
Even though some linguistic and cultural barriers do still exist, I have found Chinese society to be very welcoming so far, both personally and professionally. Compared with Europe or America it does involve a very different way of thinking, and one must be adaptive and open-minded in terms of working and teaching methods, as well as with social interactions. It is however continually rewarding; I’m very happy working in Asia and think it’s a great opportunity for musicians to develop their careers in a part of the world trying (and succeeding!) at making classical music more accessible to ever increasing audiences. The way of preparing pieces at the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY, especially chamber music works, helped greatly and clarified many aspects of the contemporary music world for me. I have managed to continue performing, premiering, and exploring paths in new music, not only by playing but also by composing and conducting. The university environment helps me keep in contact with the latest contemporary music, and we have some very interesting young and ambitious composers on our faculty.
Malaysian violinist Bernice Ooi (Academy participant in 2012, and 2013) was playing for the Hyogo Performing Arts Centre Orchestra in Japan when she last took part in the Academy. She has since moved back to Kuala Lumpur, freelancing with various chamber and orchestral ensembles, and she is keen to note the challenges of working in her local classical music environment.
There are no musician unions in Malaysia: We are used to long rehearsal hours, but there are sometimes less legal things to worry about; payments are often just made by cash! In terms of reaching out to audiences, there is also still a general preconception that classical music is very much a Western thing and not relevant to us. The classical music scene in Malaysia is still quite under-developed: For example, I was involved in the Malaysian premiere of Bach’s St John Passion last year!
Back in Japan, Yoko Mano (Academy participant in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011) is hopeful that the spirit of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY can be recreated in East Asia after recently returning to her homeland.
Three years ago, I moved back from the Netherlands after living there for thirteen years, it was a big challenge for me to create and build up musical connections in Japan from nothing! Most Japanese people are shy and don’t express themselves much, many times I found it difficult to understand what they really think. There’s a great opportunity to connect LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI in Asia and share what Boulez taught us with our communities. Asia has a unique culture and energy, I think we could do something really creative!
Another recent returnee to Japan is Kaya Kuwabara (Academy participant in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016) who spent the last seven years living in London. She also notes the conservative nature of Japanese society, believing that a clarity of vision is needed to achieve success and deal with the sheer size of the potential artistic market.
One thing I can say is Tokyo is HUGE. I lived in London, the biggest city in Europe, and yet I feel overwhelmed here, it is almost chaotic. It’s becoming even bigger and more densely populated, and this change will be exciting to witness in the lead up to the Olympic Games in 2020, but it is hard to imagine what it would look like here in a couple of years. Unfortunately I don’t feel contemporary music attracts that many people here at the moment, hence why many Japanese members of LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI are based outside Japan. Now we need to start a new movement; it is going to be a hard work, but I am excited about getting started! For those interested in visiting, the Tokyo wonder site is offering some residency programs that musicians can apply for.
Thank you to everyone for their contributions, particularly Angus Lee for his insights on the workings of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble.
Jack Adler-McKean | LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI