Author: Austin Yip

My Musical Life in the United States

It has been exactly ten years since I came back to Hong Kong from the United States, now that I think about it, and the three and a half years I spent there were truly life-changing.

It was in 2003 when I was 18 and first had the ambition to be a composer; this idea totally came from nowhere. I remember it was a normal school day, and during the break I bumped into a schoolmate (who is now a very fine pianist). I told him enthusiastically, “I want to be a composer.” But for an ordinary school kid who had very narrow training in music (singing in choir and playing the violin for almost ten years), the journey to becoming a composer was bumpy.

The three and a half years I spent in the United States were truly life-changing.

Back then I was what we call in Hong Kong a “science” student, taking physics, mathematics, and computer science at school. The main reason why I chose the sciences was because I was told that the better students always study science, but I struggled. Rather than going to lessons, I would instead go to the soccer field, computer room (for gaming), music room, and sometimes to karaoke during school time. I was glad that my high school teachers “allowed” me to do so. Many years after graduation they told me that they knew I’d be better off involved in the arts, so they let me spend my time how I wanted, in order not to waste more time.

An aerial view of Hong Kong at mid-day from Victoria Peak showing a group extremely tall skyscrapers, Photo courtesy of the Information Services Department of HKSARG

Near the end of form 6 (equivalent to grade 12 in the US system), most of my classmates had already planned where and what to study after graduation, and one day a friend of mine told me that he was going to study in the United States, starting from community college. Day after day he kept telling me stories about the “American dream,” and I thought my dream of being a composer could possibly come true. I went home and told my parents about my decision to study abroad—after a few fights with them, I flew to the United States on December 1, 2013, and enrolled in De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California.

I was very excited to begin my college life, because I had the chance to select the courses that I was interested in. During my one and a half years of study at De Anza, I had taken almost all the music courses offered. It was the first time in my life I had such an extensive education in music, and more importantly, with very welcoming lecturers. I remember it was Robert Farrington who taught me about jazz, Ronald Dunn taught world music, and Dan Mitchell was my music appreciation instructor. My fundamental knowledge in music theory came from Dr. Paul Setziol, who was crucial in the earliest stage of my composition career. I learned to write counterpoint and four-part harmony, plus I also did a few composition exercises under his guidance. He was kind to offer additional help outside the classroom, and he gave me suggestions on university selections when I was ready to transfer.

Aside from Dr. Setziol, I was glad to meet Loren Tayerle, the conductor of the De Anza Symphony. Not only did he place me in the concertmaster position for a year, he also loaned me his own violin. In the few semesters that I played in the orchestra, I had the chance to premiere new works, which was a brand new experience for me. A similar thing happened with the Vintage Singers, a chamber choir in De Anza, in which the conductor Roger Letson often programmed an interesting mix of old and new works—from Purcell to Lothar Bandermann, a California South Bay-based composer.

Lothar’s wife, Billie Bandermann, was my vocal teacher at De Anza. When I first came to the United States, I originally planned to have my major instrument be violin, but it was Billie who persuaded me to become a tenor. She was very kind to offer me free vocal lessons at her place while I was preparing materials for my transfer application. Sometimes she would even prepare breakfast for me when she found me very hungry during a lesson, and helped me in my audition tape recording.

After a careful consideration of the offers I had, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005 with the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship. Before I left De Anza, Dr. Setziol reminded me that the environment and pace in Berkeley would be much quicker than at De Anza, and he urged me to work hard and stay strong.

The learning atmosphere at Berkeley was very different, and the first few lessons were quite disastrous. I could barely understand the materials covered in class, particularly during David Pereira’s harmony lessons. I had to spend extra hours at the library every day to study Bach’s four-part harmony, as well as to read all kinds of music theory reference books. But after a few weeks of struggle, I began to understand harmony in a more thorough way, and the knowledge acquired is still very useful now—not only in terms of composition, but also in terms of how I teach it to others at the university.

As a voice major, there were times when I had to spend four days a week singing in the University Chorus and the Chamber Chorus, and another day for a major lesson with soprano Susan Gundunas. The training in the choir affected me a lot, especially in terms of the mentality of being a musician. Prof. Marika Kuzma, the conductor of the above mentioned choirs, often emphasized the importance of punctuality, preparation, and professionalism. This disciplined way of training later supported me through my down times. When none of my works were performed publicly during the first few years after my graduation, I was still able to keep on composing.

Other than my vocal training, I spent most of my course credits taking composition-related courses. My interest in writing music began with Prof. Cindy Cox’s “Twentieth-Century Harmony” course, in which she introduced many ways of how composers of the 20th century composed. That was also when my interest in set theory began (and even some of my recent works are still based on set theory). I later continued to take her year-long course “Music Composition,” and began to write my own music. During that time, I was still very much affected by the music I heard on the radio. (To improve my English, every day on my way to school I used to listen to the radio and repeat line after line what the broadcasters said.) My earliest works in 2006 strongly resemble cartoon music—or, more precisely, what I now call “Looney Tunes music.” The title of my very first composition was A Chick on a Stick, a solo clarinet work with a duration of roughly two minutes emphasizing some major seventh chords and portamento. After that I wrote another programmatic work for violin and piano, The Mat and the Course, portraying the catching game between a cat and a mouse.

I was nervous to present my works to Prof. Cox during tutorial sessions; she would ask questions about my choice of pitches, structure, and many other musical parameters. One time I told her my musical preference, and she told me that “composers need to be aware of what we listen to.” She encouraged me to listen to more kinds of music, because what we listen to often affects what we write—perhaps she wanted me to move on from the cartoon style to something else. During her course, we were required to keep a listening journal. I still remember one day I was listening to a Takemitsu’s work on an LP (though now I’ve forgotten whether it was Tree Line or Autumn). I was so puzzled by the music and I wrote in my journal, “I don’t understand his music, the notes are all written randomly.” Now it seems like such a naive comment. I am glad that my ears have been improved over the years.

My work gradually evolved into a more avant-garde style, ranging from my only attempt involving twelve-tone techniques to a more Lutosławski-inspired style of writing in 2007. It was always fun to try something new, because at the end of the semester Prof. Cox would invite professional musicians to read our works and give comments. (I still keep those recordings now.) Concurrently, I was also taking Prof. Jorge Liderman’s counterpoint course. Prof. Liderman was one of those “blackboard” teachers who would write anything that came to mind on the board. He strongly emphasized the importance of musicality, and he would either sing or play the lines he wrote on board on the piano—and that is also what I do now while teaching. His way of teaching was very consistent. Every time we were asked to write a fugue, we would need to compose at least three different fugal subjects. He would comment on each of them, and recommend that we work further on one of them. There was one time he blamed me for writing “cliché” subjects, and insisted that I write another three. I was surprised that he found out these three “cliché” subjects were all written in a hurry during Prof. Richard Taruskin’s history class.

It was also my privilege to have studied orchestration with Prof. John Thow, whose lectures were always inspiring. He was a strict teacher who demanded we memorize many pages of information right at the beginning of the semester. I remember that we had a quiz on the French, German, Italian, and English terms for all the orchestral instruments and various instrumental techniques during the second lecture. It was difficult at that time, but the knowledge acquired is still very useful today. Prof. Thow has great understanding in the use of instruments, and he could come up with all kinds of different ways to score even a simple major chord. Sometimes he would bring in professional musicians to demonstrate instrumental techniques, and he allowed us to write simple passages to explore the possibilities of each instrument. What I remember most from him was that he said if one day we can only take two scores with us, we should definitely pick Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky’s Firebird, because one can hardly find better orchestrated works. In fact, Daphnis et Chloé was the very first full score I bought in my life. We were all shocked by the news of Thow’s death in 2007, during the second semester of my final year while we were preparing for the orchestra reading session.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007 and returned to Hong Kong to pursue Master’s and doctorate degrees in composition at the University of Hong Kong, under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Chan. My stay in the United States was short, but it not only equipped me with the fundamental skills I need as a composer, it also provided me chances to witness how the teachers I studied with respect their professions. I could have included many more stories, but they would only tell more of how much I have learnt from these teachers during the early stage of my composition career. Currently I am still working hard for my composition career, and I am sure there will be more interesting stories that I can tell later.

Austin Yip

Austin Yip’s works have been performed worldwide, including at festivals he attended such as ISCM, Asian Composers League Festival & Conference (ACL), and the International Rostrum of Composers. His major commissioners include Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Radio and Television Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. His works have been published and recorded by ABRSM (UK), Ablaze Records (USA), Navona Records (USA), and Hugo Productions (HK). He holds a Ph.D./ M.Phil. in music composition from the University of Hong Kong, and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a lecturer at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Austin Yip’s music will be performed at the DiMenna Center in New York City on April 8, 2017 as part of a concert devoted to recent works by Hong Kong-based composers.