An Interview with Angus Lee

Vantage Music | Hong Kong | July 2023                        

Born in 1992, the Hong Kong musician Angus Lee is not someone to be taken lightly. Named Young Music Maker by the RTHK in 2012, Angus has gone on to achieve notable success in his capacities as a flautist, a composer and a conductor. In October 2023, Vantage had the chance to interview Angus at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), where he conducted a lively discussion on all matters musical with our Vantage artist, Cindy Ho.

I. Musical Experiences

Playing the Flute

For a professional flautist, Angus started learning music at an uncharacteristically late age. “I had a brief encounter with the piano when I was in kindergarten, but I didn’t have the knack to play anything decent on it (except clusters!), so I quickly gave up.”

It wasn’t until when Angus turned 10 that he embarked on learning music again. “I took a long detour, doing storytelling and dramas, only to circle back to music when my mum, who perceived me as being too hyperactive, went to a music store to find an instrument to tamper my outgoing tendency.” The shiny, silvery sheen of the flute caught his mum’s eyes, and she proceeded to spend half a year learning the instrument herself before introducing it to Angus. “My mother always wished the best for me. For instance, when a doctor told her that only swimming could prevent me from developing asthma as a child, she proceeded to learn swimming herself, assessing its suitability before introducing it to me. The same was true of music, as she was my first flute teacher.”

Angus then went on to study with a teacher in the neighbourhood music centre, but the lessons soon broke off due to SARS, leaving Angus to play the instrument alone at home. Seeing his enthusiasm, Angus’s mum convinced him to audition for the junior classes at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (APA).

Normally, there would be two rounds of interview for APA Junior. However, Alan Cumberland, the interviewer and the then head of woodwind, brass and percussion, interrupted Angus’s performance shortly after his second piece, throwing open the door of the audition room. “Alan asked my parents in and demanded to know who my teacher was. I thought I was in for a scolding!” Fortunately, it turned out to be good news, for Cumberland was about to congratulate his parents, and he told Angus that “You can thank your teacher for teaching you, because we can take over from here. You are in.”

Composing and Conducting

Angus developed his first inkling as a composer during his time in APA Junior. “I became interested in writing music after half a year of learning flute, though at the time it was not necessarily composing but just writing things down on paper.” Angus recounted one amusing incident. “At that age, we always thought we had ‘divine’ inspiration, but instead it was merely things you’ve heard before and registered subconsciously. I remember I once had a great melodic idea, but when I wrote it down it was actually John Williams’s Harry Potter theme!” Angus’s flute teacher saw his scribblings and encouraged him to properly learn composition in a systemic way. Soon, Angus was studying under APA’s composing teachers, Ms Poly Hau-yee Ng and Mr Poon Po-choi. “It was wild. I was double majoring whilst still studying in a mainstream secondary school, so on Saturdays I would have musicianship lessons, composition lessons, wind band and orchestra, all on the same day!”

Angus also dabbled in conducting. “I was competing in the open class composition category of the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. The competition is typically held as a workshop, where we submit a score and recording which would then be assessed and discussed by the judges. It was the second time I competed in this competition, for which I wrote an ensemble piece this time. Since a recording is required, and one that was recorded by live musicians is preferable to a MIDI recording, Poly said that I should consider conducting it, since someone’s got to conduct it, and it might as well be the composer.”

The piece, “Metamorphosen Variazionen”, was scored for a quirky instrumentation of English horn, bass clarinet, trombone, tuba, percussion, piano and string quartet, and Angus enlisted the help of his friends, classmates and teachers to record the piece. “In the beginning I was very insecure, and I didn’t dare look at anyone! In the end, we pulled through, and that’s when I started to get interested in conducting, and to become better at it.”

Awards and Rewards

Angus continued his studies in APA after graduation from secondary school, and he soon set his sights overseas. “It was my second year at APA, and I already had behind me quite some first places in local competitions, so naturally I thought I could do this.” Along with one of his classmates, Angus participated in the Gisborne International Music Competition, playing C. P. E. Bach’s G major concerto. To Angus’s dismay, he only managed to clear the prelims, and was not admitted any further.

“It was the first time I experienced such a great setback, and I remained very depressed for a long time, spiralling in an ‘existential’ crisis. Back in Hong Kong, I asked Alan if I should continue to pursue music. As I had ‘straight As’ in English for my public exams, I have, on more than a few occasions, been told that I could have studied alternative subjects such as law or literature. Alan listened, and said simply in the end, ‘If you really want to do it, then do it. But do you see your career as rewarding as it would be when you are a musician?’ It took me a long time to get out of this emotional black hole, but Alan reignited my aspirations with one question. I owe a great deal to Alan, who was one of the most important mentors in my student days.”


Angus was grateful for the years spent at APA. “The education of APA equipped me for who I wanted to be, and so much more. However, to go back to basics, my training was largely flute-based and orchestral in nature. Most of the teachers on APA’s roster were from an orchestral background, and I am indebted to both Tim Wilson and Olivier Nowak, who consolidated my technical and musical work as a flautist.

“But I think, more than that, I benefitted the most from the openness of the APA environment, which encourages one to actively think about the future, to carve out one’s individual path. I realised early on that perhaps the orchestra may not be the best fit for me temperamentally, even if, like many young musicians, I once – perhaps still? – harboured the aspiration to occupy the principal chair of an orchestra section. Recognising this fact, I had to strive to develop and refine other skills to complement my flute playing, so that I might manage to stay afloat and survive as a professional performer. Just as conventional economic wisdom would have it, one must not ‘put all eggs in one basket’, so too do I not want to limit myself to one choice, which explains my simultaneous pursuit of flute playing, conducting and composing.”


During his final year in APA, Angus prepared to audition overseas for further studies. “I originally planned to study at the French ‘CNSMs’, either in Paris or Lyon, and since the French typically conducted auditions in February and March, and I knew that RAM [the Royal Academy of Music, London] typically would visit the APA for auditions, I auditioned for RAM initially as a ‘warm-up’ or a preparation.”

In the end, Angus was accepted by RAM, but he was not so lucky in France. “At one point, I naively thought that I could have studied at Paris, because my teacher at APA, as well as his own teacher, Sophie Cherrier, hailed from a Parisian ‘CNSM lineage’. I even briefly studied with Sophie in 2013 at the Lucerne Festival Academy (more on that later). But it turns out that RAM was the place I was meant for. I have always thought of the environment of RAM as a natural continuation of what I experienced at APA, if I may put it that way. In such a liberal environment with no one to direct you one way or another at every turn, you have to motivate yourself, and, again, carve out your own path. The framework of the curriculum is solid, and there are just enough restraints so that you know exactly where the boundaries are, but there is still plenty of room to play.”

Angus also continued to pursue privately, just as he did during his undergraduate years at APA. “At RAM, I had the chance to ‘study’ with Professor David Gorton, one of the post-grad advisers who happened to be a composer but was not a faculty member in the composition department. We never officially had ‘lessons’ per se, and he never formally admitted me as a student, even privately, but, as he used to say (and I paraphrase), that ‘under the aegis of the Academy, I would be happy to meet you and discuss your work’. So we would meet every now and then, and I would bring one or two of my compositions, and we would discuss the pieces. Looking back retrospectively, he was very generous with his time, and his support during my London years were crucial, since during those years I hardly had my compositional craft ready, and there was barely any occasion when my music back then was performed. After all, my second study was conducting, not composition.

“That said, as a second study in conducting, you get to have classes with students who are majoring in conducting. You would think attending lessons as an audience is uneventful, but that is precisely where you can learn a lot! Of course, when you are invited to conduct sometimes, that is exciting as well. Sian Edwards, my teacher then, was a remarkable musician and pedagogue, and she was invited to hold a class at the St Magnus Festival up in the Orkney Islands in 2015, and of course I applied and attended. At the course, however, many of the fellow participants were conducting ‘majors’ whose everyday work revolved around conducting, so, in a way, I very quickly learnt what my strengths and weakness are, and throughout the process I had experienced nothing but kindness and patience from Sian. Despite my doubts, she has always remained encouraging and nurturing, qualities which I adhere to as I now teach my own conducting class here at HKU.”


After his graduation from RAM, Angus returned to Hong Kong. “I don’t have a European or British passport, so, while I did dream about staying in London or Europe, making a living while I embarked on another auditioning tour hoping to be employed, I had to remain realistic and concede that I do not have the financial means to do so. Mind you, my studies were entirely supported by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund, and I have zero intention of dishonouring one of the clauses of acceptance, which stipulates that I should return to Hong Kong after my studies, so that I might, in one way or another, repay my symbolic debt by contributing to the local scene!”

The fact, though, was that prior to his graduation Angus already had a job lined up in Hong Kong. “I was very lucky. I was offered a one-year internship at the New Music Ensemble as a flautist, after which I would be confirmed as a ‘core member’. Even though NME largely operated on a freelance, project-based nature, I am still very excited because it was what I felt most natural doing, playing contemporary music. So, I had little reason not to go back to Hong Kong.”

Chasing Waterfalls

Fast forward to 2019. Angus was approached by the New Vision Festival for an opera. “I was totally surprised when I was contacted by New Vision, who mentioned that my name was nominated after a shortlisting process, looking for a young, local composer. After we discussed the premise of the engagement, I was linked up with the German team who initiated the commission, and so the adventure began.”

The German team is phase7, a Berlin-based theatre-production company. “Originally, the opera was supposed to have three parts, to be composed by three parties – me, another composer, and klingklangklong, another Berlin-based collective that specialises in electronic music.” Unfortunately, COVID struck, and the project was delayed until mid-2021, when Semperoper Dresden revived the project by proposing that they would stage the opera’s world premiere. “So, having received this news, phase7 notified me and gave the green light to start, and – just in time for Christmas! – I received the freshly completed libretto in late December, whereupon I immediately embarked on creating the piece.”

Time was limited for the composer. “I had only until May to finish everything before rehearsals started in June. I was tasked to create at least one hour of music in less than five months. As I often characterise it, it was a ‘mission impossible’.” Angus thus had to adopt a Spartan schedule of tremendous discipline. “Every day, I would wake up and have breakfast, followed by composing, then lunch and nap, then more writing again, followed by dinnertime and sleep, then rinse and repeat. I was a hermit during those five months, and I had to give up all freelancing jobs as a performer. I didn’t practise flute for over five months, something that would have driven my undergraduate self to insanity! I even resigned from my administrative position at HKNME. In the end, however, it was a price worth paying.”

Angus completed the opera on time, and Chasing Waterfalls premiered in Dresden to resounding success. “There were a lot of good coverage from the German press. The reviews focused on different aspects, but overall the most spectacular thing was the fact that the whole creative team is highly compartmentalised. We worked separately, but in the end, everything came together as one piece in a surprisingly coherent manner.”

There is even the talk of the day, the AI musician. “In Chasing Waterfalls, we did an experiment where we used AI to generate part of the libretto, which was then incorporated into the music. Scene 5 even had its music composed by the AI, with assistance from klingklangklong, and there were also passages in the opera that were sung by the AI. So, AI played a triple role in the opera.”

With the compartmentalised cast, coordination was expectedly a challenge. “Klingklangklong and I hailed from very different aesthetic and stylistic backgrounds, so we had a lot of virtual meetings to transparently discuss our ideas for the piece, and negotiate a way forward that could productively incorporate contributions from both sides. It was a miracle that the whole thing tied together as one piece, precisely because, as I mentioned, the creative process involved so many parties, and you’re not really writing from beginning to the end but have to jump around almost constantly. It’s not exactly, as I imagine, how Chopin might have improvised and wrote down his Ballades!”

Return to Academia

In 2020, Angus embarked on yet another unexpected endeavour. “I was reading during COVID lockdown in 2020, and I had music on YouTube playing in the background. An unexpected ‘suggested’ album began to play, one that I was unacquainted with. It was a very retro-sounding piece of music, but the visual of the music was very futuristic. This is, to me, an oxymoron in terms: how can a piece of music be simultaneously futuristic and retro? How could this music induce the nostalgia that I am feeling right this moment, when I have not lived the very time that this music is invoking? What is it that I am longing for, this future that I have never dreamt but yet is drawn to reimagine?

“In ‘classical music’, we rely on notation to transmit our musical ideas, which is then interpreted by the musician, who re-enacts the music through the instrument, into sound. This mode of transmission, however, was entirely abandoned in the genre of music that I just listened to. There is no intermediary performer, the music goes straight from the producer to the listener. Needless to say, there are no concerts for this kind of music too. Funnily enough, many of the producers in this genre rely on the sampling of older music as a source of material and, through various audio processing edits, reframe the music anew. In its being as a form of cultural piracy, it also seems to be, ironically, practising a form of cultural ‘ecology’ that recycles older music back into our cultural consciousness, particularly in a time when we are constantly overwhelmed and saturated by the ‘new’.

“So, the question is: what does our desire for the retro signify in our technologically advanced age of the digital? How do we view this sampling ‘aesthetic’, considering that pop culture no longer – as it used to, with punk and rock, for instance – celebrates the radically new but rather adopts a postmodern, ‘patchwork’ approach of reappropriating and recombining older material as its modus operandi? Might we be able to take stock from this, from the perspective of contemporary classical music?

“This is my proposed subject of doctoral research at HKU, supervised by Prof Chan Hing-yan and Prof Giorgio Biancorosso. I see it as equal parts compositional, musicological and historiographic. It’s ostensibly about music, but also about the environment and conditions in which we may still make music, which I think is increasingly important for us, because we live in a time when we’re being constantly influenced, monitored, documented and shaped by AIs and algorithms. We need to be conscious on why we still do certain things that we’ve been doing, and whether we should be doing it.”

II. Musings about Music

The second part of the article continues with a series of discussions on role models, new music, compositional approaches and many other topics dear to Angus’s heart.

C – Cindy Ho; A – Angus Lee

C: Do you have any role models?

A: As a flautist, Emmanuel Pahud. He came to Hong Kong twice, and I was lucky that I was able to play in his masterclass on both occasions. He was very inspiring, and I particularly liked his instinctiveness and connection to music.

On the other hand, Pierre Boulez is, in a way, my role model as a conductor. I met him in 2013 at the Lucerne Festival Academy. I had heard all about him in books and Wikipedia, but it’s really something to put a voice to the name, and to get to know him as a warm, kind-hearted human being.

Boulez had been very sick in 2013, and a collar bone injury prevented him from conducting and leading the Academy that summer, but he still came every day to the rehearsal, visiting all the musicians, no matter chamber music, coaching or orchestral. All of us who were there realised that we were in a very privileged position, and that we have to work extra hard. He gave us a chance, so we have to live up to it. That’s why I see working in new music as a calling, and I always try to continue his legacy by passing on my experience to the forthcoming generations. Education is crucial in preserving, but so is breathing new vitality into our tradition, and it is through sincere innovation that we may resist the forces of market commercialism and popular consumerism, both of which threaten to erode the very foundations of our artistic practice.

C: How is a new music conductor different from the typical orchestral conductor?

A: I think that the role of a conductor who conducts classical repertoire and that of a conductor who conducts new music diverge on a number of points.

Since most professional orchestral players these days are so well versed in the “standard repertoire”, they don’t need a conductor to “educate them” (quoting conductor Sir Thomas Beecham) on how to play a piece, which they probably know better anyhow. The role of the conductor, in this instance, then, is to listen attentively to what the orchestra has to offer interpretatively, on a collective but also on a more local, individualistic basis. He must then negotiate and work on an end result, a “representation” of the piece that balances the interest of the piece itself but also the interpretation preference of the orchestra and the conductor him/herself. In this way, a conductor who “resonates” with the orchestra can draw out the best the ensemble has to offer, while the orchestra would amplify the intentions of the conductor through its playing. In this way, the orchestral conductor is a figure of inspiration, drawing out musicality and ensembleship from the musicians.

On the other hand, the nature of new music can be much more varied and complex on many levels, and, admittedly, orchestral musicians often do not have sufficient time to acquaint with the individual soundscapes of every new piece. In this instance, simplicity and clarity of gestural communication that is “fluff-less” is always the priority. I say “fluff-less” as a metaphorical superlative, contrasting the often elegant though admittedly less “functional” gestures characteristic of some “standard repertoire” conductors.

That’s not to say beating time is the new music conductor’s only job. A lot of people think that conductors are just glorified time-beaters, but in fact a new music conductor’s job often consists of “organisation”. I focus the early stages of the rehearsal in ensuring that all musicians are coming in at the right point of entry in the music – sometimes, due to that nature of the music, that alone could be quite challenging, believe it or not! After that is done, then I proceed to explore and, again, negotiate an interpretation of the music that respects the intention of its creator (and the advantage here is that you can actually speak with the composer in the rehearsal!), but also positions it aesthetically with styles from the past. Beyond that, it is the musicians who actually produce the sound of the music, and I am merely an intermediary. When people look at conductor videos, they frequently analyse the sounds of the orchestra in relation to certain hand gestures of the conductor, but that’s a misconception, in a way, because what you are looking at is the end product, but not the 40 rehearsals – in the case of Karajan’s famous Mahler 5, for instance – with which he used to achieve that sound.

Another thing I liked about being a new music conductor is the liveliness of it. In new music, my role consists of not just re-producing the music, but also potentially to help shape the music better and to offer suggestions. You can never ask Wagner what he wanted to achieve in a passage – one might consult archival material, but even then that comes its own problems – in new music, however, nothing is set in stone, not even after the premiere, in a way. It’s not a subservient, strict hierarchy but rather that, since everything is fresh off the press, everyone, even the players, can be involved in the creative process.

C: Any advice from teachers that has stayed with you to this day?

A: All of the teachers have taught me something, and ultimately they opened up different parts of my musical path.

My inaugural teacher, Ms Kuo, gave me a passion in music and in playing music. My teacher in APA Junior, Ms Wang, was really into drilling the basics, so I consolidated my technique very well during my study with her. She saw potential in me and put me into a lot of competitions, which helped me overcome my stage fright little by little, but, because of the regimental training, I could not venture to express as freely as I wished, and my musicality became compromised somewhat towards the end of that period.

Then came Tim Wilson, whom I studied with during the last years of APA Junior. He reinvigorated my flute playing by reintroducing the elements of freedom and play in his teaching, reminding me that, after all, we “play” music. After I proceeded into undergrad studies, my fourth teacher, Olivier Nowak, imparted to me the sense of style and aesthetic of sound.

In RAM, I studied simultaneously under Samuel (Sam) Coles and Kate Hill, two teachers whose teaching, at least initially, appeared completely antithetical with one another. In my first year, I connected very well with Sam as he also studied in CNSM Paris, whereas Kate was a pupil of William Bennett, one of the representatives of the so-called English school. By the end of the second year, however, I realised that both Sam and Kate were trying to refine the very thing that Olivier and I had been working on, that is, the aesthetics of the sound on the flute. It was merely a difference of rhetoric that created the illusion that they were suggesting contradictory aspects of my playing. That said, even though Olivier, Sam and Kate are all orchestral musicians, and that they largely focus on teaching traditional repertoire, they also encouraged me to be very open to new ideas, which provided the springboard for me to go into new music.

C: I think of my relationship with my instrument as that of a partner, where I have my stuff, she has her stuff, but we are both working together towards a single goal. What’s your relationship with the flute?

A: The flute is the instrument through which I got into music. But when I got into undergrad I realised that my temperament and the flute is not necessarily the most compatible combination, because for most of the flute repertoire there is this tradition of a sweet, fairy-like sound, and there’s not much in the area of the low register, places where the music can sound stronger and, in a way, more aggressive. So, for a long time, I was struggling with the flute, because I did not fully enjoy all the repertoire that I am doing. It took me a long time to actually come to grips with how to make the instrument to work with me.

Fortunately, through a local instrument-maker in Hong Kong, the renowned Mr Yam (훨卷達師링), I became acquainted with the flute maker Lev Levit, and I specially requested a flute that is more powerful and resonant at the low register. It even got extra keys for microtonal pitches, which is the perfect tool for my field of new music. So, I can now finally say I’m now in a “stable relationship” with my flute…

But then there are some “concubines”, an alto flute and a bass flute that I sometimes also play. There is so much more repertoire to explore on these instruments, and different flutes require slightly different embouchures, training up different muscles and reinforcing my regular flute playing when I bring that setup back into my performances. As a joke, I often say I dislike the piccolo, that “little devil”, which I find the most temperamental of all the flutes!

C: Throughout the development of a musician, there is a period from playing intuitively to playing consciously. Which stage are you in now?

A: Define consciously.

C: It’s when you have a path, and you know what you are doing. Basically, it’s the times after you no longer have a teacher, so you have to know what you are doing.

A: Throughout my studies I was taught many things, but usually the penny didn’t drop until I started working. That’s when you realise, “Oh that’s what this means, that’s what opening your throat means, etc.”, and that’s when you start to develop your own working method. Before that, of course, your teachers will tell you what to do, but those are only the broad strokes. Only after there’s no one to rein you in, when you have to rein yourself in and discipline yourself with it, then that’s where the magic happens. You learn to reinforce what you are good at and catch up on what you are not good at. And so I found my own way to practise, and of course my practice focus was on the low register – ha, ha, no surprise. It’s been quite a few years on that, and I think I got to a point where I am relatively in control on most days. Of course, we cannot have perfect control all the time, and I came to accept the fact that there will always be days where I’m off, but it’s okay because I know I have the discipline to keep myself at a certain level.

C: Personally, I think that you have to be 100% playing consciously on stage. Of course, you still have to let go and let the music to take you away, otherwise it will become very unmusical.

A: I used to get quite nervous on stage. I remember, with my recital in 2018, I didn’t feel like I was opening up probably until the last movement of the last piece. But earlier this year on stage, I felt completely no nervousness. I was really calm and happy, and that’s the first time I’ve tried that. Funnily enough, I think that has to do with the experience I got from conducting my own opera.

When conducting Chasing Waterfalls, I have to listen to a click track to sync up with the electronics. Not only do I have to cue instruments, give cues to singer and mouth the lyrics; I also have to listen to the click track and make sure I’m not going too fast or too slow. There’re a lot of details to handle, and to make it work you have to abstract yourself from the music making to a certain degree.

If you get too involved in the thing you’re doing, you will lose sight of the bigger picture. Conducting my opera helped me experience that perspective in performance and to stay very detached. Yes, you have to play musically, you have to do all the thing, but it’s much more important to listen and react, to plan ahead rather than letting your concern of the self take the front stage. As Lorin Maazel would hyperbolically say, one only sweats because one is too concerned with oneself!

If you look at Boulez conducting, he’s not necessarily always in control – it is not something that he would necessarily have wanted – but he is definitely always calm and disciplined. Bernard Haitink, on the other hand, while an undeniably great conductor, was not always as disciplined as he was renowned to be. I was watching a recording of him conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 and, being still at a younger age, he was wildly passionate and physical with his conducting. By the end of the first movement, he was already sweating like a pig – but there’s four more movements to go, almost an hour! In one’s youth, one doesn’t realise the limits of the body, but being no longer in my twenties and having recovered from a surgery in recent years, I’ve begun to appreciate the importance of restraint and conservation.

C: What is your teaching philosophy?

A: When I first learnt the flute, it was like a toy to me, and I don’t get tired of playing at all. That’s why I still believe that, if you are trying to learn music, you have to find that it’s pleasurable. Not everybody got to start out thinking about pitches and structures. The intellectual aspect can always come later.

I didn’t come to think about education until quite recently, because, while still in school, I was focused on being a career performer (not that I no longer am, just differently than how I had envisioned back then, and much more fulfillingly so). It was only towards the end of my RAM years, when I undertook the LRAM teaching diploma course, that I began to formulate some manner of a teaching per se, and it was only when I began teaching that I discovered that it seems to come relatively naturally to me. What you are teaching is not only the instrument itself but a way of thinking through the instrument and through the discipline of music. This way, even if they end up not being a professional musician, the lessons they learnt throughout the way will allow them to open up certain parts of their brain, and their opinion as a person will become more open.

C: In Vantage, we’ve asked many composers to talk about their composition procedures. There are some who said that composing is like a discovery and some who said that everything is already in their brain and they are just notating it out. There are yet others who said that a small portion is in the mind but most of it is attained via hard work. What’s your view on this?

A: Let’s say I want to transcribe the sound of a metal spoon banging on the table. How do we write down something as complex as this? You can have these sounds inside your head, and then the problem becomes: what kind of instruments can do that, or what kind of modifications do I need to do to present it? To be able to get from thinking of a sound to executing the idea on paper one has to study the works by our forebearers, recent and not-so-recent. That’s why I regularly write even when I wasn’t commissioned to, because as a composer, we also need to practise and polish our own craft.

I also think it’s very important to have an understanding of the instrument before you even have a music idea. You have to take active interest in understanding the physical mechanics of instruments, so that you know what you can do to it and do with it. Here, I am fortunate that I started out as a flautist because, where I was studying, people mess around with and do silly stuff to their instruments all the time. A lot of these things are actually quite inspiring because, when you push them far enough, you eventually get to a point where it can become actual usable, novel technique.

For me, after having an understanding of the instruments, it becomes easier to “transcode” – to borrow a word from the great American critical theorist Fredric Jameson – the still vague ideas of a piece of music I would write. If it’s a commission, then there are a lot of considerations – constraints, even – that can be helpful, even inspiring: who is playing it, how long is the piece supposed to be, what other pieces are also on the programme, et cetera. On other occasions, if it’s just a piece that you want to write, then you have to work the other way, by imposing other constraints and limits within which your creativity can operate. For me, freedom in composition is inconceivable without a certain set of explicit – sometimes implicit – rules that more or less guide the act of imagining, listening and writing.

This leads to the two major ways one can compose music. You can start from the form of the piece, figuring out the details and honing in onto the micro level during the compositional process, or you can start from the other end, beginning with the raw sound itself on the micro level and build the piece up therefrom.

Sometimes, the genre dictates the compositional method. For example, in opera, the form is given to you by the text already. You need to have structural signposts for this kind of large-scale music but, if it’s a simpler piece and I have only one note to start with, then I can just start writing and see how it sounds like, then continue from there. Not everything needs to be as Stockhausen would have done it, with all-encompassing super-formulas that pre-envision every single detail before the actual piece is written. As much as I admire his craftsmanship and contribution to musical innovation in the history of 20th-century music, I admit I still find much of his music – especially those from his later years – difficult to “take in”.

Instead, I believe that every piece should have a life of its own and a way of figuring out its path, just like we ourselves do. I remember I was once supposed to write a 10-minute piece for marimba, but halfway through I still didn’t know where the music is going. I found that state extremely interesting, and the piece became an extremist experimentation in form, where I challenge myself on how long I can sustain a single piece of material, stretching to its very limits and at the moment the audience begin to get bored, I’ll “turn up the stove”, so to speak, and unleash the developmental logic of the music in an extremely compressed form. The piece – named …ché la diritta via era smarrita, after the first lines of Dante’s Inferno – turned out to be, in effect, an experiment in time perception in relation to the developmental pace of its musical material.

C: What percentage of your compositions is pre-planned or by chance?

A: Having invoked the figure of Stockhausen earlier, it should come as no surprise that I used to follow what some would consider to be an obsolete, proto-serial doxa of preplanning my music down to the very last detail. I later felt, however, that, whenever I tried doing so, the actual musical end result, in its strict adherence to an “intellectualised” pre-compositional schema, became devoid of organicity. That’s why, despite still planning my music ahead now, I no longer do so to the extent I used to, but I rather enjoy the fact that I cannot foresee how the music would turn out. I would simply start writing, but then I would be very attentive in listening to how the materials seem to be unfolding. You can then deduce the possible ways forward, try them out, and, perhaps only in the very last instance, elect one that might turn out to link up with other parts coherently. You have to make adjustments on the spot, and sometimes it is a gamble. The post-war British painter Francis Bacon also stressed on multiple instances the importance of what he called “accidents”, that is, unforeseen elements that enter the creative paradigm beyond your conception but which productively add to the work as a whole. In this way, I also subscribe to this openness to chance, to embrace the “other” which I cannot possibly imagine but which comes unexpectedly while I compose.

On the other hand, I do not necessarily believe in inspiration, that you can take a stroll and, magically, “ideas” would come to you. As Pascal Dusapin once quoted Xenakis, composition is like a desk job at the post office. You need to be at the desk – working – in order for that to happen. I sometimes feel like I’m a sculptor and the piece a raw piece of rock. You can have an idea of what the rock will eventually become, but you will never get there if you don’t start to chisel at it. The good thing is, unlike sculptors and rocks, we can reverse course as composers if we feel like a particular part isn’t function, and we could simply delete that and start again!

So, my approach is: on any given day, I would simply start putting notes down. I would leave the editing for the next day in the morning. If I am feeling particularly “uninspired” on any particular day, sometimes the act of editing the notational detail of yesterday’s “leftovers” can serve to entrain me back into a creative disposition. To be fair, I don’t think that composing is so different from practising an instrument or learning a new piece. To get anywhere, you must start with the broad strokes first.

C: Any struggles about pleasing yourself versus pleasing the audience?

A: It’s a tricky question, because what does the audience really want? If you begin to write a piece of music that panders to your perceived audiences, then you will find quickly that you start to write what I would call “inauthentic” music that is akin to musical fast food. You won’t be repulsed by them, but by the time you listen to another piece, you’d have forgotten about the first altogether, as there is scarcely anything remarkable – any “substance” – that moves you in any capacity.

Explicitly writing music to please the audience also leads to another problem, akin to what we see with the widespread use of predictive algorithms. When people like something, they will want to hear it again. But, when you feed them the same thing again and again, it’s very unlikely they’ll want to break away and suddenly have a new, radical experimentation. We see this a lot, in YouTube algorithms, in pop music. You might retort that people would find repetition boring, but that is evidently not the case if we look at pop music, or even Hollywood cinema, these days. Since the “new” doesn’t always guarantee financial success, it’s always safer to return to the “known”, and, instead of taking on daring, audacious ideas, it’s always better to expand existing franchises into “universes”, where known faces dwell in (not-so-)new tropes that other universes are also relying on. Look at the unmitigated failure of the new Disney Star Wars franchise, or how James Cameron’s Avatar, hailed as revolutionary back in 2009 as a forerunner in 3D films, was re-released earlier this year with “updated” technology, but is substantially identical to its 2009 incarnation. So long as it is sensorially stimulating, people would flock to see whatever constitutes a spectacle, an “experience”.

C: So you avoid pleasing the audience entirely in your work?

A: On the contrary. What I would venture to say, however, is that we should critically examine the use of the word “pleasing”. In what ways are audience habituated to be pleased, and how can we challenge that notion? Can being pleased refer to more than simply sensorial pleasure, that something sounds “nice”? While not denying that music can be pleasing to the senses, can we not also restore to music its capacity in pleasing the intellect? I think it is the balancing act in attempting to achieve it, as well as how close we get to achieving it, that renders a piece of music sincere, even “authentic”. That said, I don’t deny that, depending on contexts, I have to concede and “give the people what they want”. I mean, my opera is a case in point, where, for first time, I’ve actually written a memorable, singable tune! My approach, however, is that I would give audiences a minimum amount of railing to hang on to in my piece, but then the music should still be a journey for them to work through, not just a car ride on the back seat, if you will. As a composer, contrary to what most would like to think, I only see one “side” of the music, if you will; when the music is approached by a musician, they see other sides to the music, which they bring to life in their own way; when the audience listens to the music, they come to their own conclusions about other facets of the music that escapes my conception. In this way, if I can only see one side of the music, or that I can only necessarily see the music from several angles, how can I lay claim to “authority” to the music as such, when the “idea” of the music is contributed by so many parties over generations? What does it mean, then, to be faithful “to the score”, or even more pompously, to be faithful to the “intentions of the composer”? This, a truly fascinating subject of debate, must sadly be reserved for discussion another time.

Interviewed by Vantage Music and written by Chester Leung.