One of the joys of travel is meeting new people, especially when we share friends in common. Before arriving in Vietnam to begin our 2019 concerts with the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, my husband Jeff and I decided to visit Singapore and Thailand to meet some of their composers and contemporary music leaders. I am pleased to report that creativity in Asian contemporary music is thriving and exciting.
With introductions from our Vietnamese colleagues, Facebook and emails facilitated quick connections. Luckily musicians love to eat, so our conversations also included local food as well as introductions to music and cultural institutions. Our trip began in Singapore, a city of the future with a thriving arts scene.
Pictured above is composer Kee Yong Chong, Malaysian-born and now a Singapore resident. Singapore welcomes immigration by highly educated applicants, and Kee Yong, with a doctorate, has taught at some of Asia’s finest music schools. He now focuses on his composition and an annual festival in Malaysia that he produces for young ASEAN (southeast Asian) composers. We were fortunate to catch Kee Yong just before he set off for performances of his music in Europe.
As Kee Yong walked us around cultural and academic facilities in Bencoolen, we enjoyed seeing young people at work, and hearing a percussion performance at LaSalle University to welcome new students. The requisite coffee house beckoned and Kee Yong introduced us to a fellow composer, Dirk Johan Stromberg who teaches at the school. “We are Facebook friends already,” we all noted as we caught up quickly with a fellow American who had moved to Singapore.
Composer Chung Shih met us for coffee the following day, providing us with a broad overview of local contemporary music activity as president of the Composers Society of Singapore. Because of our meeting, he is planning to visit Hanoi for a concert by the Hanoi New Music Ensemble; we hope his visit will create new links between the music scene in Hanoi and Singapore.
We moved on to Chiang Mai, a city located in northern Thailand that is the home to many colleges and training centers, especially in medicine. Chiang Mai is a center for Thai Buddhism, and the city reflects the northern Thai Lanna culture. Temples are everywhere you walk and the Old City is surrounded by a beautiful moat and ancient walls. Despite many tourists, Chiang Mai maintains its charm through its holy sites and especially its food.
We were happy to meet young composer Patiparn (Kim) Jaikampan, who is on his way to a very successful career. He has recently returned from Sochi, Russia, where he was invited to participate in an international festival hosted by violist and conductor Yuri Bashmet. Kim is working on a new opera that will be premiered in Riga, Latvia, and he has ambitions to study abroad now that he has completed his degree at home.
Kim’s professor and mentor joined us for lunch at a wonderful food center where we tasted northern Thai Lanna cuisine. Chaipruck Medara is an internationally recognized composer, conducts the local orchestra, and leads the Chiang Mai Ginastera International Music Festival each year. He studied at Roosevelt and Northwestern Universities in Chicago and has had many performances in the United States. After lunch we had a tour of the music school facilities at the royal university.
Kim also hosted a dinner for us to meet two American musicians who teach in Chiang Mai. Bennet Lerner has been in Chiang Mai for over 25 years as professor at Payap University. New Chiang Mai resident Chris Mangum recently joined the faculty at Chiang Mai University. We all have many friends and experiences in common, and we can understand why they have embraced Thailand as their home. Our Lanna Thai dishes were hand picked by Kim with many specialties that one finds only locally.
We moved on to Bangkok, a city of hidden treasures. Beneath the pollution and traffic one finds hip neighborhoods, the largest Chinatown outside of China, stunning Buddhist temples, and food temptations on every street. It is endlessly fascinating. We explored the original canal system (which is much larger than Venice’s), the weekend markets, and enjoyed the breezes on the Chao Praya river. The Skytrain makes it easy to travel through the city.
First we had lunch with an old friend, Norihiko Yoshioka, Director-General of the Japan Foundation in Thailand. He has been posted previously in Hanoi and Tokyo, and is currently serving in Bangkok. We enjoyed our lunch together and provided an update on the activities and progress of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. We enjoyed hearing about the cultural life of Bangkok, which includes many events organized through the generosity of the Japan Foundation.
Almost five years ago at home in Los Angeles, we met Thai composer Narong Yaay Prangcharoen, who served as composer-in-residence for the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Orange County. Because of our activities in Asia over the past 15 years, mutual friends brought us together. We reconnected with Narong, who has recently been appointed Dean of Music at Mahidol University in Bangkok. His compositions have been performed internationally and he is now one of the leaders of the Thai musical community.
One of the advantages of meeting old and new friends abroad is that you will be introduced to parts of the city not frequented by tourists. Narong hosted a delicious dinner for us in the Sukhamvit district of Bangkok at a restaurant in a beautiful historic house. Narong’s brother and a local pianist friend joined us. We discussed how music performances happen in Thailand and Asia, much more focused on single events rather than the American/European model of series of concerts. Narong’s experiences in the U.S. and Europe will help the arts community of Thailand learn more about the numerous ways of presenting the arts.
Before we continued to Hanoi for performances by the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, we had one last meeting. Pang Vongtaradon, Assistant Professor at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, is a composer and jazz musician. He studied in the U.S. and we had a lively conversation about jazz, improvisation, and composition. We met at yet another hip cafe near Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s version of Central Park. Pang told us about the logistics of life in Bangkok (use the Skytrain, never drive!), but emphasized that the challenges of the big city (no different in any large metropolitan area) do not hold back the breadth of activity happening in the arts. Each country’s challenges are different, but he stressed that there is more and more interaction between Asian countries each year through exchanges and festivals. Conversations with Pang confirmed many of our observations from our travels
We are grateful to our friends in Hanoi (Vu Nhat Tan and Pham Truong Son), in Hong Kong (William Lane and Sharon Chan), and our reacquaintances, who encouraged us to meet this very special group of creative composers, musicians, cultural leaders and teachers. I know we will keep in touch and continue to share our experiences. Music is truly a universal language that brings people together everywhere on the planet. I am happy to report that “What’s Next?” in Asia is expansive musical activity led by caring and talented creative artists.