Hong Kong’s Intimacy of Creativity

Hong Kong’s Intimacy of Creativity Re-ignites the Process of Making Concert Music

by guest writer Karissa Krenz

As a recovering composer–turned music writer, it’s been years since I’ve sat through anything resembling a chamber music workshop. But last month, the representatives of a new project enticed me to fly halfway around the world to check one out. Now that I’ve returned home, conquered jet-lag, and have had some time to ponder, I’ve realized that these all-too-rare programs highlight the importance of community, and illustrate how, if the Classical music industry wants to remain a relevant, it needs to focus the shared experience of creation—which might just inject some new life to into the genre.

The Intimacy of Creativity (IC), which just completed its second year at the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology (HKUST), is an annual gathering that brings together emerging composers, master composers, and chamber musicians for an unusual type of workshop. The brainchild of composer, performer, and Artistic Director Bright Sheng, IC hopes to re-ignite the kinds of intensive partnerships between composers and performers that, according to Sheng, don’t exist in the concert music world as much as they did over a century ago, when people working as “composer/performer” was the norm.

Six emerging composers participated in the two week long workshop: Britain’s Emma-Ruth Richards, Hong Kong’s Austin Yip, Portugal’sPedro Faria Gomes, and America’s Michael Djupsrom, Matt Van Brink, and Matthew Tommasini, who also served as IC’s Associate Artistic Director. IC’s three “master” composers—who also had works under the knife—were Sheng, violinist/composer Mark O’Connor, and composer/pianist Joan Tower, and the invited artists included Canto-pop star Jonathan Wong (who worked on transforming one of his songs), Ensemble-in-Residence Camerata Pacifica, Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Haochen Chang, cellist Trey Lee, and violist Sophie Stanley.

The process itself divided a grueling schedule of 11 works (plus an additional two by Beethoven) into two week-long segments. After an initial rehearsal, each piece was presented in a discussion (also open to HKUST students), during which all of the participants chimed in with suggested improvements. The composers had a day or so to edit (depending on the schedule) before another closed rehearsal and final open discussion. The works were rehearsed again —and tweaked, if necessary—before the HKUST preview performance, which was followed the next night by the World Premiere Concert at Hong Kong’s City Hall Theatre. Add jet-lag to the mix, and it was an exhausting—yet apparently exhilarating—experience that made the whole thing seem a bit like “Composition Workshop: The Reality Show.”

Philadelphia-based composer and pianist Michael Djupstrom participated in IC as both performer and composer. The harried pace was at times frustrating for him—he never felt quite prepared enough when performing others’ works, and he only had only one night to make the initial edits to his own piece before its next open discussion.

“Practically, I can’t think of any better way to do it,” says Djupstrom. “It’s not like you’re going to be able to get performers of that caliber who are going to have the time or take more time to travel to Hong Kong and do that, or the composers for that matter. But I wish we would have been able to fully prepare the work as it was pre-existing on the page, and then present that “finished version” to the whole group, and then get their feedback.”

On the other hand, Britain’s Emma-Ruth Richards handled the tight schedule remarkably well.

“ I have an affliction of writing too fast,” says Richards. “I think if I would’ve found myself in this position maybe two or three years ago, I would’ve been, not out of my depth, but I would have been far more stressed about it. But actually, an afternoon in my room to make changes and things is totally fine. And to see them change the next day, is far better than waiting two weeks or having to have this conversation over the phone with the performer that’s miles away.”

Sheng encouraged the composers and performers to make changes right up until the World Premiere performances, and while on one hand it made the whole experience a bit of a nail-biter for some, it also illustrated Sheng’s belief that music is a living, breathing entity.

“There is only one rule,” said Sheng, “that you have to make beautiful music, and whether you write it down or improvise it, or at the last minute you change something, or the players are adding something—this is all part of music making and creativity.”

While this kind of discussion and working-out process is the norm in most other genres of music, it’s not as common in the concert music world. Having the players chime in, too, was vital: Beyond the obvious technique advice they could offer, they often made interesting suggestions that approached compositional problem solving from another angle.

“Having performers articulate the same problems we would see in a totally different language,” says Djupstrom, “reinforces, for composers, that if person has that musical sensibility—and has developed it into a professional situation—you should trust them to bring a lot to the piece. I learned that their point of view was just as valid as all of the other composers sitting in those workshops.”

And when you’re working on something that’s as abstract as new “Classical” music, the discussions can be challenging—especially when everything happens within such a condensed schedule.

“In chamber music, where there aren’t any words—there might be a program or a story, but no words—we have to dig a little deeper to find out what the hidden syntax of the music is,” says Brooklyn-based composer Matt Van Brink, who, when the group realized his ten-year-old piece’s title was actually hindering its interpretation, decided to change its name. “On that level, conversation can get very theoretical, from the composer’s standpoint. From the performer’s standpoint, it’s very expressive and emotional—I think it’s very concrete. But for the composers—all of a sudden everyone has their own idea of what the piece is supposed to be doing.”

In addition to bringing people together and exposing each other to new music and new ways of thinking, they discover everyone’s capabilities, and form lasting artistic partnerships—Camerata Pacifica’s Artistic Director Adrian Spence even mentioned that he was thinking about commissioning some of the composers in the program.

In spite of numerous problems that still need to be worked out—it is a young program with some built-in challenges—IC’s participants ultimately seemed to take away a majority of positives from the experience, from improved pieces to performances by incredible chamber musicians.

“The most important thing I took away is that the piece is never done,” said Djupstrom. “The piece on the page exists kind of abstractly, but it doesn’t exist for any practical reason until you hear it. Even Beethoven doesn’t exist until someone plays it, which means that, every time it’s performed, in a sense, the performers are recreating the piece…and we’re always making decisions that really do shape the piece.”

In addition to reviving the true ensemble spirit of music making, the players, performers, and repertoire in general stand to receive other benefits from projects such as the Intimacy of Creativity. And by illustrating the importance of making music together in Hong Kong, all of the participants have hopefully returned home to spread the love of living music—and one hopes future IC participants will do the same.

“It’s an admirable process,” says Djupstrom, “and I think it’s something that we can use a lot more of.”


Karissa Krenz is a New York City–based editor, writer, and communications professional specializing in the arts and entertainment. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications including Time Out New YorkMuso, and Playbill, and she is the former Editor of Chamber Music magazine. She regularly works on projects for a variety of organizations, including The Actors Fund, The New York Philharmonic, and Lincoln Center, for which she edits the special Playbill for the White Light Festival.