About Kelly Tang

To composer Kelly Tang, it is part of the DNA of a composer to educate – music is a negotiation with the listener, and connecting with them in a concise and meaningful way through music is not just important, but absolutely necessary. A fixture in the music education sector, Tang’s background as an educator has developed in him something that some composers lack attention to: a sensitivity to the background of his audience. There is an innate desire to write music that resonates with people who perhaps may not be acquainted with concert music – to this end, his music is characterized by a directness and clarity of expression, these being an integral consideration in his compositional process.

His own background sheds additional light on this musical disposition. Immersed in the worlds of pop, soul and jazz music in his youth through collecting records and playing in bands, he has always been struck by the communicative power of this music. Jazz, in particular, captivated him – the visceral energy and spontaneous, eclectic process of invention in this style of music he found particularly moving. Other musical interests included music for musicals and films, as well as South Indian drumming, all of which form integral parts of a diverse, musical background. Later, when he found composition as the perfect outlet for his creative impulses, it was inevitable that Tang wanted his classical work to have the same immediate qualities which are often found in music of more popular styles and genres.

Working with what he sometimes refers to as a karang-guni approach to composition, Tang draws liberally from other genres of music, especially those that he grew up with – pieces like Apocalypso, quasi-fever dream in music, weave noticeably jazzy riffs, harmonies and grooves into the fabric of a western orchestral overture. He has no qualms about bringing music of wildly distant cultures together, most notably in his Montage, a concerto for jazz pianist against the backdrop of a Chinese orchestra. The more recent Voices of Angels is a work for piano trio the goes even further, being coloured with elements drawn from blues, funk and even Japanese traditional music. With these genres of music being (as he would describe) part of his DNA, all of these disparate ideas are deftly integrated into an approach that not only results in a distinct and unique compositional voice, but also harnesses the immediacy and communicative power of these ideas. 

A composer who dislikes the dichotomy between entertainment and art, it is his goal to write music that is both musically compelling as well as artistically rewarding to the listener. Tang feels at home taking found musical material – everything from pop songs to folk tunes – and unlocking the compositional potential latent in them. His choral arrangements of Flying without Wings and She’s out of my Life (by Westlife and Michael Jackson respectively) take these popular songs and rewrites them in the style of medieval motets, breaking down the walls between old and new and exploiting their polyphonic possibilities. His immensely popular Symphonic Suite on a Set of Local Tunes, an orchestral treatment of quintessentially Singaporean tunes like Home and Chan Mali Chan turns these simple melodies into a work of symphonic scale, liberally adding new melodic lines and even quoting from movie scores like The Magnificent Seven to give the music a familiar cinematic quality.

A composer who draws so freely from the music around him may come off as indulgent, but this is not music written for the purpose of empty spectacle and sensation – this stylistic freedom creates common ground and shared experiences for listeners of wildly different backgrounds. Tang’s work is exemplified by this earnestness and sincerity in reaching out to his listeners, creating moving and meaningful musical experiences for them.