He’s colourful and ‘alive’. A contradiction, it appears at first, to the instrument and music period the effervescent Professor Datuk Dr Kah-Ming Ng is famed for, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
“MY favourite composer? Many. Did you know some murdered their lovers?
“I have a murderous streak. But the people I stab, I stab at the front. Not the back! By the way, I made that up. I don’t even know how to use a knife!”
A raucous guffaw erupts as Professor Datuk Dr Kah-Ming Ng responds with much theatrics to my question about his favourite composer. With his plummy British accent and unaffected mannerisms, he reminds me a lot of that floppy-haired, lovable Brit actor, Hugh Grant.
Like a bullet train, the good prof happily shares that he has an unhealthy prurience about the lives of composers, or more precisely, their secret lives — the shadier the better. Jabbing into his salad enthusiastically, he says: “I was always curious. Take Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer of the late Romantic period. He jumped into the river and killed himself. Why? Then you had Bach who had 20 kids. Why? And how did he manage? Things like that.”
Eyes dancing, he continues: “So I started with the slightly scandalous, prurient aspects and then I got into it. So now, my life or my work often involves contextualising the music, giving them the historical perspective and possibly even social and economic perspective. People who come to see my shows, pay money not just to listen to the music but also to listen to me tell them about the historical context of the music, which in turn, really deepens their appreciation and their experience.”
As musical director and harpsichordist of the Baroque ensemble Charivari Agrèable, Kah-Ming has toured all over the world, playing for diverse audiences that also include statesmen and royalty. He’s even played for pop royalty. Brit band and 1980s pop sensation Duran Duran apparently booked him twice to play at their private parties.
“It was surreal, actually, but fun. I wanted to take a Spandau Ballet CD for them to sign,” says Kah-Ming, “but I didn’t!”
His “band”, Charivari Agreable, has been described by Gramophone, the world’s leading classical music magazine, as “one of the most versatile Early Music groups around at the moment.”
It has been hailed for its “thinking musicians who treat music of the past more creatively” via their arrangements of music, “based on a greater knowledge of the historical and social contexts for the music.” The magazine went on to praise the ensemble for representing “a new and very exciting phase of the early music revival, one that enriches the existing repertory and can bring us ever closer to the spirit of the original music.”
Suffice to say, the PJ-born Kah-Ming, who’s back from Oxford, England, where he’s based, for his annual pilgrimage to his home country for family and work commitments, is well chuffed. Looking completely laidback in his dark blue shirt over a pair of trendy three-quarter length slacks, a Murano glass pendant around his neck and minus his Oxford professor uniform of Harry Potter-esque robe, the boyish-looking music maestro appears just like any other affluent KL-lite enjoying a boisterous lunch with friends at upmarket Bangsar, KL.
Baroque music, explains Kah-Ming, obviously noting the “glaze” that has started to descend on my face, is a style of western art music that was composed from around 1600 to 1750. Some notable names from that period included Bach, Vivaldi, Handel et al. Composers and performers of that period used more elaborate musical ornamentation, made changes in musical notation and developed new instrumental playing techniques.
“I love this period,” exclaims Kah-Ming. “The music is really lovely, honest, and wholesome. It appeals to my engineering mind, I think. There’s an idea of symmetry from which they always try and break away. And there are proportions and mathematics in it as well.”
SOUND OF THE HARPSICHORD
On why the harpsichord is his instrument of choice, he replies: “I know, it’s a really basic instrument. Almost primitive. But I’ve always loved the sound of it.”
It all started quite by accident, he confides, recalling: “I was reading Engineering at Monash University in Melbourne. It so happened that the university chapel took delivery of a new keyboard instrument for the chapel — a harpsichord. I begged to try it because I was also practising some Bach on the piano. And then I fell in love with it.”
Adding, he says: “I’d always loved the instrument anyway so when I finally got to try it, I started taking lessons while doing my engineering, I mean. I got my degree. I actually worked. But I spent more time in the music department than in the science library.”
He recalls having to completely unlearn everything he knew about the piano and the habits he’d formed. Says Kah-Ming: “Pianists require strength. We don’t. We require more digital dexterity, more nuances, and more subtleties in the articulation. You need to make the instrument speak differently.”
His interest piqued, he went on to pursue something called performance practice. “It’s a very detailed study of how people performed 200 to 300 years ago. Of course, today’s techniques and 300 years ago are different.”
He continues to explain that in the ‘70s, or even way back in the ‘50s, people began to dig up from museums old violins, harpsichords, etc, and restore them. “They were intent on being as true to the composers’ intentions as possible.
This ‘authenticity movement’ was keen to recreate the sound and possibly the performing conditions.
People, nowadays, adds Kah-Ming, are performing the Old Masters on modern instruments and playing in styles and techniques which are far removed from the original. “I’m into playing it in the original style and sticking as close to the original,” he declares.
Are you a purist? I pose.
He shakes his head in response. “Erm, no. You have the authenticity police — they’re real purists — and then there’re those like me who say like, yeah, you have to try and stay as true to the spirit as possible, but there’s something about ourselves that we need to let into the music to make it work for today’s audiences.”
Adding, Kah-Ming says: “So I can do pure and I can also do slightly modern, but I’d never put in a modern violin or an electric guitar.
“After all, I’m still a harpsichordist. But the really pure purists wouldn’t use a French harpsichord for an Italian music because the sound is different.
“A French harpsichord has a much plummier sound and deeper sonority. An Italian one is much brighter and more immediate. Some music requires different instruments. You can’t hang a veneer or a Rembrandt in a neon-lit modern gallery. You need the setting to be right. You need the frame to be right. You can’t have it in Perspex glass. It’s a sin! I’m steeped in that.”
Without the slightest trace of arrogance, the professor adds that unlike many “artistes”, he’s not really too bothered about the younger generation embracing his kind of music. “I think the audience will find me, and I’ll find the audience. I don’t have that kind of evangelising zeal or that sense of wanting to have my legacy preserved.”
Suddenly, digging into his bag, he pulls out a copy of a CD with a flourish and says: “See this CD. If you don’t like it, I’ll just enjoy it myself. Oh, I have 22. Here’s a sample of one of the earlier discs for you. I know you won’t listen to it!” My indignant protestations and promises to ditch my Bryan Adams staple in my car CD player over his music are met with good-natured chuckling. Touching my arm lightly, Kah-Ming says: “I hate to use the word archaeology — because that’s exactly the wrong thing — but I basically bring to light works which haven’t been appreciated enough.
“One of my tenets of recording or performing is that if you don’t have anything new or different to say, there’s no point saying it. That’s why my recordings get all the Press coverage that they get because they’re innovative or groundbreaking in many ways in the way that I do source research. I go to the library and order up manuscripts, transcribe it into modern notations and then record the stuff.”
It’s a lot of hard work and extremely challenging, admits Kah-Ming. But, as he puts it: “You get the kudos for being the person who brought this music back to life; music that has been lying unseen and unheard of for 300 years etc.”
His early years were a colourful one. “I was born in Assunta Hospital, PJ,” he exclaims proudly, as we hi-five each other upon discovering that this was also where I came out into the world. His parents, adds Kah-Ming, were typical Chinese parents. He recalls: “You had to do engineering or law. Or medicine. ‘Be realistic lah’, they’d say. They thought it’d be really interesting for me to have an engineering degree first before a music one because it’d make for better interview materials for you journalists. No, I’m kidding!”
Grinning, Kah-Ming adds: “Actually, they thought I was going to be an engineer but that wasn’t to be because my job as an engineering consultant dealt with slope protection and channel design… erm, pretty inspiring imaginative stuff, you know.”
It so happened that there was an opening at the Alice Smith British International School for Music Master“… so I just went for an interview. They really loved me. I loved them back! After 2½ years, it was time to move on,” says Kah-Ming.
It was during this uninspiring period in his career at the engineering firm that he founded a choir in his spare time and started to organise concerts around the city. He caught the attention of the funding bodies that would later provide his music scholarships — first Germany, and then the UK.
Once the course ended, Kah-Ming started to study Baroque composition at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt as the DAAD (German Academic Exchange) scholar before heading to London’s Guildhall in 1991 to pursue a second scholarship.
The following year, he moved to Oxford to read for an MPhil at St Anne’s College and a DPhil at Keble College. It was here in beautiful Oxford that he founded his band, Charivari Agrèable, with whom he reached the finals of the Early Music Network competition in 1993.
5 Qs with Kah-Ming Ng
1. What’s your listening pleasure? (aside from your own genre of music)
Galician folk fusion, the traditional music of Galicia, located along Spain’s north-west Atlantic coast. It’s almost like Irish folk music. Current stuff? Ed Sheeran
2. Your pet peeve?
Rude people. People who lack basic decency and politeness. And bad grammar.
3. Biggest vice?
Afternoon tea. Cakes. It’s a virtue and a vice.
4. A period you’d love to travel back in time to?
I’d love to be a Manchu noble during the Qing dynasty because I just love the costume. It’s my dream to be able to do the genuflexion thing to the emperor, throw down my horseshoe-shaped sleeves and do that whole thing.
5. You’re holding a dinner party where you will perform. Which three people would you invite?
Henry Purcell. One of the most important English composers. I want to know how he died — was it by chocolate poisoning or pneumonia? The word is that he enjoyed his drinks too much and his wife got pissed off, and locked him out of the house. And he caught pneumonia. The other version was that he died from chocolate poisoning. Monica Lewinsky — I want to ask her what ‘it’s’ like. (guffaws) Frederick the Great of Prussia.