The melody from the hymn Dies Irae breaks the creamy quiet of a restaurant in upmarket Taipei, and the patrons raise their eyes from their waffles and cake and Vienna coffee. The disrupter of the mid-Thursday morning hush is Chung Yiu-kwong, Taiwan’s most noted classical composer, giving an enthusiastic rendition of the Day of Judgement’s most famous ode. “It’s such a well-known signal for tragedy, demons, devils,” he says, once he has finished, and the gentle clinking of crockery resumes. “That’s why I chose to incorporate a part of it in the piece.”
We were meeting to talk about Chung’s most recent composition, which premiered in Taipei last February. “Ode to Democracy” was written for the 70th anniversary of a popular uprising against the Kuomintang government in 1947, which was brutally suppressed and led to the imposition of 40 years of martial law. A concerto written in five movements for choir, orchestra and soprano, the lilting, almost military brass notes, subdued string sections and haunting vocals of the “Ode” give a filmic quality to the eulogy that feels particularly well suited to this city of screens and technology.
The “Ode” also marked Chung’s furthest foray into the choppy waters of China-Taiwan relations (China and Taiwan disagree on the historiography of the “228 incident,” as the uprising is known), and it is easy to tell that the subject is not one he wants to be quoted on at length. Hong Kong-born, Chung has called Taiwan home since he moved here with his wife in the early 1990s, and much of his work continues to involve collaboration with artists and traditions on both sides of the Straits. The question about Dies Irae, which appears near the middle of the “Ode,” is a welcome distraction, and he reels off a list of his of favorite examples of the melody being incorporated elsewhere—the fifth movement of Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique,” for one. As I take notes, I can’t help thinking that his coffee must be cold by now. He has been talking almost non-stop since we sat down, and not just to prevent difficult questions about politics coming up.
Originally a percussionist, and a largely self-taught composer, Chung has built up an extraordinarily broad repertoire: compositions for Evelyn Glennie, Ching-yun Hu, Western and Chinese orchestras, music for operas; serving as the Principal of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra from 2007-15; and earning a clutch of international awards to his name. His high school in Hong Kong pushed math and science; Chung almost decided to become an architect, and his musical philosophy continues to be informed by logic and order: “I want something that is both,” he says. “Something that sounds beautiful and that I can explain every note of; so if a composer challenges me and says, ‘Why did you write that,’ I can point out and say, ‘This is why.’ ” He is an enthusiastic, if cautious, user of programming software in some of his compositions, and involves himself in the visual aspects to his performances. He is in the early stages of talks with a company of traditional puppet masters from Beijing about possibly collaborating later this year.
One constant throughout the international acclaim, traveling, and studying has been a desire to fully explore the tension between movement and music in his performances; a desire that can be traced back to a childhood love. To embrace it, he must turn away from the sounds of his orchestra and focus minutely on the often erratic and unpredictable behavior of a globular piece of plastic as it is beaten back and forth between two pieces of wood and rubber.
“I treat ping-pong playing as a kind of performing arts discipline, not sport,” he says. He played from a young age, gave up during his studies, and since moving to Taiwan has been thinking of how to fuse the movements and discipline of ping pong with his compositions. Chung is serious about this; ping-pong is clearly not a fad or gimmick for him. China-Taiwan politics well and truly forgotten, he reminisces about the world-beating Swedish ping-pong team of the 1980s and ‘90s, holds forth on which grips are favored in Europe and Asia, and mentions the marriage last September of Taiwanese table tennis player Chiang Hung-chieh to Japanese table tennis star Ai Fukuhara. When I comment on how much gossip he knows, he corrects me: “Not gossip.”
It is a fusion that has been explored before by others. Joe Cutler’s 2012 “Ping!” featured a string quartet playing around four players going through a series of practice drills. Andy Akiho’s 2015 “Ricochet” decked out a ping pong table with percussion and replaced the players’ paddles with wine glasses and instruments to create a jangling, trendy cacophony from the spectacle.
Chung is not interested in using the table and players as devices. He wants to test for himself how far ping pong can be pushed within its own rules, and within the constrains of the music. And for this, he needs to be at the center of the action, as a player. Late last year he took his first steps with “Matchup of Aces,” a concerto for the Taipei Civic Symphonic Band, and featuring Taiwanese professional player Mei-ju Yu as his opponent. Dressed in black sports gear, he led the band for the first section, bouncing around on the balls of his feet, like a PE teacher overseeing a class. After handing over the baton he took on Mei-ju, while the band played behind. The two had trained together to choreograph the game, with Chung setting Mei-ju up for an easy smash to end the piece, 11-4. There was no question about who would be the winner in Chung’s mind when he was composing the piece. “She is the professional. I have to go up there and respect her.”
“Matchup” was just a first step, however. “All the concerts with ping-pong ingredients in the past were experiments and tryouts,” says Chung. He wants to further test the filaments that hold together the music and the game in another installment of “Matchup” that will be longer, and allow the players (he will of course be one of them) to escape further from the music he has written. “I don’t know if you can see in the video [of “Matchup”] that we were too focussed on the music, on listening for when we had to come in,” he says. “At one point we had to bounce the ball, waiting for when we were supposed to serve.” He plans to extend the score by around a third, to 18 minutes, enough time to play four full 11-point games. Instead of a band, he is considering enlisting a full orchestra for the duel. It is a lot to think about, he admits, and the balance he is striving for will be extremely tricky to achieve.
Later when we meet again, he says it would be “a dream” to take the current version of “Matchup,” or its future avatar, to China one day, and play against a leading player there. He has been playing ping-pong regularly over the past few weeks, he says, but if the call came, would have to step things up. “Then I would get really nervous,” he says seriously. “I would have to do so much more training.” ¶