Ever wondered what an erhu would sound like together with a cello? We hadn’t either – until we heard the music written by Hippocrates Cheng.
I first met Hippocrates Cheng Ching-nam after the debut concert of a new local music ensemble, Sync 5. He’s the Composer-in-Residence for the group, and this isn’t just any band or chamber music group out there – the quintet features both western and Chinese instruments. These include the chromatic harmonica (played by Steffi Leung), melodica and recorder (played by David Tong), cello (played by Erica Wong), zhongruan (played by Eddie Kung), and erhu (played by Benjamin Tong). I didn’t know what to expect before the concert, but I was blown away by the end of it, and boy was I glad that this was the first live concert I attended since the pandemic. But how did Hippocrates manage to compose music for such an eccentric combination of instruments?
Listen out for Hong Kong composer Hippocrates Cheng
Hey, Hippo! Thank you for chatting with us. How did you go into music growing up?
None of my relatives are musically trained, but they’ve always encouraged me to pursue whatever I enjoy doing.My parents provided me with the opportunity to try various extracurricular activities when I was young, and I developed an interest in music when I was in primary school. At that time, instead of playing the Gameboy like most of my friends did, I treated my musical instruments as if they were my game consoles. And growing up, while some traditional Asian parents might want their children to secure high-paying jobs, my parents never forced me to do so, even though I’m the only child (and a son) in the family. For this, I’ve always felt blessed and I’m really thankful to my parents.
When I was about ten years old, I initiated learning the violin, followed by the piano and clarinet. Understanding these instruments, which belong to different sections of the orchestra, has proven to be very helpful to my composing. This is because I’m familiar with what each instrument is capable of doing, hence I can write better and more suitably for the performers.
How did studying music vary in Hong Kong and in the US?
I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Hong Kong, with the former at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) and the latter in The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA). When I started out as an undergrad, I hadn’t actually considered becoming a full-time musician. This changed when I was accepted into HKBU’s composition class, during which I developed a strong interest in composing. HKBU also provided me with an excellent foundation in music, in general.
Then, when I was studying composition in APA, I was exposed to a lot of traditional Chinese music, as well as cross-disciplinary and multimedia works. I had the chance to investigate how music worked together with film, dance, and theatre.
Next, I went to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music for my doctoral degree. Though I’ve had to come back to Hong Kong due to the pandemic, I’ve been able to work on a contemporary opera called In the Midst of… which allowed me to explore more experimental music and virtual platforms.
Many artists tend to be perfectionists. Do you ever doubt yourself as a composer and performer? What gives you the confidence to keep going?
Firstly, I consider myself an open-minded person; I’m not afraid of trying something new and making mistakes. I’m also quite optimistic, so I always get back up even if I’ve failed multiple times. That said, I do have doubts about my musical career from time to time, especially when I lose out in competitions. But, whenever these sorts of thoughts emerge, I always think back to my original intention in pursuing music, and it brings me comfort. Moreover, participating in regular competitions still gives me the motivation to improve myself; I think it gives me an appropriate amount of stress, in this case.
More importantly, I think my confidence stems from being able to recognise the hard work I’ve put in over the years. Many people ask me, “Why are you so talented?” But as much as I’m grateful for their appreciation, I believe my achievements are more about the amount of effort I’ve exerted. After all, those many nights I spent staying up composing and researching aren’t for nothing!
Have you ever had a composer’s block? How do you usually overcome that?
Oh yes, all the time! When I get a composer’s block (that lasts for a prolonged period), I still try to write; even snippets or fragments suffice, because I can then look back at all these ideas later and maybe get inspiration from them, as a big picture. I also continue to work with musicians, as they’ll often give great feedback about my work.
As for those odd evenings when I struggle to write, I usually try to put music aside for the night and get on with something else. After all, my life isn’t only about music; in fact, music comes from my life, so I can only write well when I’m feeling well. To get my mind off things, I like to play basketball, watch movies and anime, or go on a hike.
Aside from being a composer, you’re also a multi-instrumentalist. What drew you to learning about overtone singing and other lesser known world music instruments?
Apart from the piano, violin, and clarinet, I also play the jaw harp, Nagoya harp, and many other world music instruments. This all started when toy music – think castanets and maracas – piqued my interest at a young age. I gradually discovered more and more musical instruments and techniques from different cultures around the world, one of which was overtone singing. I first learned about it in a class back in uni. It was a truly awe-inspiring experience; I remember being so amazed by how the performer was able to sing two notes at the same time. So, I ended up teaching myself overtone singing using YouTube videos.
Could you tell us more about your role in Sync 5?
I was one of the founding members of Sync 5. I first had the idea to create a new group featuring young musicians on a mix of instruments. After discussing with Steffi, who’s now the harmonica player of Sync 5, we decided to form an ensemble with our peers. We then gathered some fellow musicians we had met in APA and via RTHK’s Young Music Makers programme (樂壇新秀). It may come as a surprise to our audience, but all of our members are born in the 2000s (except myself). Furthermore, only Erica the cellist and Eddie the zhongruan player are currently enrolled in APA [as professional performers]; the other three members are all full-time students at Hong Kong universities, majoring in non-music-related subjects, such as medicine and education.
With the ensemble having hit the ground running, I’ve now very much left its development to the hands of the players. But, I still attend the rehearsals, coach them, and write pieces for them as the Composer-in-Residence.
In a previous interview, you said that music was about the culture and history of its place of origin. How would you describe the music of Hong Kong right now?
I think Hong Kong is a very special place, with a rich history and great cultural diversity. I’d compare the music here to the likes of a ‘harbour’ – it has a variety of everything. When you look at our popular music, we have chart pop, but also indie bands; we also have experimental musicians, an active western classical music scene, traditional Chinese orchestras, ensembles, and more. Unfortunately, while I personally feel that all music genres are equal, I see that there’s still a strong sense of hierarchy in the public’s reception in music. And this isn’t limited to Hong Kong, of course – there are similar issues around the world. So, we have lots to work on as musicians nowadays!
What are your upcoming projects and plans?
Having just finished our performances in Xiqu Centre and the Fringe Club, Sync 5 and I are working on a documentary commissioned by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. For this documentary, we’re collaborating with puppet shadow master, Wong Fai (黃暉). This will be an interesting partnership, with people across different generations coming together to promote the arts and traditional craftsmanship in Hong Kong. We hope you’re as excited as we are towards seeing (and hearing) the artistic chemistry between us!
In terms of a personal long-term goal, I’d like to further promote world music – but not as ‘world music’ i.e. a label plastered on music that is simply ‘non-western’. I hope we can all learn to appreciate music as a whole, and at least be aware of – if not remove – the stereotypes attached to each genre, in particular the music outside of the Eurocentric canon.