BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Optimism. Disappointment. Despair. Acceptance.
We’ve all felt them. These are the experiences faced when we move on from our studies and, as composer Lucy Kong puts it, we’re “thrust into cold air”.
ElectroBloom is a musical narrative that tracks this journey of life during our 20s – the changing goals, ambiguous sense of purpose, and changing nature of criticism and guidance. This new album is Lucy’s debut, and tells this age-significant story through electroacoustic, minimalist music presented through piano, spoken word, and a little J-pop.
Lucy studied composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (with three scholarships and First Class Honours to her name, no less), and has since emerged into the Japanese pop scene with leading producer HΛL. She’s also worked on music for film and video game.
ElectroBloom is released as part of composer Cameron Lam’s Kammerklang initiative. Lucy tells us how she connected with her identity for the purpose of her works (and we reckon you’ll be able to relate).
You’ve called this a “coming-of-age” program, related to the way a person comes out of the shelters of their 20s into a new level of independence. What moved you to translate this experience into music?
Due to the size of the project and the limited time I had in order to complete it, I needed a strong concept to guide the compositional process. Using my own personal experiences from my 20s as a basis gave me both scope and direction. I was pleased with how easily the ideas flowed organically as a result. Also, having a clear narrative underpinning it gave it some cohesion as the album itself is a mixed bag of different genres.
How much have you seen your own feelings about this stage in life shared by musical friends and colleagues?
I’ve seen it a fair bit. I think it’s fairly normal for us creative folk to have moments of self-doubt, and question whether or not our passion for music is enough to continue to pursue it, especially with repeated rejections and knock-backs. And it’s not just in creative circles, either; I have plenty of friends who are left reeling when life doesn’t go the way they intended it to.
In your notes, you wrote about the idea that a person can “compose without criticism” as she or he gains independence. What are the differences between the criticism you receive as a student, and the criticism you receive when you’re out in the “real world”?
For me personally, the difference is maturity. I took criticism to the heart quite seriously when I was studying music at the Sydney con. However, since completing my degree, I’ve come to realise that in the vastness of the “real world”, it’s impossible to please everyone – so I may as well compose how I’d like to, and not worry about how it will be received. I still happily ask for constructive criticism and feedback and take it on board, but I don’t allow it to rule me anymore.
What is the value of criticism and its impact on your own compositions?
I think the value depends on your attitude. If you suffer from self-doubt and have little confidence in your own ability, criticism can be fairly damaging. However, if you view it as a means to improve yourself and not a knock on your own value as a person, it can be a very positive thing. I find criticism these days to be extremely helpful in pushing me towards further refinement of my work. When you’ve spent a long time working away on something, a fresh set of ears and eyes can be enormously helpful in reaching the next level.
You have such a strong narrative throughout your ElectroBloom program. How did you decide on this structure, and the way you wanted to share these themes?
In some ways, I worked backwards. When Cameron Lam approached me to compose an album for Kammerklang, I knew that I wanted to compose a piano sonata for the final three tracks. The piano sonata is fairly personal to me; I had been wanting to compose it for 12 years as a thank you present to my former piano teacher Samantha Coates, who taught me piano throughout my childhood right up to the start of university. It represents the culmination of my experience as a composer – at present day, I can say that I’m content with where I am creatively. From there, I thought about the process I needed to take order to reach this point and used this to plot out the rest of the album.
For the way in which I wanted to share the themes, I enlisted the help of my sister Vanessa Voyez to compose some poetry. From there, I decided to combine my interest in electroacoustic music from university with the skills I’ve developed from producing J-Pop to create a pseudo-electroacoustic pop song cycle.
What would you say is your own dominant feeling as a musician – optimism, despair, or the others you’ve composed in these works?
It changes from day to day! I’d like to say it’s primarily optimism. But when I’m in the throes of disappointment and despair usually brought on by a slow or counterproductive writing day, accepting that these moments are a part of the process helps me to ride it out to its conclusion. So perhaps acceptance is the more dominant feeling these days.
Tell us about your own musical style. You’ve evolved to incorporate J-pop into your identity as a composer. What does the Japanese pop sound mean to you and what typifies this style in your music?
I’m not a subtle composer. I’ve always enjoyed theatricality in music, and J-pop is as cheesy and theatrical as it gets. As far as my identity goes, writing J-pop has been a humbling experience. When I first encountered it, I was a little taken aback by its hyperactiveness, and found myself scoffing at it. However, when I started to compose in the genre, I discovered very quickly that it’s not so easy to write a good J-pop song. Having First Class Honours in composition means diddly squat – so asking the question, ‘how does one write a successful J-pop song?’ has brought me down a few pegs.
Before we say farewell, what advice would you give to other young musicians who are facing this unstable time in their early musical careers and lives, which you’ve written about?
Remember why you got into music in the first place. Write or play for yourself first. If your primary motivator for creating music is solely to please others, you will forever be disappointed. Focus on creating music that you love, and don’t worry if it’s not to everyone’s taste. That’s okay. There’s enough space in the world for music. Also, give every presented opportunity – no matter how small or insignificant it is – a go. You never know where it will lead. I certainly didn’t think my path would lead to J-pop.
Lucy Kong’s ElectroBloom, presented by Kammerklang, will be available from October 4.