“I think of composition as this ongoing project. … There’s always more to write.”
Sydney-based erhu (2-stringed bowed fiddle) performer, composer, and tertiary teacher Nicholas Ng has developed a career which allows him to work locally and internationally in a range of settings across film, live theatre and traditional performance.
Family pressure initially prompted Nicholas to consider pursuing medicine or law: “the usual professional career”. As he explains,
“I did actually consider enrolling in a law degree at university. In the end, I just dropped that and focussed on music, and I thought I’d just do an arts degree so that I can also specialise in a language to go with the music. But in the end, I just dropped that as well.”
Nicholas graduated with an undergraduate degree (with Honours) in Western Composition at Sydney University before completing his PhD at the ANU with E/Prof Larry Sitsky. Reflecting on his undergraduate experience, Nicholas explains that university funding cuts limited the amount of one-on-one tuition he was able to receive each week. Almost 20 years later, he believes that this deficit still influences the ways in which he perceives his artistic practice and abilities. He also reflects that reduced tuition opportunities meant that he has had to learn on the job:
“We had all those funding cuts and I found that maybe I don’t feel as qualified as a composer since I had this course removed and then I only had half an hour of tuition a week. So I had to engage in self-learning, you know self-teaching. I sometimes wonder if I’d write better music if I had more training. I don’t know. It’s those sort of things I do wonder about.”
Despite these concerns, composition remains at the heart of Nicholas’ music career (“I’ll never stop composing”). He reflects on the strong community and legacy values which drive his compositional practice,
“For me it’s a way of giving back to the community, because after I’m gone at least I’ll have a piece that I’ve written that someone might play one day and it actually sounds good.”
Nicholas’ passion for ensuring that the music of the erhu lives on also drives his desire to teach. He is currently on staff at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he teaches western harmony and the erhu, while co-directing the Conservatorium’s 35-piece Chinese Music Ensemble. For him, teaching provides a vital income stream (“I can’t earn a living just composing”). It is also a way to share the tradition of erhu playing and traditional music.
“The teaching I love because it’s a way of making sure that the music will continue, I guess. Who knows what will happen later on, but the fact that there are people interested in learning my instrument means a lot to me; and it’s a way of promoting multiculturalism.”
A 20-year music career has seen Nicholas navigate a range of teaching, performing and composition work including engagement with higher education as an associate lecturer and research fellow, and music-making and composition in the film and live theatre sectors. He explains that navigating a combination of part-time teaching commitments, commissioned and project-based work, as well as a young family, requires a great deal of careful scheduling and planning. He continues to ensure he exercises and meditates regularly in order to maintain his physical and mental health, commenting that “it’s nowhere near as much as what I used to do, but, I think it’s very important”. However Nicholas explains that he is time poor and that this results in an inability to practice as much as he would like. He has also been unable to produce any publications for quite some time, but is grateful that many of his compositions or curated works continue to be research-based. One of the challenges he encounters when balancing his schedule is that project timelines can become drawn out. Reflecting on the experience of working on a particular commission, he comments:
“The deadline just keeps moving and then they change the scenes, and then the music doesn’t fit. I mean, I’m not complaining but it means that I have to spend even more time [on the music]; and I’m getting to a point where I don’t know if I can sustain that kind of work.”
Personal and professional networks have played a vital role in sustaining Nicholas’ career. He has lived in Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and now Sydney due to a series of conservatorium appointments, and several significant life changes. This has affected how he can, and does, work with colleagues and particular organisations as a result of not being in the same city. Nicholas often secures work with previous clients or through a process of referral. He comments that “it’s nice when people remember what you’ve done in the past and think of you [for their next project].”
Having undertaken his first professional commission in 1999 – an accomplishment which encouraged Nicholas to begin formally identifying himself as a musician – one of the key changes he has witnessed has been the use of digital technologies. Although digital technologies are a great asset for a composer, they can also be cause for concern.
“I was trained to write with a pen and paper. Even in first-year university, all my harmony assignments were with pen and paper. And then came Finale! … I can see how digitisation really helps everyone in a way, but it does change the way you write music, I think, because with those programs there’s a tendency to cut and paste, copy and paste. It’s easy to just go, “slap!”, and use it [the same material] again in bar 50. That’s the problem.”