Composer Fung Lam was born in Hong Kong in 1979. His output ranges from original concert and media works to various arrangements. His works have been performed around the world and at many music festivals including the inaugural BBC Electric Proms in 2006.
Fung has experience working with students and young musicians. In 2006, he was involved in the BBC Concert Orchestra’s MusicLab project. Several of his works have been broadcast on Radio 3.
As part of Radio 3's Discovering Music programme Fung Lam has been commissioned to write a new work for the BBC Concert Orchestra inspired by an exhibition of locks at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Fung describes the process of composing the work in his online diary below.
The Discovering Music programme including Fung's new piece will be recorded at the Watford Colosseum on 6th May for later broadcast. Tickets will be available from the
BBC's Ticket Unit.
My name is Fung Lam, I am a composer.
I received a phone call from BBC Radio 3 saying they would like to commission me to write a piece inspired by the Victoria and Albert Museum. I paid several visits there, about 8 or 9 in two months.
Usually when I get a commission it doesn’t specify what you have to write or where the inspiration has to come from. I would just think about who I am writing for and about those musicians premiering it.
I got the commission at the beginning of September, so I have been thinking about how to approach this piece.
I was looking for something that could provide me an idea for the structure of the piece. I wanted to write a piece that has got several sections that relate to each other.
I noticed that the section I spent most of the time looking at was the in the Ironwork Gallery. They have got a huge collection of locks and keys ranging from the 15th century to the 18th century. What fascinated me the most was the really detailed design. So that inspired me to write a piece that’s got specific shapes and perhaps lots of codes as well.
The Puzzle Padlock
There is this one specific lock in the Gallery which is a ‘Puzzle padlock’. The first time I looked at it, it stood out because of the details within the design and it’s interesting because there are two layers of locks, one has been added to over time to make the mechanism more complex and secure.
I see this piece as a giant imaginary lock that has had many layers of mechanism added on top over time, similar to the Puzzle padlock.
Nowadays we take locks for granted, we don’t really think of locks as being something that complicated, but looking at these locks it feels like they are really pieces of art, you really appreciate the craftsmanship.
When you write art music you are a craftsman in music. When you look at those locks, the decoration on them is amazing and it has got nothing to do with the functionality of the locks, so in some way, that is really relevant to what I’m doing.
What I have got in mind is to write a piece that has got lots of shapes, a few selected pitches placed in different orders.
I want to start with really simple shapes and gradually make them more complicated with more decoration.
I want to find a way to represent fitting a very detailed key into a keyhole.
Unlocking the layers
I haven’t decided how to use the unlocking idea. My main aim is to have something in a box, and then you have four… five… six layers keeping something safe in the middle. And the thing in the middle could be quite dark or delightful!
Each layer’s waiting to be unlocked and in the end you might get to see what is hidden within. I haven’t decided whether right at the beginning of the piece you will be able to hear all the layers on top of the actual object within. Maybe it’s through unlocking the first layer you see the second layer and there’s also the feeling of getting closer to what’s within.
One kind of lock is a combination lock, so you are thinking of a code or numbers. I can generate some rhythmic ideas through them.
I may use some sort of Morse code like rhythm in the piece just to represent the code. I don’t think I have any hidden message in this piece but maybe I will.
I like to compose with like very limited materials because I like to write music which draws people in rather than bombarding people with lots of notes and ideas.
It is going to be quite a sustained piece with lots of instrumental colour.
When I’m composing a piece for orchestra, I like to make the most of what is available to me from a relatively standard orchestra.
I like combining instrumental sound - I don’t really like an instrument sticking out too much in orchestral piece for too long, as I’m not interested in showcasing any particular instrument.
Starting to write
I have lots of small notepads and I write down lots of ideas and lay them out on my table
They are usually words, not notes at that stage.
I wrote down all the words I associate locks with: secrets, valuables, different sort of locks and metal.
Then I started putting down different metallic percussion instruments that I quite like, putting a few notes down and designing the scales that I would use in this piece.
I don’t usually compose at the keyboard because at this early stage I’m still working out the kind of pitches I want to use and usually I can hear them in my head.
Sometimes I draw little diagrams, sometimes I like to map out the sections and see how long they are individually and see if it works in the real piece.
Opening the lock
I am now at a stage where I have to think about translating the initial non-musical ideas into musical ones.
One of the first things I needed to decide was how I shall represent musically the idea where a certain section of a key fits a lock. I had already decided that a key in this piece would be represented primarily by horizontal lines (melodies), and that a lock would be represented by a succession of parallel chords with dense collections of pitches.
An idea to represent unlocking is to open up these dense chords, replacing them with chords containing purer intervals. I would construct an opened up chord symmetrically, adding pitches by the same intervals above and below a specific pitch.
Using the Pentatonic Scale
After considering the various intervals I decided to use only major seconds, and perfect fourths or perfect fifths. The reason for the decision was entirely based on my personal preference. The resultant chord is made up of five pitches, these being the five notes of a Chinese pentatonic scale.
Since I have not in the past explored the possibilities of composing with pentatonic scales (Chinese, Japanese and other kinds), I feel that this would be a good time to experiment, composing the majority of this piece using a few pentatonic scales of my own design.
I have been offered the opportunity to include an extra soprano saxophone to add to the standard BBC Concert Orchestra line-up, and I accepted it without any hesitation.
The soprano saxophone has a distinctive sound which would give the music an additional colour, while it could also blend in very well with the rest of the orchestra.
Part 3 - March 2008
More on pentatonic scales
For this piece, the eight different pentatonic scales (scales with five notes) were generated by moving one of the notes from a Chinese pentatonic scale up or down a semitone.
Apart from sections which represent the locks, the rest of the piece will be constructed using these scales only.
One of the main decisions I had to make early on in the composition process was the overall structure of the piece.
I decided that this work is to consist of three sections:
Section 1 – Locked
The first section heavily features the "lock" chord – a dense collection of pitches which may be perceived as the lock with its relatively dark and enigmatic atmosphere.
Section 2 – Unlocking
The middle section is to be the longest section of the piece, representing the idea of unlocking.
It will consist of seven sub-sections, each one representing a stage in unlocking or a layer of the lock.
Section 3 - Unlocked
The last section will be constructed using the "keys" discovered in the previous section as the main compositional materials.
The unlocking section
I decided each of the seven sub-sections will highlight one of the eight pentatonic scales I've designed.
Each sub-section, and hence each scale, is also associated with a number from one to seven.
I have devised my own system of reordering these numbers to represents the journey of finding the “key”.
As the piece progresses from one sub-section to another, the music would gradually become more and more complicated and decorative, just like the history of the development of locks.
Initially, I was going to give these seven sub-sections very little contrast in terms of instrumental texture, but to give the piece some more interest, I changed my mind and am giving each of the sub-sections a more distinctive character, by interpreting the numbers in different ways.
Part Four - April 2008
Back at the V & A
Today is 20 April and I am back at the Victoria and Albert Museum again, this time with the students from St. Clement Danes School. I’m showing them the section which inspired me most. I’m also drawing their attention to the way the locks have developed over the years and also the one particular lock that initially captured my attention most.
I finished the piece about 2 or 3 weeks ago but of course when you are orchestrating it and also typesetting it you keep on editing things or just readjusting things to make it a better piece.
You keep on revising it until the latest allowable moment when you really have to finish it and draw the double bar line and prepare the parts and everything for the orchestra, but I have finished it!
About a month after I came here in December 2007 I came up with the overall structure:
The locking section
The development section - the process of unlocking
The final section - a comparatively short almost coda-like section - the unlocked feeling
Nothing much has since changed but the way I’ve organized the material has changed when I was composing it, especially the middle section which is for me the major section of the piece.
There are seven sub-sections as I’ve mentioned before in my diary. It was going to be going from really simple to really decorative all the way through but the one main change is that I’ve put a really still section right in the middle. It’s like the calm before the storm.
You can have some sort of system, an idea, but I think in the end when you are composing you are thinking about the music and the sound and you make decisions as a composer. Even if you have decided to do one thing at the beginning, as you compose you feel like there should be something that holds the music back a bit before it goes on to the next level and that’s what I’ve done.
I have used some Morse code-like rhythm in my piece. I was thinking about it two months ago but now it is definitely in the score. There are two or three little sections/subsections that have got that Morse code-like rhythm in them.
I know it’s not directly anything to do with these locks but I think my piece is about the history of the development of locks as well in that it just got more and more decorative while nowadays they are just quite plain with all the technology and all the codes.
Musically as a composer you have to find a way to interpret the idea of something that is not musical into something musical, so that’s why I wanted to do it using some sort of code like rhythm.