Resounding the scores

28 Apr 2023

When she was a teenager, Professor Helan Yang joined the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra run by the Government’s Music Office (MO). Little did the budding musician know that one day she would become one of MO’s expert advisers, and that she would take on an ambitious project to promote Chinese ensemble music.

“MO has archived a great collection of scores of Chinese instrumental ensemble music, which are of tremendous value to music lovers and scholars around the world. I believed that digitising the scores and putting them online would enable a global audience to learn and appreciate Chinese music,” says Professor Yang, a musicologist and Professor Emeritus at the Academy of Music at HKBU.

In 2019 she began talks with MO and staff at the HKBU Library. The result is “Resounding the Scores”, an online collection of parts and full scores of more than 50 pieces of Chinese instrumental ensemble music. Supported by the Digital Scholarship Grant managed by the HKBU Library, the project preserves the past of Hong Kong’s Chinese musical development while also educating future generations about Chinese instrumental ensembles.

A treasure trove of music and performance

“A lot of older Chinese ensemble music does not have standard ensemble configurations, and therefore new arrangements of the scores often have to be made for a particular performance. Over the past four decades, MO has commissioned music instructors and composers to arrange or create many pieces of music tailored to the needs of performances or for educational use,” Professor Yang says.

She recalls how as a trainee at MO, she came to know firsthand the complexity involved in producing the scores and writing music for specific events. Thoughtfully crafted by experienced musicians, the pieces featured in the Resounding the Scores collection offer insights into the changes in the style of Chinese ensemble performances since the 1970s.

Among the pieces in the collection, the music of erhu maestro Mr Tong Leung-tak stands out. The collection showcases 36 pieces of his music, which were mostly composed or arranged between the late 1970s and late 1980s for ensembles of various sizes and instrumentations. Live recording of three of Mr Tong’s pieces, which were performed by the Hong Kong Youth Chinese Orchestra (HKYCO), were specially created for the project.

Professor Yang says: “Mr Tong was a brilliant performer, conductor and composer. During his career as a Chinese music educator, he directed numerous student concerts and performance tours. I remembered seeing him perform on stage, and his passion for music left a lasting impression on everyone who met him.” She hopes that the scores included in the collection not only tell the story of Mr Tong’s musical journey, but it is also able to inspire new generations of Chinese music students.

Besides preserving these valuable pieces for research and performance purposes, the project features information on Chinese instrumental ensemble music and the classification of Chinese instruments. The project website also includes digital programme notes for HKYCO concerts from 1978 to 2019, which illustrates the development of the HKYCO and Chinese instrumental music in Hong Kong.

Overcoming challenges of digitising the archives

Researching into the works and cataloguing the data proved a challenge, one which was made more difficult in the midst of the pandemic. Lockdowns caused interruptions to the project schedule, and the closure of performance venues led to hiccups in arranging and recording the live performances.

Throughout the process, Professor Yang and her team worked closely with MO and the Digital Initiatives and Research Cluster at the HKBU Library, and together they rose to the occasion.

“The project took two years and three months to complete, which was longer than expected. Our team at the Library supported the project management and development, from creating the data template to indexing the scores, digitising the collection and developing the project website,” says Ms Rebekah Wong, Senior Assistant Librarian and Head of Digital Initiatives and Research Cluster at the Library.

Dr Eric Chow, Digital Scholarship Manager of the Library, worked on the website development. He says, “The most challenging and most rewarding aspect of taking part in this project is the chance to work with a cross-disciplinary team. We had technical developers, librarians and musicologists, each with their unique perspectives, but in the end our website is able to turn everyone’s vision into reality.”

The project, launched in August 2022, is a labour of love for those involved. Professor Yang believes that the project would not come to fruition were it not for the passion and persistence of everyone in the team. She says that the efforts by Miss Katie Lai, Dr Law Ho-chak as well as Mr Tsui Ying-fai, Chief Music Officer of the Music Office, were particularly instrumental in realising this meaningful mission.

“Some of our collaborators relocated while the project was underway, but they continued to contribute remotely. Even though there were difficulties along the way, all of us pressed on because we were eager to share these scores with the public and promote music,” she says. “My own music education began in Hong Kong, and this project represents a way for me to give back to society. I hope the project can keep going and develop further.”