Professor Writes, Students Record, Film Score

Thursday, December 12, 2013 - 09:15
Lecturer in Music Tian Hui Ng

Picture yourself in a luxurious nightclub in Singapore where patrons bid for their favorite songstress to perform a special number. It’s redolent with smoke, liquor, and glamorous abandon. Got it? OK, now transform that atmosphere into sound.

That was the task given to Lecturer in Music Tian Hui Ng by film director Ellery Ngiam. Ng accepted, knowing that he could compose suitable music to fit the strengths of the students in the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra, which he conducts.

“It’s a win-win-win,” he says; Ng got to compose, students got a rare chance to record a film score, and the filmmaker didn’t have to hire expensive professional musicians.

“Recording work comes along so rarely and the more experience you have, the better,” Ng says. “So I knew it would be very helpful for the students.”

Ng wrote the score for the 22-minute film rather quickly, and the orchestra recorded it in two intensive sessions earlier this month.

Ng, who has scored four previous films for Ngiam, treated his students like professional musicians. They arrived in McCulloch Auditorium to find contracts, release forms, 24 microphones, and their first look at the music they were to record that day.

“We didn’t rehearse,” Ng says. “We came in, played the music a few times, and then recorded it, just like a professional setting.”

The project came about when Eva Paus, director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, asked faculty to think about how technology might enhance their teaching, and Ng asked himself, “Who’s not at MHC that we could work with?” Just then, Ngiam contacted him about the film, and he seized the opportunity. From Singapore, Ngiam interacted with the students and Ng by Skyping in to the recording sessions.

The film, tentatively titled Miss Red, is about how appearances can mislead, and the score’s mood reflects this ambiguity. Ng’s slightly jazzy soundtrack emphasizes rich string sounds to evoke the club’s luxe fantasy world and to showcase the orchestra’s robust string section.

Ng added instrumentation typical of Asian and American cultures to reflect Singapore’s “East meets West” setting. The orchestra’s principal flutist Ariel Hayat ’15 plays an extended solo during the film’s crucial final scene.

“This was a wonderful learning experience for me,” Hayat says. “The focus and attention needed to sight-read a piece and then perform it is something that I had limited experience with. I needed to put most of my doubts aside and have the confidence in my own abilities to present the music in an artistic and precise way.” The anthropology major and music minor credits the “accepting and learning-filled environment” provided by Ng and her flute instructor, Professor of Music Adrianne Greenbaum, for allowing her “to grow as a musician in ways that give rise to openness and creativity.”

Ng says the orchestra rose to the occasion.

“The students made the music come to life; they just didn’t know how much they had it in them.”

The finished film is expected to be released in March; Ng hopes to arrange a campus screening.

—Emily Harrison Weir