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Music Visual Arts

Kam Kee Yong

Singapore violinist, composer, visual artist and educator.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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[With] the music that I write, I want it to present the culture I understand—me as a Singaporean Chinese. […] It’s very important for a composer. You have to be what you are and write what is in your heart. Each country has its own sound, and I want to have music with my own sound.

– National Library Board interview, 2010.

Kam Kee Yong is a violinist, composer, visual artist and educator who has made significant contributions to the Singapore music scene. He greatly increased the Southeast Asian region’s repertoire of original works for the Western orchestra with Nanyang-influenced compositions and helped to nurture generations of musicians with his establishment of the Singapura String Orchestra in 1970, and the School of Music and Children’s Art and the People’s Association String Orchestra for Children in 1981. In 1984, Kam received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.

Born on 28 Feb 1938 in Penang, Malaysia, Kam Kee Yong grew up in a village in Jelutong surrounded by nature. His father was a teacher and a leader of a jazz band who played the clarinet, and Kam inherited his passion for music. At age 10, Kam received the gift of a violin, which he had been asking for, and started learning how to play the instrument from his father. Kam then went on to study under a violin teacher, Mr Louis Lim of Penang, for five years. Equally enthused about art, he spent his free time drawing the natural surroundings in his village.

A young Kam, who already had the impulse to compose his own music, practised his violin for hours every day and spent his nights improvising on his violin outside his house. While he was in primary school, Kam got his first recording and performance experiences. He was invited to record a programme of violin pieces for Radio Malaysia and also performed with his father’s jazz band on Radio Malaysia, playing the violin and drums.

Unable to find a suitable violin teacher in Singapore, he chose art first as a subject for further studies. In 1959, Kam moved to Singapore to attend the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore on a Lee Foundation scholarship. However, finding the lessons there restrictive, Kam spent most of his time sketching the sights around Chinatown and the Singapore River instead. Towards the end of the year, he returned to Penang to hold a fundraising recital so that he could study music overseas. The recital was attended by Penang rubber tycoon and philanthropist Tan Boon Peng, who eventually helped to raise enough money for Kam. In 1960, Kam moved to London to study music at the Royal Academy of Music.

At the academy, he studied the violin and had many opportunities to lead string quartets. He soon composed his first string quartet piece String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, a work which, infused with traditional Chinese music influences, impressed his peers and professors, and was performed in a school concert. However, this was not enough to persuade the academy’s dean that Kam be allowed to study composition.

Undaunted, Kam composed his second string quartet piece String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor (Malaysian). He premiered the piece leading a string quartet in 1963 at an academy concert, and this convinced the dean to allow him to study composition. Kam went on to receive the Gowland Harrison Award for violin performance and the John E. West Prize for composition for String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor (Malaysian).

During his years at the academy, Kam also continued to paint, and held exhibitions of his works in various galleries around London. Short on funds, he sold his paintings to supplement his income.

At the end of 1965, Kam returned to Singapore determined to contribute to developing the arts in Singapore with his music training. He taught the violin and in 1970, founded the Singapura String Orchestra, for which he would conduct and compose music for 11 years. After which, in 1981, he established the Kam Kee Yong School of Music and Children’s Art as well as the People’s Association String Orchestra, which was made up of children ages six to 14.

His passion for the arts drove him to develop and nurture his students and the members of his orchestras. He composed many classical pieces that he premiered at the several concerts he presented with both his orchestras. Kam headed the Kam Kee Yong School of Music and Children’s Art and the People’s Association String Orchestra until the late ’80s, dedicating much time to training his young students, including his daughter, Kam Ning, who would become an internationally acclaimed violinist.

Committed to creating original works since the beginning of his music career and a passionate advocate of composing with an original voice, Kam created several works—comprising orchestral, chamber, choral and solo instrumental—that reflected the character and culture of Singapore. His compositions combined Western instrumentation and structures with Chinese narratives, motifs and sounds.

Chinatown Suite, written in 1985, was composed of 20 short movements presenting the colour and activity of old Chinatown through music. Kam also composed commissions such as Chung Kuo Kuang Hsi Chü (1978) for the TOKK Ensemble of Tokyo, and The Five Sentiments (1982) for ballet and orchestra for the Ministry of Culture of Singapore, conducting its premiere at the Singapore Arts Festival with the Festival Orchestra. He also made recordings of his works such as Chinatown Suite (1985) and Marine Parade Suite (1985) performed by the People’s Association String Orchestra under his baton for WEA Records. Kam also gained a reputation as a champion of Singapore compositions, performing them at his concerts.

In 1984, Kam received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.

Throughout his music career, Kam also continued to develop his love for painting. He held his first solo exhibition in Singapore in 1972, and, held solo exhibitions in both Singapore and Toronto through the ’90s. In 2000, he published an art book, Colour and Sound, which highlighted his two passions. For Kam, music and art “are so much connected they are the same thing—one in sound and one in colour” (National Library Board interview, 2010).

In 1989, Kam and his family migrated to Toronto, Canada, where he would found the Avant Garde School of Children’s Art and Music the following year. He continued composing there and his sonata Huai Gu was selected for its New York City premiere by North/South Consonance, Inc in 1992. The next year, he became an associate member of the Canadian Music Centre. In 2001, the album Cicada: The Complete Works for Violin and Piano by Kam Kee Yong, recorded by Kam Ning and pianist David Laughton, was released.

Kam continues to compose and paint. His daughter Kam Ning, and son Francis Kam, carry on the classical torch in the family. Recently, in 2010, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra dedicated half its concert programme to the performance of Kam’s compositions, with Kam Ning as a guest soloist.

Timeline

28 Feb 1938

Born in Penang, Malaysia.

1946 to 1953

Attended Li Tek School, Penang, Malaysia.

1954 to 1957

Attended Chung Ling High School, Penang, Malaysia.

1957

Guest violinist, piano recital by Irene Kohler, St Xavier’s Hall, Penang, Malaysia.

1958

Solo exhibition, Penang Arts Council, Malaysia.
Performer, violin recital, accompanied by pianist Judith O’Flynn. This is Kam’s first recital.

1959

Moved to Singapore.
Attended Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts briefly on a scholarship from the Lee Foundation.
Returned to Penang, Malaysia.
Performer, fundraising recital, accompanying pianist Chua Kah Pin, Penang, Malaysia.

1960 to 1966

Attended Royal Academy of Music on scholarship obtained with help from Penang rubber tycoon and philanthropist Tan Boon Peng.

1960

Composer, String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor.

1962

Received Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, UK.

1963

Composer, String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor (Malaysian).
Received Gowland Harrison Award for violin performance.
Solo exhibition, Woodstock Gallery, London, UK.
Commissioned by Cathay Arts Publications of London to create 13 artworks for publication as greeting cards for international distribution.

5 Dec 1963

String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor (Malaysian) premiered at the Royal Academy of Music.

1964

Solo exhibition, Cathay Gallery, London, UK.
Received John E. West Prize for composition for String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor (Malaysian).

1965

Passed Division 5 in violin performance exam.
Represented Malaysia as soloist and conductor of three of his compositions The Prodigal, Piano Quartet in E Major and Kuang Xiang Qu (Chinese Rhapsody) at the Commonwealth Institute on World Commonwealth Day.
Solo exhibition, Pugh and Carr Gallery, London, UK.
Solo exhibition, Cathay Gallery, London, UK.
Returned to Singapore.

1969

Participant, Dimitri Metropolous International Music Competition for conductors, New York, USA.
Piano Quartet in E Major performed at the Asian Composers’ Conference and Festival in Hong Kong.

1970

Founder, Singapura String Orchestra.
Recorded LP album Oriental Violin Pieces with pianist Cheung Mun Chit, published by A Victory Production.

1970 to 1981

Conductor, Singapura String Orchestra.

1971

Participant, Dimitri Metropolous International Music Competition for conductors, New York, USA.

1972

Debut performance of the Singapura String Orchestra with guests artistes Alex Abisheganaden, Ng Kok Cheow and Anne Tan, Singapore Conference Hall.
Solo exhibition, Singapore Arts Society, Singapore Conference Hall, Singapore.

1975

Commissioned by the TOKK Ensemble of Tokyo to revise Kuang Xiang Qu (Chinese Rhapsody) for solo violin with piano, harp and percussion. Performed at the TOKK Ensemble’s Asia concert tour.

1978

Toured Australia under Cultural Award Scheme, giving lecture recitals at universities and conservatories to introduce his music and art.

1981

Founder, Kam Kee Yong School of Music and Children’s Art, Peace Centre, Selegie, Singapore.
Founder, People’s Association String Orchestra.

1981 to 1988

Director, Kam Kee Yong School of Music and Children's Art.
Conductor, People’s Association String Orchestra.

1982

Commissioned by Ministry of Culture to compose The Five Sentiments for ballet and orchestra for a performance at the Singapore Arts Festival.
Conductor, Festival Orchestra, Singapore Arts Festival.
Commissioned by The Straits Times to create a series of over 20 sketches of musician characters for publication in The Straits Times.

1984

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.

1985

Symphony in E Minor (Youth), celebrating World Youth Day, premiered by the People’s Association String Orchestra.
Recorded two albums featuring original compositions Chinatown Suite and Marine Parade Suite with People’s Assocation String Orchestra, WEA Records.
Guest conductor, ASEAN Youth Orchestra, Singapore.

1987

Named Associate (with honours) of the Royal Academy of Music, London, UK.

1989

Moved to Toronto, Canada with his family.

1990

Founder and director, Avant Garde School of Childrens’ Art and Music, Toronto, Canada.
Solo exhibition, Avant Garde Gallery, Oakville, Canada.

1992

Huai Gu premiered in New York City, USA, by the North/South Consonance, Inc.

1993 to present

Associate member, Canadian Music Centre.

1994

Solo exhibition, Swee Guan Gallery, Singapore. As part of the Singapore Arts Festival Fringe.

1996

Solo exhibition, Solo Art Gallery, Toronto, Canada.

1997

Solo exhibition Kaleidoscope of Rhythm, Artfolio Gallery, Singapore.

2000

Published art book Colour and Sound.
Solo exhibition Metamorphosis, Arfolio Gallery, Singapore.

12 Nov 2010

Selection of work featured in Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert, with daughter Kam Ning as guest solo violinist.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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