By SGN | 13 Jan 2022
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of musician Ben is.
He has written and arranged for orchestras and ensembles, TV and film, dance and theatre, pop music and children’s songs. He’s a multi-instrumentalist: an accomplished sheng player who’s also adept at piano and guitar. He is inspired by both the Western and Chinese musical traditions, and secretly a fan of heavy metal.
“I’ve worked in so many mediums and genres that a lot of people are very perplexed,” he says. “Some people find it interesting, some people find it frustrating. They’re like, ‘Hey, what’s this guy about?’”
Feeling like an outsider
Ben’s unique position in music may be traced to his unconventional entry into the field. In fact, music wasn’t always a source of pleasure.
In primary school, he recalls having classmates who were learning piano or violin and already able to read music. Naturally, during recorder lessons, everybody could play the instrument – that is, everybody but Ben. It was a formative experience that shaped his view of the subject. “I’ve always felt like an outsider in music,” he says, “someone that’s outside looking in.”
Things took a turn at 15, when his teacher pressed him and his deskmate to join the Chinese orchestra because they were short of sheng players. Ben tried it out for fun, and grew unexpectedly absorbed in the practice, thrilled by the challenge while discovering a flair for music.
More than the sheng, he was captivated by the power of the orchestra to move audiences and conjure sweeping emotion. Often, he stayed back after rehearsals to borrow the conductor’s score and decipher how all its elements pieced together.
As a persistent back injury dashed his sporting aspirations and commando dreams, he dived deeper into music and began theory lessons during National Service. He seemed well-suited for composition: he could read scores faster than his peers and figure out chords and counter-melodies by ear, even before he had learnt the jargon.
But because he had neither the qualifications nor a Western instrument to audition for a Bachelor’s in composition, he opted instead to study at the National Institute of Education and become a music teacher.
Early days in Beijing
Even as he pursued a teaching career, Ben never let up on improving his skills in music, making trips to Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music for private lessons – first in sheng, then in composition, tutored by the eminent Tang Jianping.
“Because I started music very late, I always had this constant fear that I needed to catch up,” he explains. “I always felt like: I need to study more, I need to read more, I need to listen more.”
After four years of teaching, Ben had imparted all he could to his students. He was ready to venture out and gain more life and work experience.
Given that being a full-time composer in Singapore was near-impossible, he settled on pursuing a Master’s degree at the Central Conservatory in Beijing as a means to hone his craft while easing into China’s music industry. Though language posed a huge challenge, the Conservatory offered the rigorous training he sought, and it helped that he was already familiar with the city.
Possibly the first Singaporean to get into the notoriously tough composition programme, Ben spent four years – resuming his mentorship under Tang Jianping – experiencing what he describes as “ass-whipping” training and impossible-to-complete exams that induced more than a few tears.
By the end of his Master’s, Ben had built a steady pipeline of projects to supplement his living expenses. Though he never had a big break, he became known as someone clients could count on at the eleventh hour, subbing for composers that had dropped out without warning.
“That is something I am especially proud of as a Singaporean – the reputation we have built for being reliable and professional,” Ben says.
As a junior composer, he had to endure missed payments and poor treatment. Over time, however, Ben grew a client base that valued and believed in his work.
Within the industry, Ben gets hired as if he were a local, which allows him to participate in some of the biggest projects in China. “Many of my collaborators don’t know, till a much later stage, that I’m a foreigner. It makes for good conversation over beers once projects are wrapped, though,” he says.
He has been involved in projects of great magnitude, such as the 70th anniversary of China’s founding. The grand parade commissioned works by an esteemed roster of composers, of which Ben was the only non-national.
He subsequently scored a children’s musical involving young performers from China and Denmark to celebrate the opening of Panda House at Copenhagen Zoo, a US$24 million enclosure for two newly loaned giant pandas.
In the classical world, he’s worked with top orchestras and the most revered musicians in China, including Yang Xuefei (“the Beyoncé of the classical guitar world”) and Wu Tong (“the god of sheng”) – whom he addresses as shige since they were taught by the same professor.
Reaching the common man
Ben’s influences encompass the East and the West. They range from Jerry Goldsmith and Alexandre Desplat to Ryuichi Sakamoto and Chen Qigang – who was a member of the illustrious Class of 1978, the Central Conservatory’s first batch of composition students after the Cultural Revolution.
In a process that can be emotionally draining, he pours himself into each piece he creates, immersing himself in the story and the feelings of its characters.
“Music is very malleable,” he says. “I could make you feel a sense of calm one moment, then twist it around and make you feel saturated with regret or anguish. There are so many tinges and hues that I can colour with.”
Occasionally, he receives texts and emails from listeners that express how his work has resonated deeply or moved them to tears.
“I think I’m able to touch people only because I know what it’s like to be an outsider to music,” he muses. “Much as I have been trained to be highly technically proficient, my goal has always been to write music that is accessible to the man in the street. I don’t write music to alienate people.”
Love for collaboration
Amid his commercial pursuits in China, Ben sets time aside for passion projects that support young artists and the Singapore arts scene.
He keeps a lookout for indie films by students or fledgling directors, offering them professional audio treatments on low budgets. He also undertakes projects with Singapore groups like the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Toy Factory, which engaged him to score their play 7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove in 2020.
While Ben’s advice to aspiring artists is to go further by focusing their energies on one genre, he can’t help but yield to an omnivorous appetite for the arts. He loves collaborating with choreographers, filmmakers, theatre directors, and gets fired up by the creative possibilities of supporting their vision and adding layers of meaning through music.
He credits being an outsider for this artistic versatility, saying that musicians who started young may find it harder to break the mould they were cast in. “But I was never a part of that mould,” he says. “That has given me the freedom to go into whichever medium I’m interested in.”
Behind his success
Most people see the glamour of Ben’s successes and the polish of his finished pieces. What they don’t see are the long nights, the pitches that fall through, the endless rejections and rewrites under frantic deadlines.
“I would say that for every big project of mine, I’ve probably had 20 or more projects that did not work out,” he says. “Many Singaporean musicians have come and gone, and I think it has to do with an assumption that success comes overnight.
“I’ve been working on my career for close to 20 years now, and I’ve only just begun. I’m nowhere near peaking.”
Entering 2022, Ben continues to take on a mix of Singapore and China assignments. In the first quarter alone, he is juggling work for the Winter Olympics in Beijing, another Toy Factory production premiering in March, and a short film by Singaporean director Boo Junfeng.
Musician. Husband. Father.
After eight years in China, Ben has not only forged a thriving career – he has also started a family.
He is married to Sherry Sun Ying, a high-profile pipa performer who studied at the Central Conservatory from the age of 11. She has performed at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as in numerous stage performances and studio recordings for film, TV, and pop music.
The couple have a one-year-old son who is unsurprisingly drawn to music, dancing along happily or sitting and listening, remarkably focused, for 10 minutes straight.
Much may have changed since Ben moved to Beijing, but some things never will. He still dreads the cold, and he is still improving his Mandarin and knowledge of Chinese culture. Thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp, Ben feels like he hasn’t left Singapore. Oddly enough, neither have his dreams.
“It’s funny that in all my years in China, my dreams are always set in Singapore,” he shares. “Most of them are very mundane. I could be sipping kopi at a kopitiam. But the location is always Singapore.”
Ben is a Singaporean composer based in Beijing who has written for renowned musicians and orchestras, award-winning indie films and hit television series. He graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music with a Master’s in composition under the tutelage of Tang Jianping.
Learn more at his website.