Making Music a Labour of Love

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Professor and composer Ngou Kang, a humble man with timeworn hands, hopeful brown eyes and a gentle disposition, has lived in North Burnaby for 22 years. At the age of 90, he has more spring in his step than a 20-year-old and more passion for music than most.

You may have walked or driven past his peach-coloured house on Rosser Street dozens of times, oblivious to the fact that inside, lives an internationally renowned music composer and teacher – a man with almost magical qualities.

For Kang, music is a universal language, and it speaks to him in many ways. But most importantly, it speaks to his heart.

Whether it be listening to his own compositions or playing someone else’s he says music envelops him in a world of his own.

“I forget everything,” he says, gently tapping his temples. “Just me, by myself.”

Kang’s walls are adorned with certificates of distinction from international societies. He is a member of the Asian Composers’ League, is listed in the International Register of Profiles, the Dictionary of International Biography and is part of the International Who’s Who of Intellectuals, established in Cambridge, England.

But, despite all the recognition, Kang remains modest, quietly composing music – not because he wants to be in the limelight, but because it’s something he loves to do.

Flipping through his biography, a thick, red leather book, he seems amazed that anyone would have taken enough interest in his life to write a whole book on it.

Kang was born in China in 1914. His first memories of music are when he was 12, playing the violin and piano for his school music department. He still remembers some of the first piano songs he learned.

He describes how he later met and married the love of his life, Koling, in Chong Ching, the temporary capital of China during the Second World War. She passed away three years ago, he says. They had been married for 59 years.

Kang points to a wall hanging that this wife made for him. On simple white canvas, the Mandarin word for ‘one’ is printed in 10 rows of 10, each red character different than the other.

“It means long life,” he says. “The same meaning but 100 times … all different.”

“My wife used to love music,” he recalls, looking at her sketched portrait on the mantelpiece. They wrote songs together, he adds, “My wife wrote poems. I wrote solo pieces or choruses.”

Kang and his wife had four daughters together, all of whom are accomplished scholars and musicians. The two eldest children, Helen and Agnes, were born in China, while the other two, Sophia and Katherine, were born in Taiwan when the family moved there in 1952.

Kang taught music theory for over 40 years in China and Taiwan, and, during that time, he wrote approximately 30 textbooks and edited a music dictionary.

He explains how he studied at the Julliard School in New York, learning how to teach theory, and points to a photo in which he is conducting a chorus in New York.

“There, that is me,” he chuckles, perhaps amazed at just how long ago that was.

He started composing music at the age of 50, and since then has composed three pieces of chamber music, 20 solo pieces, almost 50 chorus pieces and three instrumental pieces, including a concerto.

What’s more is that he’s done the majority of composing over the last 20 years while in Canada – he’s been retired, after all.

“I write some things according to classical (music),” he says, adding that he incorporates Chinese melodies into classical pieces.

Kang has been composing his music via computer programs since 1986, when he first learned how to use the technology.

Now, in his private studio, he clicks the mouse and scattered piano melodies spring from the speakers – a piece he has recently been working on.

“(The computer’s) very easy for composing and very easy to listen,” he says, watching every note on the screen and moving his hands in time with the music.

“This is the piano solo,” he explains. Then, as the music changes, “This is the violin.”

As he speaks of the instruments in his soft voice, he mimes playing them to help illustrate his point.

“I like music. Sometimes I listen to music – opera or symphony,” he says, describing the feeling that washes over him as simply “happiness.”

Over his lifetime, Kang has spread a lot of happiness to others through his music. He’s earned the love and admiration of many professional musicians, but he also has a large family that thinks the world of him.

Between his four daughters, he has 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The family will be there for his belated birthday celebration this weekend at the James Cowan Theatre in Burnaby.

His daughters have invited such classical musicians as Zoltan Rozsynyal (cello), Dr. Janina Kuzmas (piano), Jeanette Singh (violin), Barnaby Kerekes (trombone) and Yong Sun (flute) to perform his instrumental pieces.

As well, Agnes and Katherine, who are both sopranos, will sing some of his work with the Vancouver Chinese Singers.

It’s a celebration of Kang’s accomplishments, but, most of all, it’s a celebration of a universal language that speaks more than words.

As Kang sits in his living room, listening to one of his own CDs, he closes his eyes, following the pianist’s movements with his mind.

Smiling, he compliments the musician. When asked why he never performs his pieces, he answers with a smile: “I’m just a composer, not a performer.”

PUBLICATION: Burnaby NOW newspaper


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