“I think my work is about fun. Not fun as in rollercoaster fun — [though] it has to be euphoric in some way — but you have to enjoy doing it.”

Carla Ng

Carla Ng (she/they) is a Hong Kong-born, London-based director, composer, and theatre-maker. Carla’s work focuses on the human experience — touching on topics such as food, culture, camp, the colour pink, and transness — and multidisciplinarity is central to her practice, undertaking roles as director, composer, performer, instrumentalist, filmographer, and visual artist. She is studying composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Amber Priestley and Matthew King; she has worked with ensembles and venues such as the Ligeti Quartet, harpist Chris Clarke, IKLECTIK, and most recently Almeida Theatre as part of their Young Creative Programme 2023. Carla currently co-runs the Guildhall New Music Society, and is one of the co-founders of artist collective SoundZpace, bringing together Generation Z musicians from the Hong Kong diaspora.

We caught up with Carla in a hotel café close to King’s Cross, London, and talked about empathy, performer and audience agency, art created from burnout, and being a dramaturgical “fixer”…

Carla Ng, ‘我去咗間車仔麵舖,然後我幫我碗麵影咗幅相 (I once went to a noodle place, and I took a picture of my noodles)’ (2022), performed by the Ligeti Quartet at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, January 2023.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Carla! Thanks so much for chatting today — how are you, and what are you up to creatively at the moment?

Carla Ng: I’m currently devising music for a play! I found two electronic musicians, and we’re gonna devise music for it. Basically, we’re gonna use found sound in the set — there’s a dripping thing, and we’re using dust sheets — and they will manipulate the sound we record in real time. The play is about four people underground; it’s kind of fucked up, it’s about why they didn’t fit in.

How far are you in the process of devising the music?

We haven’t started rehearsal yet, but we’re gonna start the first read-through this week. And then, me and the musicians are gonna have a bit of time devising, and then we’re gonna make it happen. It’s happening June 1st and 2nd, in the Silk Street TT Lab [at the Guildhall].

That’s so exciting. When creating interdisciplinary art, how collaborative does your process tend to be — is it similar to the process you’re using for this play?

I think, not really. In my brain, it’s not real collaboration, but it’s actually very collaborative — but in a way that I’m seeing through everything. Basically, I like to put a seed in things, see what happens, and I will create the things that happen. Not like, “everybody pitch in”, but “everybody create” — and then we see what happens. I describe myself as a “fixer” rather than a “creator”; having things that I’ve found, and then I fix it. You can think of it as: I have an idea, and use that idea, and interpret that idea, instead of creating from that idea.

What kinds of sources do you have with regards to these found objects?

It can be a concept, it can be an object. It can also be [text] — that’s why I’m leaning more towards theatre directing now, because it’s basically re-interpreting a text. For example, the new music thing that I’m doing at Guildhall (composition course), which is called ‘Bass Clarinet Turd’, is like a concerto — in that I’m playing bass clarinet and piano. But it’s me, playing Mozart on a piano, and the musicians making fart noises. I’m gonna use that [to] curate a thing in real-time.

I really like curating pieces, and making a thing happen. With New Music Society, the first gig that we did this year was a curation of different things. Me, Jo Fraser, and Jon Paul Mayse [run that]. We just did one concert; we were trying to do something different. It’s basically about a festivity — that isn’t really just Christmas — and we tried to wrap around that. In the spring term, we did a recording for composers [that] we facilitated; and we’re gonna try an installation. [But] the transition’s quite drastic, and we’re navigating our way into it after the last cohort — we were thrown into the deep end, so we didn’t have time to prepare, or think about the aesthetics we were gonna go with. So next year’s gonna be more [fruitful].

You’ve done quite a bit of interdisciplinary work with New Music Society before — tell me about some of the projects you’ve been involved with…

The most recent installation — which is called ‘。’… I got people to write confessions and then I shredded them. That actually had a continuation that hasn’t been presented yet. I have a piece called ‘Reich of Spring’, for percussion sextet. It’s about burnout. It didn’t happen — they say it will happen, but I just know that it won’t, so I’m gonna do it for different instrumentations now — it has elements of audience writing things down. They have a pencil, they write it, and then they throw it at the musicians; and then they [the performers] read it out.

The more that I do stuff that I like, the more motifs come in; and audience participation is definitely one of them. I did [a piece] at SoundZpace with raffle tickets — ‘我去咗間車仔麵舖,然後我幫我碗麵影咗幅相’ (I once went to a noodle place, and I took a picture of my noodles) — [which] was also done by the Ligeti Quartet. I’m gonna explain what happens first: in the Ligeti version, I have the Ligeti Quartet choose the “ingredients” they want, and according to the ingredients I put a [musical] cell on the board, and then they play it. That’s what happens. At SoundZpace, I just randomly sold raffle tickets, and had [the audience] choose their ingredients — and then I did a lucky draw for the raffle tickets. But [with] the Ligetis, the selection process was longer — it was actually six minutes, because I was nervous, I kept dropping things.

I had the idea of the raffle ticket really early on, even before writing the piece. I knew I was gonna double-dip that [idea] for both SoundZpace and the Ligeti Quartet. I had the idea, originally, of gifting everybody [in the audience] an ingredient sheet, and I was gonna yell out the ingredients. But I was not gonna have a seventy-seven [piece] audience, so I was not sure that was gonna happen.

Carla Ng, excerpts from ‘The World i See’, a blindfolded theatre experience (2019), performed at St. Stephen’s Chapel, Hong Kong, January 2019.

I love that idea so much — it’s so chaotic. How have you further explored giving either audiences or performers that sense of agency in your work?

I have another piece, called ‘pp1 [piano portal 1]’. It’s a series that I’m trying to do. That piece is a video score for piano; you follow the instruction, anyone can play it that can read English.

The concept is: I had a childhood piano. When I was in high school, I was bullied, and I “expressed my emotion”, or unwound, with piano; but when I moved out of Hong Kong, I sold that piano, and then that was very sad for me. But now, every time I play a Yamaha, I remember how I felt when I played that piano. I feel like I’m going to the same place.

Basically, you use the video score on the computer, and you can see yourself. It’s like a mirror. [To start,] you play a note, and you keep playing it, and you start talking about yourself. The prompt is, talk about something you would like to share — you are invited to be vulnerable, or not — and when you’re done talking, you press continue. And then you add two more fingers, and then you start talking more. -laughs- And then the third section is, you talk about your face — you describe your face on the piano. Then, [in] the last section, you have to recall everything you’ve said in the first sections; and when you don’t remember, or you slip up, your finger goes higher or lower.

So the note value tracks how much you forget?

It basically just goes to the last note.

There’s so many ways you can read into that. -laughs- Have you performed this piece before?

I haven’t, because I’m a weak little bitch. -laughs- But I have had different people do it. It’s very fun to see people do it, because it’s so easy to follow — literally playing one note. My aim with that is: when I have time, I want to collect different people playing it, and put a little library of people. But that’s more tech-y things I have to figure out.

The wildest dream that I have about this is that I want to have a big black box, in the middle of King’s Cross or something; and the piano’s inside. They have a portal to go in — so no-one knows who’s gone in — and they play it, but it’s amplified outside.

It’s like an invitation to be vulnerable, but without the baggage of having to be in front of people… There’s an anonymity there.

And also, the piece is not a “you have to perform it.” I don’t want to use “meditation”, I hate meditation as a word, but it’s a thing that you can do with yourself. It’s a flexible thing; you can perform it, you can not perform it, you can do it with your friends… a participatory experience.

Carla Ng, ‘Now I Know’ (2021), performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, July 2021.

Tell me more about how you’ve used open-score formats…

Hollie Harding came up with this open-score workshop thing at the end of term. I wrote a piece about microaggressions, and my experience of it. I just had a rant — and basically, the score is the same page of paper over and over again, but with more words blacked out. But all the blacked-out words are the same sound, and you go through the page [playing] the sound, and the last page is basically a black block.

There’s something very empathetic about both the approach of this piece and with ‘pp1’ — both to your performers and to yourself. Is the idea of empathy something that’s central in your work?

I don’t really know, because I’m a c**t, so I don’t know how that applies to me. -laughs- But I do know that I like to have empathy on performers. I don’t really like to write hard music — I feel like people who write hard music, and expect their performers to do something, are ridiculous. Who the fuck are you to expect someone to do something if you don’t know them? So my way of working is empathetic, in that I really want to know people, and start from there.

My work starts from relationships, I think. For example, one of the new pieces I’ve written now is a harp piece with brass quintet and film. It’s gonna be premiered on July 7th in the same church from SoundZpace — St. James Islington — by Chris Clarke. That is birthed from my friendship with Chris. I would never write a harp piece for a rando — but I know Chris, and I know Chris like certain music. With my piano duet piece ‘燒賣 豉油 辣油 麥精’ (Siu Mai, Soy Sauce, Chili Oil, Wheat Soy Milk) — that is birthed from me knowing the pianists, and their relationship with Hong Kong food. I know what they can do, and like. A lot of pieces [are] from that, I would say.

Of course — finding inspiration in the lived experience of your collaborators.

I think a really good segue into this is: I think my work is about fun. Not fun as in rollercoaster fun — [though] it has to be euphoric in some way — but you have to enjoy doing it. The concept has to be fun, it has to be fun for the audience. We are literally dying from capitalism and global warming; I don’t believe we should be doing M*hler six times. The people that are involved in my work, I am working with to have fun with my things, because that’s the only thing that matters to me.

I think that’s where the word empathy comes in. Segueing back into ‘Bass Clarinet Turd’ — ‘Bass Clarinet Turd’ is about how I learned the same Mozart sonata for three years straight. I really empathise with people who [are] burned out, and don’t really like the things they’re doing — because I was in that zone for a long time, during my teenage years. I said something really wise with my friend yesterday: we are all entitled to be bad at our craft, and our instruments. I’m sick of people gatekeeping and telling me I’m not good enough. I don’t want that to affect me to have fun on the instrument; I’m playing music for me, we’re doing it for our souls. And if we’re torturing ourselves with it, it’s not empathetic to our souls, is it?

Carla Ng, ‘Let Me Change Your Mind (George and Ricardo’s version)’ (2021), performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, April 2021.

Something that’s stood out to me is how you’ve kept the consistency of fun, connection, and lived experience in your work, while also shifting mediums — how has the way you’ve created and presented your work shifted with medium?

That is a struggle that I’ve had for a long time. I think the Ligeti Quartet broke that for me. Before the Ligeti piece, I was killing myself writing ‘Reich of Spring’, and that was the last “notated” thing that I swore I was gonna write. The first large ensemble piece [I wrote] for Guildhall — ‘手尾膚影’ (my hand, my skin and the shadow of my tale) — was the most painful experience I’ve had. It was a story about my transition; I was transitioning at the time, and I was so burned out. Then I did ‘Reich of Spring’ — I started doing the non-notated “theatre” parts of it, and I got more fun out of it. There’s two parts to it: the audience write their confessions on paper and throw it at the musicians, and the ensemble start going to the mic and reading the stories — and then, they go into this Reich-y thing and I get rolled out as a dead body. It’s camp. -laughs-

I think that’s the transition between my “notation” days to now. And then I did the Ligeti thing; and the Ligeti [piece] really made me happy. A part of the Ligeti piece is cell music, but I tried to start from sound first. I tried to start from “how do I want to achieve this sound without linearly notating it?” — and I got the result from Ligeti, and I’m happy with that. I think I got over the notion of “you have to do things this way” — which goes into my dissertation.

In terms of your current practice, and being in a curator-type role — what kind of freedoms to you feel that approach gives you?

I think it’s the hierarchy. I am doing three things at once right now. I am doing the play; I’m doing another play that I’m co-directing; and I’m also doing a scheme with Almeida Theatre, and I’m writing a short musical. I’m basically shifting to theatre. It was kind of hard for me to navigate what I wanted to do. Now I’d describe myself as a director-composer — that’s my most comfortable zone — but I feel like the freedom is that I decided that I’m not gonna stick to the binary anymore. The freedom is that I realised that it’s all a crock of shit, and that I should do what I wanna do.

There is always this feeling of how I hate the classical music industry. Every time I go to a premiere I want to kill myself. -laughs- I now can put the word in on this gig; it’s a “high art” thing, they think they’re better — they think boring is better, they strip the fun away. I find freedom in saying “no” to that, and doing the things I’m drawn to.

I’ve decided I’m not gonna make money off of my art. That’s also an Asian thing: when you tell your extended family [that] you do art, the first question is “how are you gonna make money?” — and I think that has been ingrained in my asshole. I keep thinking about my art as if I need to “sell” it, but now that I came to a realisation that I’m not gonna sell it — it doesn’t matter if I can sell it or not, I’m not going to sell it. I have another job, and I’m not gonna mix the two things in together. That has given me a lot of freedom. I’m privileged to have a job, and I’m privileged to not need air, or eating, or a flat or anything… -laughs-

I get that. That there can be liberation in refusing to participate.

Yeah! I realised that most of the things that were limiting me [are] capitalism. I recently had a conversation with a singer, and how they think that music now is all about the branding, and the [actual] music’s kind of died down. And that made me think, who’s fault is that? It’s not the singer’s fault! If they don’t have a brand, they won’t have an audience, they won’t make money. There’s a trend that’s at the forefront of society.

I was fed these notions of things. I was brought up playing the piano and violin, because I had no choice other than that. I did composition, because I had no choice other than that. I had a mentor called Maggie Bain, and they said to me: university shouldn’t be un-learning, you shouldn’t go into university un-learning the things you learned. It’s the failure of the education system, and that’s a part of capitalism — they have to put everything on a scale.

Carla’s upcoming play ‘Underground’ will take place this June 1st and 2nd at Silk Street, London – more info and free tickets can be found below:

Learn more about Carla and her practice:

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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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