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Composer scores big with RSC music commission

By BO LEUNG | China Daily UK | Updated: 2017-04-03 18:14

Breaking into the music industry is a challenge for anyone, but British-Chinese composer Ruth Chan says she had more hurdles to jump than most.

Composer scores big with RSC music commission

Ruth Chan is a successful composer.

Chan has worked as a composer in film and TV and was an assistant to Oscar-winning Italian film composer Dario Marianelli. After working on short films and fringe shows, she was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to compose music for the contemporary reimagining of the classic 12th century tale, Snow in Midsummer. It was her first major commission.

"The play is in a very contemporary setting, so the RSC wanted a DJ as well as a composer for this," she said. "One scene is set in a club, we had a techno sound mixed with Chinese elements, such as Beijing Opera. It's a modern fusion and I used a Chinese instrument called an erhu and then used a distortion pedal to make it sound like Jimi Hendrix."

Chan praised the RSC for staging the show.

"There just isn't enough British-Chinese representation in the arts community. It feels as if we are invisible," Chan said. "But the RSC is taking big leaps to change this by casting a predominately East Asian cast."

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare and home of the RSC, Chan began playing the piano at age 6. Her mother was from Hong Kong and her father from a village in Guangzhou province. Like many British Chinese, they earned their living by running a Chinese takeaway.

Chan recalled: "My parents weren't too keen on me taking up the arts as they wondered if working in this field would make enough money to survive."

She never did want to be a concert pianist, but studied music at Oxford University, where she specialized in orchestration and composition.

"After that, I did a post-graduate degree in composition for screen at the Royal College of Music in London," she said. "While some people accidently fall into this profession, it was something I wanted to pursue."

During her post-graduate course, she was hired as Marianelli's assistant.

"It was a great experience but I was assisting him with his work and I needed to get my own work out there," she said.

Chan started out taking on fringe projects, often for little or no payment.

"In theatre, as a British-Chinese it was very difficult to get a foot in the door, even in non-paid work," she said.

But opportunities came and she was commissioned by British East Asian production groups, including Yellow Earth Theatre and Chinese Arts Space.

"Everyone was in the same boat, so when these companies were given work, they gave me a job too," she said. "As an ethnic Chinese and also a female, it was a struggle to get noticed. I didn't know where to start and I didn't have the right connections, especially with my parent's background, I didn't have the networking or social skills to get into the industry."

Chan's next project is to write a piece for Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.


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