From the suona to the city: UMKC student Kwan Leung Ling and the art of film score composition

UMKC grad student Kwan Leung Ling worked on the score for the animated film “24.” (Kwan Leung LING 凌君亮)

Anna Ryan

Lingering in the hushed dawn of downtown Phoenix, Arizona, international student and freshman Kwan Leung Ling had no idea where his academic and musical pursuits would lead him. As Ling anxiously waited for his bus and subsequent two-hour ride to Scottsdale Community College, any conceptions of film score composition or acclaim were far from his thoughts.

But just four years and two colleges later, Ling would have the opportunity to collaborate with a friend on a film the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival featured in their 2021 lineup.

“The first day I was so scared,” Ling said as he recalled the early days of his time in the United States. “It was dark, and I was in downtown Phoenix by myself.”

Upon first arriving in the United States, Ling, originally from Hong Kong, quickly established a routine of sacrifice and discipline in order to succeed in his studies. This began with him waking up at 4 a.m. to arrive on campus on time for his early-morning English class, and it eventually led to him practicing music for up to nine hours a day to perfect his craft.

“I would practice scales in the morning and then scales and repertoires in the afternoon,” Ling said of his detailed and rigorous daily clarinet practice. “And then one day I moved my arm and I realized it was painful.” 

The simple finger movements he used to practice on the clarinet made his muscles ache after hours of practice every day.

In Hong Kong, Ling had mastered the suona, a traditional Chinese wind instrument that is relatively unheard of in other parts of the world. In order to pursue a music-related major, Ling had to specialize in a specific instrument, but many colleges didn’t accept the suona. An avid musician, Ling chose to pick up the clarinet instead to continue his musical studies. 

Eventually, his hard work paid off. The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) accepted Ling into their undergraduate program, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in music composition and also met his friend Brian Yulo Ng, with whom he would later collaborate on an animated film.

After completing his degree there, Ling decided to continue his education by pursuing a master’s degree in music composition at the UMKC Conservatory.

“The composition department at UMKC is one of the strongest in the world,” Ling said. “There are several very famous composers.”

Some of these composers include Yi Chen and Zhou Long, two Chinese professors of composition that helped Ling to refine his style.

“I learned a lot of skills to use Chinese music elements in my writing,” Ling reflected. 

This unique comingling of styles would ultimately enable him to more masterfully compose the film score for his friend’s animated feature.

Ng, the friend Ling met at CalArts, crafted a film titled “24” that reflects on Ng’s own experiences and struggles growing up at the intersection of both Filipino and Singaporean cultures. 

Ng compiled and animated the documentary short in 2019 and sent it over to Ling with a tight deadline of one week to compose a film score accompaniment. In spite of the seven-day crunch, Ling felt like his past friendship with Ng made it easy to understand the film and compose music that fit the tone of the piece.

“Me and him really like to eat, and when we were in CalArts, we always drove down to L.A. at like 3 a.m. to get food,” Ling laughed. “We would talk about his culture, and he told me a bunch of stories about being raised in a multicultural family.”

This established familiarity made the composition process simple. When it came down to technicalities, Ling often molded the music around the motion and visuals of the film. Fast-paced scenes, for example, called for quick and loud music. But for the most part, Ling and Ng’s bond through culture and art enabled Ling to write the score with greater ease.

“I already knew a lot of his childhood and I knew the scenes and what they meant to him,” Ling remarked. “So I knew how the music should go.”

“24” ended up winning Best Experimental Short in the 2019 Los Angeles Animation Festival as well as Best Animated Documentary in the 2019 Palm Springs International Animation Festival and Expo, according to IMDb. It was also officially selected for the 2021 Cinequest Festival.

After obtaining his Master’s from UMKC in May, Ling intends to pursue his doctorate in music composition and continue experimenting with multimedia music by returning to the suona and trying out electronic music.

What started with the suona now continues to crescendo into an impressive symphony of talent, dedication, friendship and culture.

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