ListN Up: Tiffany Ng (April 16, 2021)

ListN Up is a series of weekly artist-curated playlists. Born from a desire to keep artists sharing and connected during times of isolation, ListN Up offers an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

A “virtuoso” (HKSNA) with a range of expression from “eerie sonance” (Diapason) to “jumpy athleticism” (Chicago Classical Review), Tiffany Ng (pronounced ‘ing’) plays the 53-bell Baird Carillon and 60-bell Lurie Carillon at the University of Michigan. Her concert career spans festivals throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. She has premiered over 60 acoustic and electroacoustic pieces for carillon and organ, championed composer diversity, and collaboratively pioneered interactive and environmental-data-driven performances. Her most recent album, Dark Matters (innova, March 2021), is dedicated to the carillon music of Stephen Rush.

Hi! My name is Tiffany Ng. I’m currently standing inside a 12-ton bell. It is part of a carillon, which is a musical instrument comprised of several octaves of bronze bells in a tower, attached to a keyboard and pedalboard. I grew up in San Francisco; I now play new music, electroacoustic music, and audience-interactive and data-driven performances on carillons, and I’m based here at the University of Michigan. So, it’s really my pleasure to get to share with you some of my musical influences growing up in San Francisco and also from playing bell towers around the world. I hope you enjoy!

Komm, Heiliger Geist (BWV 651) by J.S. Bach, performed by Robert Clark

I got my start as a young musician playing with toy keyboards. My Cantonese grandmother 伍惠娥, a tough and witty Toisan refugee who never had much use for learning English, used her savings to buy me an upright piano when I was 9. Eventually I upgraded to playing buildings: the building is the pipe organ’s resonance chamber, and the entire neighborhood is the carillon’s resonance chamber. This performance by Robert Clarks is on the monumental 1746 Hildebrandt organ (Naumburg, Germany)

“Baby Love” by The Supremes

Motown was all the rage in 1960s Hong Kong when my parents were high school sweethearts there. As an 80s preschooler in San Francisco, I loved playing their Motown cassettes so much that I thought I’d double the goodness by dubbing my favorite Sesame Street song onto one. I was crestfallen to find that instead of creating a radical mix, I’d overwritten the Supremes’ silky voices with muppets! Now I live near Detroit and have a blast playing Motown tunes on the bell towers.

Excerpt from 萬里琵琶關外月 (The Moonlight and Pipa of the Borderland)

My paternal grandfather King Che Ng traveled to San Francisco in 1935 to perform with his Cantonese opera troupe, but the Chinese Exclusion Act limited their run. They eventually returned to Hong Kong, where he and his family would struggle to survive. In the 70’s, my family again sought better lives in the U.S. This opera evokes the television soundscape of my multigenerational childhood home in San Francisco, where I listened alongside my maternal grandmother to the 6 tones of Cantonese made even more musical in opera. According to my mother, this production follows two star-crossed lovers: a high-ranking officer of the Han Dynasty, Jian, and the triple-threat Yin, who can sing, dance, and play the pipa. In my grandfather’s heyday, men played both the male and female roles.

Ballads by Sarkis

Now, playing bell towers for a living is a dream come true for me. But listeners can’t see the hidden player, and many assume we’re machines that can be turned on or off. One of my favorite campanological installations was by Paris-based Turkish conceptual artist Sarkis, who built a 43-bell indoor carillon on 18 towering tree trunks at the Submarine Wharf of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (Rotterdam, the Netherlands). Visitors could see whether a human was playing or whether the automated system was chiming John Cage’s Litany for the Whale in sly reference to the exhibition space’s original purpose as a submarine wharf.

Playing The Building by David Byrne

In a cavernous ferry terminal at the Battery Maritime Building (New York), David Byrne connected a harmonium keyboard to actuators that caused audible vibrations in different parts of the building. There was no definitive performance—every visitor became an experimental improviser. Playing it as a newly minted college organist who suddenly found her training irrelevant, I took my first step in thinking about audience participation in the sounds of building-sized instruments.

Poème Électronique by Edgard Varèse

The architect Le Corbusier designed the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, and Varèse created this eight-minute immersive soundscape to be experienced through several hundred Philips loudspeakers. Curious as to why Poème Électronique opens with a great swinging bell, I retraced Varèse’s footsteps to the Netherlands. While composing, he’d lived in Philips housing within earshot of Eindhoven’s bells. In 1966, Philips built a starkly modernist carillon near another block of employee housing—one of the only corporate carillons in the world.

Vertigo Suite by Bernard Herrmann, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (Bernard Herrmann, conductor)

I’m obsessed with Vertigo, which features two fatal falls from a fictional California mission belfry, made even more memorable by cameraman Irmin Roberts’s iconic dolly zoom. Examining Herrmann’s original Vertigo sketches at the UC Santa Barbara Library was one of my most thrilling experiences as a researcher. Long romanticized, however, California’s El Camino Real Mission Bell Markers are symbols of violent oppression to Native Americans. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band successfully began to remove markers in 2019.

Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack by Philip Glass

I was born the same year that Godfrey Reggio’s environmental film Koyaanisqatsi was released. Its name is a Hopi word translated as “life out of balance,” and Philip Glass’s relentless soundtrack thoroughly shapes the natural and constructed landscapes upon which its camera lingers. I always feel an inexplicable sense of loss watching the opening montage of ancient pictographs by the Desert Archaic culture in Utah and the slow-motion fall of the spent rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon, accompanied by Glass’ dirge-like electronic organ. Before colonization, Native Americans were brilliant environmental stewards of Turtle Island, and we settlers urgently need to heed their knowledge and warnings today.

“Trouble of the World” by Mahalia Jackson

This song is for a city. Playwright José Casas went knocking on doors in Flint, Michigan to meet the everyday people affected by the water crisis, and wrote his powerful play Flint to tell their stories. Through him, community members requested the spiritual “Trouble of the World” on the carillon on opening night in 2019. They sent me one of Mahalia Jackson’s renditions, which I painstakingly transcribed, though my arrangement can never live up to her legendary voice. As I write today, the fourth verse (“I wan’ see my mother / Going home to live with God”) cuts deep as the trial over George Floyd’s murder unfolds.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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