A Noteworthy Profession

Three alumni on the art of composing

There’s no single blueprint to creating a song; each composer has his own approach. From finding a new way to adapt a classic to working within time constraints, there are many things at play when it comes to writing music. A trio of Duke alumni knows these rigors all too well. In a given week, Michael Ching ’80 and George Lam Ph.D. ’11 may be working out the kinks of a new opera, while Bill Cunliffe ’78 is writing the latest song for his big band. Though they share a goal in creating music, each takes his own path getting there.


It had been nearly twenty years since George Lam left his native Hong Kong. So when he was commissioned to write an orchestral work by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Lam had to figure out how to write about a place frozen in memory.

His solution was to use the sense of nostalgia. The work he created in 2009, “The Queen’s Gramophone,” is about an imaginary gramophone in a 1950s-era Hong Kong nightclub that exists in a Cantonese black-and-white film. The scene he created opens with a bassoon solo Lam says is meant to emulate the sounds of a saxophone. Percussion evokes the music of that era when tambourines and woodblocks ruled.

“I take a step back before I begin my writing process. I think of what question I want to explore or answer,” he says.

Before he left Durham, Lam wrote The Persistence of Smoke, a single-act opera about the local cigarette industry. He was intrigued by the industry’s role in Durham’s history, how cigarettes were both an economic boon and a cause of harms, like cancer.

But Lam didn’t just compose an opera. He was also part journalist, spending time in the community, interviewing residents, and collecting information to add a layer of authenticity to his work.

“I don’t get excited just about sound. That’s part of why I wanted to become a composer,” says Lam. “It is a medium to ask questions.”


For Bill Cunliffe, music is a trip you go on, from the first note to the last, and the Cal State Fullerton professor has an innovative flair when it comes to being a travel guide. When his trio took on “The Way You Look Tonight,” a classic song that lasts around three minutes, the Bill Cunliffe Trio tripled its length, reshaping it into a furiously paced jazz song. The composition was improvised on the fly, with Cunliffe giving cues to his bandmates along the way.

That’s not always how he works. Usually when he’s writing a new piece, Cunliffe starts at the piano. He’ll work out the details of his piece with one of his computer programs. But when it comes to innovating, Cunliffe says he comes up with his most creative work by playing the piano as he writes.

Cunliffe is known for blending genres—chiefly jazz with classical and pop, a trait he shares with piano great Mary Lou Williams, with whom he studied at Duke. Like a painter gaining mastery of his palette, “musicians need to have a vocabulary,” says Cunliffe, who won a Grammy in 2009 for best instrumental arrangement.

Having a diverse “vocab” allows a composer to go in multiple directions, he says. “I try to innovate because the process allows you to do more.”

As he notes with his take on “The Way You Look Tonight,” there were many covers of that song since its release. The task, he says, was putting his own spin on something that had been done before. “You don’t want to imitate. You want to adapt.”


Use less to make more. That was Michael Ching’s approach when he was asked to write an opera of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Opera Memphis.

Ching decided on an a cappella format to create a so-called “voicestra.” After the opera’s debut, The Wall Street Journal praised its inventive nature, calling it “a celebration of what voices can do.”

A bit of fortune and a Blue Devil tie brought Ching to the idea. Before he began working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was invited to work with DeltaCappella, a Memphis-based a cappella group founded by Jay Mednikow M.B.A. ’90. A cappella was unfamiliar territory for Ching, but he fell in love with the possibilities when it came to composing. “The voices make incredible sounds, they sound like instruments,” says Ching. “There’s a ‘wow’ factor.”

He says the performers were engaged by the novel format, but there were challenges, such as keeping the voices in tune throughout the performance. A piano was kept in the pit to help.

Ching—who studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Robert Ward while at Duke—says writing operas is a mix of the literary and the pragmatic.

“It’s the kind of thing where the whole is supposed to be greater than the sum of its parts,” he says. “You have to pay attention to what goes on on the stage. There’s the practical side, making sure characters have enough time to get on and off stage and that singers have enough time to breathe.

 Andrew Clark is a Boston-based writer.

STUDENTS COMPOSE TOO: Harish Eswaran '15 spent his senior year at Duke University bringing music to life. For his senior project, the biology and music major composed his first large-scale piece, Carnatic Concerto, which merges two styles of violin. Check out Duke video news manager Julie Schoonmaker's piece about this talented recent graduate.

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