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Ruth Chan: ‘There aren’t many British-Chinese composers, so we all try to support each other’

Ruth Chan.
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Ruth Chan has worked extensively as a composer in film and TV, including as assistant to Oscar-nominated film composer Dario Marianelli. After working on fringe shows, she is moving into larger theatres with her first major commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company. She tells Tim Bano about composing the music for a contemporary re-imagining of Guan Hanqing’s 12th-century play Snow in Midsummer…

Why did you want to become a composer?

I wanted to work in music but didn’t necessarily want to be a full-time performer. I was a pianist for a while, but didn’t want to be a concerto pianist. When I looked at what I could do, I decided I wanted to do something more creative. When I was younger I really enjoyed writing music for visual art. I was inspired by composers such as Debussy and Ravel, whose music evokes a picture or scenery, and that’s very much like film, TV and theatre composing. Then I did a course at the Royal College of Music and loved it. I became a complete workaholic. You don’t do that unless you like what you’re doing.

How did you get into composing for theatre?

I worked with friends in fringe theatre who needed bits of soundtrack. With fringe theatre, it’s always a lot easier to get someone who knows how to do film and TV because they can create demos quite quickly. The British-Chinese arts community is fairly limited at the moment. There aren’t many Chinese composers around, so we all try to support each other. But theatre doesn’t pay as well, generally. As a composer – like so many other professions – you do so much for nothing for the first few years.

What are the challenges of writing music for theatre, as opposed to film and TV?

In theatre you want to create something that’s more for the moment. The RSC is one of very few theatres that uses live musicians, so the main challenge for this production is getting the sound mixed and musicians trained up for the show, as well as writing the music.

The play was written in the 12th century but this production is set in the present day. What style of music have you chosen?

Musically, it’s very much about contemporary China. We tried to move away from traditional Chinese music and do quite a modern fusion. I’m using an instrument called the erhu – which resembles a violin – to evoke Chinese elements but using a distortion pedal to sound like Jimi Hendrix.

You were born in Stratford-upon-Avon. Was it an ambition to work at the RSC?

When I was younger I thought working there was an unachievable thing – something for white men. Subconsciously, I thought it was a great institution but I’d never get there. So this is wonderful.

CV: Ruth Chan

Training: Oxford University (2000), Royal College of Music (2002)
First professional job: Pilgrimage of the Heart, West Wing Arts Centre and Etcetera Theatre (2008)
Agent: none

Snow in Midsummer runs at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre until March 25

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