Music HERstory: Bun-ching Lam (b. 1954)

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Bun-ching Lam (b. 1954)

By Polimnia

Bun-ching Lam was born in Macao, China, on June 26, 1954. At the age of 7, she began studying piano, performing in solo recital at 15. She graduated in Piano at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1976, receiving a scholarship to study at the University of California, San Diego. There she studied composition with Pauline Oliveros, Bernard Rands, Robert Erickson and Roger Reynolds, until graduating Ph.D. in 1981.

Bun-ching taught at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle from 1981 to 1986. She was a resident composer of the Macao Orchestra and the New Jersey Symphony, performing at the America Dance Festival in 2000 and 2001. She won the Prix de Rome composition competition in 1991 and the Lili Boulanger 1st Prize in 1992, as well as China's first international competition, the Shanghai Music Competition.

Among other things, she was awarded scholarships by the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and funding for 3 months of study in Japan by the Cultural Council of Asia.

Bun-ching chamber compositions were presented in a retrospective about the author by the German University of Heidelberg in 2009 in the format of 3 recitals. On the same occasion were exhibited books that the composer produced with the Kadelwey Press, as part of the program "Cluster of Excellence". The full of these concerts was released on a double CD album under the title “Heidelberg Concerts” (Mutable Music). A similar retrospective entitled “Lam Bun-ching & Friends” was presented two years later in Macao, as part of the 26th Macao International Music Festival.

Bun-ching was one of 27 composers invited by violinist Hilary Hahn to create a work for her "Encore Project". The CD for this project was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2013. She also integrated the Atlas Ensemble concert with the piece Atlas, premiered at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with works by 30 musicians from China, Europe and the Middle East.

Her chamber opera Wenji - Eighteen Songs of the Nomade Flute was premiered at the Asia Society in New York and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. The composer has had orchestral pieces performed by major international groups such as the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Macao Orchestra, Albany Symphony, Women's Philharmonic, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Holland, and Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

Bun-ching also acts as a conductor. She performed in front of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra / Macao Chamber Orchestra on a program dedicated to her own works as part of the 16th Macao International Music Festival. Her play Missing Macao was commissioned by the Macao Cultural Institute for the event.


Bun-ching Lam's compositions are described by various media as “alluringly exotic” or even “hauntingly attractive”. The author inserts musical and poetic elements from her childhood in Macao, as can be seen in Song of the Pipa, for solo kite and orchestra. In this work, Bai Juyi's poem (Tang Dynasty) has its environment and spirituality recreated musically through ancient kite melodies. The soloist instrument presents a kind of cadenza, followed by a dialogue between it and the orchestra. The culmination is reached by all in unison, and evokes the need for unity between people. The work is dedicated to the composer's mother (https://www.bunchinglam.com/programnotes.htm).

In turn, Atlas was created from the plot and design of an oriental rug. It contains repetitive musical elements, such as the graphic motifs on the edge of a Persian rug, which lead to the main theme at the center of the work (rug and piece). Also the musical motifs are based on Persian tunes such as Gushe. Inspired by the title of the ensemble that commissioned the work - the Atlas Ensemble - Bun-ching imagined a large musical map, an atlas, traversing the different regions where the instruments used were created (Idem).

Abstract language is used by the musician in works such as Piccolo Concertino. The author treats the instrument, often used in virtuosic parts, as responsible for intimate melodies, exploring its lower registers, imposing weak dynamics and calm character.

Nevertheless, Missing Macau brings the gong as the protagonist of the 3rd movement of a nostalgic piece, in 5 movements. Macau Cantata is written in 7 languages, with texts by 7 authors considered important to Macao's formation, such as Jesuit Matteo Ricci.

Speaking of her compositional style, the author defines herself as “postmodern”, “post-minimalist” and “everything else that can be a 21st-century composer”.

To know her work:

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