Meet Tiffany Ng

03 Mar, 2014

Meet Tiffany Ng

The Berkeley Center for New Media is turning 10! To celebrate, over the next ten months leading up to our birthday party on September 25th, 2014, we’re sharing ten stories of BCNM’s life so far. This month, hear how Designated Emphasis Ph.D. candidate Tiffany Ng explores urban spaces through the architecture of music.

When Tiffany Ng was a teenager, she saw the UC Berkeley carillon in Sather Tower on the television in her south San Francisco home and was entranced. But it was only years later, after studying at Yale and living in Belgium as she pursued her research in music, that she finally returned to the Bay to take her place behind the bells.

Tiffany has always been enthralled by music. Growing up, she played with a Casio electronic keyboard until her parents were able to save enough money for the piano she craved. While she planned to study computer science, “music just sort of crept up on me,” and she soon switched to a double major in English and music instead. Remembering the Cal carillon she had seen as a child, Tiffany auditioned for the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs. Under the tutelage of the student-run guild, she not only mastered the unique instrument, but also organized a national carillon conference and a museum exhibition of bells as an undergraduate. Tiffany was eventually awarded a scholarship by the Belgian American Educational Foundation to attend the Royal Carillon School "Jef Denyn" in Mechelen, Belgium, where she graduated with honors. Her thesis consisted of a comprehensive multimedia catalog for the institution’s collections, evidence of her growing interest in not just playing the carillon, but also investigating and documenting its role and cultural space.

Tiffany joined Berkeley aiming to pursue her interest in the role of belfries in soundscapes and urban planning. In her research, she identified two modern trends for constructing new carillons: in North America, their construction often harkened to a European model of perceived sophistication and antiquity; in Europe, belfries were constructed in the 20th century in modern suburban spaces to give European authenticity to decidedly American-style developments.

This tension between between old and new is fundamental to the instrument itself. Carillons were originally automated, but were made into human-operated instruments. In the post-WWII era of metal shortages, however, and with the rise of electronic audio technology, belfries once again turned to automation. Many carillonneurs protest this mechanization. Far from feeling threatened by this electronic shift, Tiffany views these changes in carilloning as an opportunity, and she joined the Berkeley Center for New Media to further explore how carillons function as a changing sonic and architectural medium.

Tiffany herself incorporates both electronic and acoustic elements in her performances and collaborations with composers. After BCNM director Greg Niemeyer was invited to create a climate change-focused piece for the Maldives Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Tiffany, Greg and Stanford’s Chris Chafe sonified UNESCO sea level data to create a thought-provoking musical artwork. Returning to Berkeley, Tiffany and the BCNM built on this platform, creating an interactive carillon performance with audience members activating ocean data online, which was then translated into music Tiffany played on the bells. Tiffany plans to continue to pursue these types of performances, incorporating unconventional material, people, and performance spaces.

Her fascination with performance spaces in particular has led to her latest research project. Tiffany investigates the massive “grand theaters” being built in Chinese megacities to give a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication to new urban centers. She hopes to continue studying this evolving musical environment in the developing world by researching next the material supply chain of the worldwide instrument and music industries. With much of the production now centered on Asia, she seeks to explore how this calls into question the ownership and identity of “Western classical music.”

Tiffany credits BCNM’s open-minded and welcoming academic environment with helping her create an interdisciplinary approach to musicology that allows her to re-evaluate what a public musical space is. The events and meeting spaces BCNM supports have enabled her to connect with a diverse range of scholars to collaborate and generate new ideas.

Next up? Tiffany will do a week-long electroacoustic music residency at the Bok Tower International Carillon Festival in Florida, and this summer will perform at the International Carillon Festival Barcelona, giving the first electroacoustic carillon concert ever held there. She will continue to pursue musicology in the years to come, but with an outside-the-box inflection to her research that BCNM has nurtured in her work.

The Ocean Sings from nowhere nomads on Vimeo.
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