Palouse soundscape composer presents music of nature

Closeup of Yii Kah Hoe playing a musical instrument with people in the background.
Yii Kah Hoe plays a suling, a type of bamboo flute widely used in South Asia, during a music and poetry event for environmental awareness in Pullman.

Since coming to Washington State University from Malaysia in August, Yii Kah Hoe has ventured with his microphone into nearby woods and forests, along rivers and streams, and even out onto an icy pond to capture the music of nature.

An internationally recognized musician and composer, and the university’s first Fulbright scholar in residence, Yii is teaching, researching and continuing his artistic work of composing soundscapes that incorporate elements from nature and aim to raise environmental awareness.

He will premiere his newest composition, Of the Land, created in and about the Palouse, on March 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center. The free, public presentation, which is part of the 2023 Festival of Contemporary Artists in Music, will feature sounds of local nature and performances by music faculty Aaron Agulay, baritone, and Keri McCarthy, English horn. 

Members of the audience also will play a part in the production, Yii said. Listeners will be able to move through the sounds emanating from speakers located across the space and contribute to the shifting, Palouse-based soundscape. “It will effectively transform the audience into performers in my music,” he said.

The composition, which Yii spent five months preparing, is a compilation of soundscape recordings from more than 12 different nature parks, many in the Pullman area and some in Idaho.

The English horn and baritone lines he wrote into the piece reflect the sounds of “Persona,” the wind-activated sound sculpture that stands atop Terrill Library near the School of Music, said McCarthy, director of the school. “It is a beautiful and unique composition, and I am excited for our community members to hear it.”

Pullman-area students in fourth grade through high school will be treated to an encore production at the Floyd Center on March 10, McCarthy said. “We look forward to talking about sounds and music with Pullman’s young musicians and artists.”

McCarthy described Yii’s music as dynamic and colorful, reflecting elements of density and light found in the brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy and also traditional music elements of Malaysia, China and Indonesia. “His music often features quick, leaping passages interspersed with sometimes wild, and sometimes warm, slow passages of timbral interest,” she said. 

Yii’s compositions incorporate the textures and rhythms of traditional musics from numerous ethnic communities throughout Southeast Asia, he said. They are also informed by his background as a visual artist. “I always transform a visual perception into the sounds in my music,” he said. 

Yii is a senior lecturer at SEGi College in Subang Jaya, Malaysia, and is recognized as a major voice among Southeast Asian composers of his generation. His often bold and avant-garde music has been widely performed across Asia, the United States and Europe.

He is also accomplished as an improviser on two types of Chinese flutes, the dizi and xiao, and his works use sounds and rhythms of those and many other traditional instruments from various cultures.  

He has won a number of international awards for his music and, in 2018, he received the National Outstanding Educator Award from the Private Education Cooperative of Malaysia.

For the past 12 years, Yii has been active in environmental protection and trying to connect music and activism in Malaysia. “I truly believe that music and public art can play a part in raising people’s awareness of social, political and economic issues,” he said.

“Professor Yii’s advocacy for environmental awareness is impressive, particularly as it relates to deforestation in his native Borneo,” McCarthy said. “He has researched sound frequencies in recordings of the rainforests and determined the types of insects, birds and other animals that are first and most impacted by those changing environments.”

Since 2008, McCarthy has collaborated with Yii on a number of music events in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and China. She encouraged him to apply for the Fulbright residency at WSU based on his broad range of professional experiences, interests and expertise.

At WSU, Yii has taught about musical improvisation, soundscapes and structures and has worked with students interested in composition. Earlier this year, he spoke about his work to music students at the University of Idaho, and last fall, he played an Asian bamboo flute, called a suling, at a music and poetry event to raise awareness about environmental preservation along Missouri Flat Creek in Pullman.

This spring, Yii will teach WSU students across disciplines about Malaysia, its environment and its music for a history course in the UCORE Roots of Contemporary Issues program. He will also deliver a talk about music and the environment for WSU’s First-Year Programs

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