“Although we are qualified sailors in the band, we only go on sea trips occasionally – the job is really quite diverse.” As a musician in the Royal Australian Navy Band, Australian flautist Henry Liang has found himself in situations rather unusual for the everyday gigging musician. “I really enjoy the travelling,” says Liang, who flew to India earlier this year – a three-day flight each way in a C-130 Hercules aeroplane of the type that was in service during the Vietnam War. “It was fascinating to go into the cockpit and see them fly the thing.”

Born in Guangzhou China, Liang began his musical career on the Dizi – a type of Chinese bamboo flute. “I didn’t come from a musical family at all,” he says, “my grandpa used to sing Chinese opera to me, and I always thought it was just weird – Chinese opera is quite strange to the ear if you haven’t heard it before – but that was the extent of it, musically.”

Australian flute player Henry Liang

He began learning to play bamboo flutes in second grade as part of his school’s traditional Chinese music ensemble. “I went along to an instrumental tryout day, and a teacher just came over and put his finger under my lip and said ‘Alright, blow on that. Cool. Good air. Play the flute.’ There were only five or six bamboo flute players in an ensemble of maybe 40 people. I was practising pretty hard from the get go, so within six months I was performing with them. We would do concerts at school mainly and I remember doing a concert for Pepsi.” After two years, Liang switched to the Western concert flute, learning from a teacher in one of the orchestras in Guangzhou.

He was ten years old when his family moved to Australia. “I was just thrown in the deep end,” he says, “My parents only told me a month before I moved. When I first came to Australia I couldn’t recite the alphabet. I did two terms of year six before I went to high school, so even for a significant part of high school I didn’t have much English at all.”

He continued with his flute lessons, though, studying with Sydney flute teacher Alex Manton, who took him through his AMEB grades. Playing music became a way of communicating. “High school can be vicious. I felt like playing the flute was the only thing I was good at, that I was known for at school,” he explains, “When we had talent quests, people would play something cool like the drums or guitar and I would go up there with a flute sonata. Usually, by the end of my multi-movement classical piece, some people would be asleep, but I kept doing it anyway. I loved performing whenever I got the chance. That was my thing, my voice because I couldn’t speak English.”

Liang went on to attend the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying with Alexa Still and James Kortum, and when a job was advertised for a position in the Navy Band, he leapt at the chance. “Flute auditions don’t come up very often in Sydney, or in Australia, so when one did I thought I’d better give it a go.” After winning the audition, Liang was once more thrown into the deep end – sometimes literally. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says about his three months in training, “Being in a completely new environment when I was ten set me up a lot because it felt exactly like that. You just have to deal with it.”

Overall, he describes the experience as positive. “It was probably one of the best things I’ve done. Being challenged and having your brain working that hard, for that amount of time, is really invigorating.” The biggest challenge, however, was managing fatigue. “I fell asleep standing up at one point.”

Touring with the Navy Band has taken Liang to a number of places he may never otherwise have visited. “For one of the performances in India, we did a 3.5 kilometre street parade,” he says, “They estimated that almost a million people turned up. Seeing that amount of people, that whole scene was just crazy.”

Liang playing the Japanese Shō

Hearing a recital by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal piccolo Rosamund Plummer soon sparked a new passion. Plummer had recently returned from a trip to Japan studying the Ryūteki – a Japanese flute used in Gagaku, the ancient court music of Japan. “I went to Ros’s recital and one of the clips she played had a Shō in it,” Liang explains, “It’s the Japanese version of a Chinese instrument called Sheng, with 3000 years worth of history. I remembered it from when I was in Primary School – it was the instrument I didn’t get to play but always wanted to.” The Shō is a free reed instrument – a kind of Japanese mouth organ – with an ethereal sound said to imitate the call of the phoenix.

Liang applied for the Global Artist Residency from the Columbia University of New York, which Plummer had taken part in, and was soon flying to Tokyo to begin a seven-week immersive course in Japanese music. “It was amazing,” he says, “The professor, Barbara Ruch, is an amazing 80-something-year-old lady who’s just got so much energy and a passion for all things Japanese.”

Highlights of the programme included a tour of the Imperial Palace (off limits even to locals), rehearsals with professional Gagaku ensembles, Japanese dance lessons and lessons in the home of Shō master Mayumi Miyata – for whom John Cage wrote several works.

Notation for the Shō

Learning the Shō was challenging. “The notation was confusing for the first couple of weeks,” Liang says, “Each note is a Japanese character. Japanese characters are based on Chinese characters, so in my mind I can read it and hear the Chinese character – but it’s not. I had to unlearn that. The fingering chart was all colour coded – it looked like the Enigma decoding machine from The Imitation Game.”

During his trip, Liang managed to squeeze in a recital on his Western flute. “I missed playing my normal flute,” he says, and so he organised a concert with support from the Australian Embassy. “I premiered two pieces, one by a Japanese composer, Chatori Shimizu, and one by a Thai composer, Teetawat Boonchuailea, both of whom studied at the Kunitachi College of Music. Chatori’s piece was really unusual – I had to take a selfie in the middle of the piece and blow my nose on stage.”

The rigours of Shō instruction meant that the only time Liang could practise his Western flute was at night, hiring out a room in a Karaoke bar. “Space is so limited in Tokyo,” he explains, “Apparently, it’s quite common – there was another flute player in the Karaoke when I was practising. After a few days, the staff came up and gave me a music stand.”

Liang has since travelled to New York for performances organised by Columbia University. “I was lucky enough to see all the masters again,” Liang says, “and have them answer questions about the Shō I’d had bottled up for a year.” Liang also performed a flute and Shō recital at the National Opera Center with Broadway flautists Lish Lindsey and Todd Groves, with the Jersey City Multiple Woodwind Ensemble.

Now back in Australia, Liang is touring Queensland as a soloist with the German ensemble Kammerphilharmonie Köln (Chamber Philharmonia Cologne). He will perform Vivaldi’s La Notte concerto and François Bourne’s Carmen Fantasy, on a whirlwind tour across the state. “I’m really looking forward to seeing all different parts of Queensland, especially the smaller towns,” he says.

With such a diverse musical background, what’s next for Liang? “I want to do more with Japanese music,” he says, “I want to commission a couple of pieces for the Shō and the Navy Band Woodwind Quintet, so people can hear the instrument and learn more about this fascinating ancient music culture.”

Henry Liang and the Chamber Philharmonia Cologne tour Queensland until August 7