By Brianne Galli
Published April 13, 2011
On April 7 through 9, NYC’s The Kitchen hosted the 21c Liederabend Op.2 event in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects, Opera on Tap and VisionIntoArt. Young composer Du Yun performed a work commissioned by the festival, helping to kick off a big year for her. Du Yun’s first pop album, Shark In You, was released in March via New Focus Records and she currently holds a faculty position at SUNY Purchase. She recently spoke to Playback about her work, her roots in China and what it takes to be a successful composer.
You’ve been commissioned to compose for a number of foundations of events, which of your commissioned compositions most defines your style? Why?
When I start a new piece, I always start with the concept of the piece first. I actually tailor my styles from project to project, it’s more situation-based for the piece / event in question. For me, the piece has to make sense first. The piece should be more important than serving me. But of course, the irony is that before I realize, I somehow formed this process as my style. Really though, wouldn’t you say ‘genre-defying’ ‘genre-bending’ ‘genre-crossing’ is a genre in and of itself? If traditional Chinese music would show up in iTunes as new age or world music, the whole concept of genre is quite Saturday Night Live for me.
You’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time as a young composer, what would you say was your big break?
I started doing music at a very young age. Making music is a life-long process for me, and it really is a continuous process. The so-called “break” is quite ambiguous. Success comes and goes, and life itself is a cycle. But if I have to pinpoint one event and one time, I think it would be the day we started International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). I learned so much from the musicians in the ensemble. We grew up together and push each other further and further.
How has your upbringing in China affected your writing?
First of all, my upbringing will always make me use this language with some discomfort, which can be a plus and negative at the same time. My mind can go on and off while speaking. Secondly, it will always make me a first-generation immigrant. So my understanding and compassion of in-between-ness, the gray area, is very prominent in my writing and me as an artist.
Artistry aside, this is what I figured is the most affected attitude in life for me: I didn’t grow up with a toilet or working kitchen, in my home, up until I was 16. We used unthinkable things for toilets and my parents had to make fires with coals for cooking meals every meal. And as a Chinese rule of thumb, one should have a knack knowing how to work around the authority and the rules. So this is what I have become, not dare to take things for granted, always think it could be much worse, and seriously, it can get much worse.
What genres of music do you find yourself including in your own works?
I have training in academic writing. So I have skills to write such a way; and I adore too many styles to mention. I’m always curious and eager to challenge myself. I don’t really know how to categorize or compartmentalize.
What instrument(s) do you use when writing? Which do you use while performing?
I trained myself not to use any instruments when writing. I have perfect pitch, which comes quite handy. I prefer to imagine what and how the sound should carry out. I try not to rely on instruments, midi, or any other stuff.
In performance, I tend to use lots of my own voice, then there is the laptop with iPad, the electronic gadgets, sometimes keyboard/piano, the Zheng (the 21-string Chinese zither), the amazing handmade instruments which are a tree-log violin and a coconut lute (made by Ranjit Bhatnagar)… etc. The next challenge is grabbing and finessing interactive body remote synths. I’m always on the look-out for exhilarating and humble-mumble things to see whether or not I could bring it into performance.
After studying in Shanghai in China, and at Oberlin and Harvard in the U.S., what differences have you observed in music education here and abroad?
As matter of fact, training-wise, not that different. I grew up learning mostly the Russian school of solfege. At the early age, it was highly competitive and disciplined, American Ballet Academy style all the way. The year I was accepted into the primary school of Shanghai Conservatory at age six is still the most nerve-wrecking and hardest competition I ever did. But as one gets older, especially in college and beyond, the desire of wanting to make/hear live contemporary music becomes a challenge. I’m aware in US, we have lots of limitations, fund-cuts, bureaucracy, government lack-of support, and yet allow me to point out, comparing to many other countries, it’s so much better here.
As a member of the composition faculty at SUNY Purchase, what is your teaching philosophy?
I believe the creative process must be charged with a critical mind, and that students’ experience must be infused not only with meticulous compositional skills, but a profound awareness and empathic understanding of the cultural and historical situation in which they are composing. I’m often introduced with the qualifier “Chinese,” “Asian,” “multicultural,” “woman”—or the rather bloated term, “Chinese-American women composer.” With my students, I endeavor to make clear that, as we enter a 21st-century age, we might no longer live in the age of binaries—East vs. West; tradition vs. modernity—and our pedagogy, like our composition, needs to reflect this.
In what other types of venues would you like to see your music performed?
I would like to do something on the High Line in NYC, simultaneously WiFi together at all metro systems over a few cities across the globe, synched somehow; the Prada Transformer (designed by Rem Koolhaas) in Seoul, Korea; the floating island on Lake Titicaca in Perú; as part of Carnival in Rio de Janerio or during the running of the bulls in Pamplona; some theatre pieces happening in a temple escapade across Cambodia, India and Tibet. The day when I perform with Mongolia tribal singers on horseback in highland grass in Mongolia is the day I’m going to cry out with elatedness and utter fulfillment.
What would you say is key in becoming a successful composer?
Success comes and goes. Ask for less and prepare for more. Keep writing, keep being centered and aware; keep being inspired and aspiring; keep making things happen; build a community and reach out; keep being a child inside. If we all did these things we would somehow all become humbled sages! I am thankful for my fortunes. I am alive and with means to create!