New York Times Feature: Du Yun: A Composer’s 10 Cultural Influences

Du Yun: A Composer’s 10 Cultural Influences

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The composer and vocalist Du Yun won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for her opera “Angel’s Bone.”

The composer Du Yun’s works — including the opera “Angel’s Bone,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2017 — are elaborately theatrical, full of collaborations with visual and performance artists and bursting with virtuosic extended techniques.

It makes sense that a musician so keen on multimedia approaches — and who appears at the Stone in New York next Thursday through Saturday — would identify a broad range of cultural influences on her style. She described 10 of them in a phone conversation; these are edited excerpts.

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in “Happy Together.”
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in “Happy Together.”
Credit: Golden Harvest Company

‘Happy Together’


A filmmaker who’s influenced me is Quentin Tarantino, and Wong Kar-wai also has that use of B movies and the sense of music crashing in, a sense that it doesn’t belong. That hugely influenced how I think about dramatic beats — it’s subversive a little bit. When you see the love scenes, you don’t think they’re two gay men; you’re just pulled in to the human connection. To be able to do that is incredibly powerful, addressing different things without preaching. In my work I’m thinking about that.

“Pleasure Pillars” (2001).
“Pleasure Pillars” (2001).
Credit: Shahzia Sikander; via Sean Kelly, New York

Shahzia Sikander


We’ve collaborated on pieces like “Last Pose” and “Parallax.” Like me, she works with traditional forms; As artists, we’re both rooted in those. I’m influenced by folk traditions, but I’m never happy to stop there. I want to have a deep grounding, then subvert that.

An Alexander McQueen ensemble in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
Credit: Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Alexander McQueen


When I saw “Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I totally just cried. It was so theatrical. When Shalom Harlow is swirling and being painted, it was like an opera. And the subversion of forms, again; the gender bending.

Tom Waits


I got to know Tom Waits when I got to Oberlin, for college. The music was very burlesque in a way, but his way of using instrumentation — he doesn’t even use electronics, but it’s so weird and odd and amazing, how he expands his timbre palette. You don’t think that it’s a song anymore because you’re hearing these theatrical little stories, very Beckett stories.

“Fish and Rocks” (dated 1699).
“Fish and Rocks” (dated 1699).
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bada Shanren

ARTIST (c. 1626–1705)

In the 1600s, when Chinese landscape painting was very rigid, he would just have, like, one stone and one bird. But the stroke is very powerful, and he uses a lot of blankness, so that you actually just see a lot of solitude in his paintings.

Dou Wei


He was a very famous rocker in the late ’80s, then he decided to go completely somewhere else. I remember the album “Sunny Days,” it was so experimental, so electronic, and yet mainstream. It was so fluid, before anyone in China knew what free improvisation was.

Anthony Roth Costanzo, left, and Wilbur Pauley in “Le Grand Macabre” at Lincoln Center in 2010.
Anthony Roth Costanzo, left, and Wilbur Pauley in “Le Grand Macabre” at Lincoln Center in 2010.
Credit: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

‘Le Grand Macabre’


I love Ligeti. He’s like Stravinsky, because every decade or so they change their stable of sounds. And I love “Le Grand Macabre” because there are so many different elements in it, but the theatricality totally works. From absurdity to brutality, but it doesn’t sound clashing to me.

Mongolian Long Tunes

These melodies go on and on and have all these leaps. In Western training, you don’t do leaps like that. Your heart just soars. It’s affected my vocal writing, and my instrumental writing, too.

Orhan Pamuk


I love his rhythm of storytelling: It’s very slow, and it’s very melancholic — the layers of history, of conflict, filtered through one place. I identify a lot with that. The other person equal to me in that sense, Junot Díaz, his rhythm is much faster, it’s crazy, but if you dig deeper they share that melancholy.

The Yungang Grottoes, near Datong in China.
The Yungang Grottoes, near Datong in China.
Credit: Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

Buddhist Grotto Caves

I have a little bit of a fetish for grotto caves. Each is completely different. The Buddhas are sometimes more fluid or ambiguous; because they’ve been carved by so many people in so many places through generations, you can see how each reflects history.