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Building the Unique Universe of Du Yun’s Composer Portrait

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the third installment, centering around our upcoming evening of music from composer Du Yun.

Melissa Smey
Melissa Smey, photo by Matt Zugale

Du Yun, the second of this season’s Composer Portraits, is also a vocalist/composer, but someone who couldn't be more different than Kate Soper.

Her music is so surprising and intense, it’s like seeing a high wire act. We're doing her Composer Portrait with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) because she’s worked with them since the beginning of her career and there’s an affinity in that relationship. Their performances of her music are incredible because the pieces weren’t just written to have something to premiere—they were written for them, for people she knows personally, intimately. They’ve lived with these pieces.

Who chose what would be on the program?

When we put together a portrait, it should feel like its own universe. In essence, it’s representing the composer in a period of time. And it's also about honoring the way in which they wish to be represented.

I started those conversations with Josh Rubin from ICE, asking him, “If we could do a Du Yun Composer Portrait, what would that look like?” Because her music is so expansive, it was about finding a set of pieces that would work together, and for ICE, and for Du Yun. 

Often I’d have some input and suggest something I’m especially interested in hearing. But I stayed out of it for this one in a way that is unusual for me because they had such a long-standing rapport and knew each other so well. I wanted ICE to do what they think works best. Because the performers have a week to rehearse in the space, one of the things that we can do is a bigger piece. Her concert will have solos and duos, but also work for a larger chamber ensemble.

Du Yun
Du Yun, photo by Matt Zugale

Her portrait looks more like a career overview than some of the other ones. And she’s only 40.

Yes. It balances the fact that she's done big work in the last two years – operas like Angel’s Bone, which won the Pulitzer, and orchestral pieces – by revisiting some core works and bringing our listeners back almost to where she started. There will be a subset of people coming to this portrait who are well-acquainted with Du Yun. And people who’ll have heard about her – perhaps because of the Pulitzer – but they won’t have heard a note. 

"One of the goals of the series from its inception is the idea that you’ll be introduced to and immersed in the work of a composer. You may decide you don’t like it, but at least you'll have had an evening of information upon which to base your opinion as opposed to one isolated piece."

Because most people encounter new music as a single piece on a program of standard classical repertoire. Or, if they attend a new music performance, they’re likely to hear several composers represented by one work each.

Exactly. I’ve talked to people who’ve only heard one piece by so-and-so, and then assumed that they don't like that composer—or that they don't like new music. Hear at least two or three pieces before you form an opinion, right? Give it a real try.

Context is also so important. American orchestras tend not to be that invested in playing new works. They don’t have the rehearsal time to do them. And their audiences may be resistant to having them on the program. If you’re interested in hearing new music, you should be in a supportive context with performers who are ready to play and crowds ready to listen.

The pieces on Du Yun’s program are labeled “LEGO 1,” LEGO 2,” etc. Do you have any idea what this means? 

Ah, I wasn’t clear on that at first either. She wants platforms stacked along the back of the stage. That's where having almost 15 years of working with ICE comes in, otherwise this wouldn’t fly, right? The first three works – an Empty Garlic, a flute piece written for Claire Chase based on a poem by Rumi; Ixtab, a bassoon piece for Rebekah Heller; and Under a tree, an udātta for violinist David Bowlin – have a long history in ICE’s repertoire, but it’s my understanding that they’ll be presented in a completely new way.

>> Learn more about Du Yun's upcoming Composer Portrait

Related Composer Portrait posts:

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller

More People Need to Know About Wang Lu

Why is John Zorn Considered So Important?

How Tyshawn Sorey's Portrait Came About

Cracking the Code: David T. Little