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Composer Portraits: Du Yun

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, featuring a snapshot of each composer in words through exploration of the many possible meanings of the term “practice.”

practice, noun. 2. The customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.  (Oxford English Dictionary, no. 3)
“The only routine with me is no routine at all.”  — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

“I don’t think of myself as a disruptor. I don’t like to use that word at all,” says the composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Du Yun.

We’ve been talking for nearly an hour already, seated at the glass dining table in the sleek living room of her Upper East Side apartment. The artist, disguised as an ordinary woman in a polka-dot wrap dress, makes this self-assessment with perfect seriousness. But it’s hard to know what term might be more appropriate given the conversation we’ve been having around her experiments with Chinese opera, specifically Xinchang DiaoQiang opera from Zhejiang Province, three hours from where she grew up in Shanghai.

She explains:

Traditional Chinese opera has set, highly stylized character types: ‘young woman,’ ‘old woman,’ ‘gentleman,’ ‘old man,’ and so on. The director of the company I’m working with was cast as ‘old man’ when she was 17 years old because of the broadness of her shoulders. Imagine at 17 being destined to play ‘old man’ your whole life. She’s grateful now, but she cried.

In The Last Ming Emperor’s Suicide, this woman plays the emperor, who finds himself with no escape from a rebel army and sings in desperation: ‘I take off my crown and loosen my hair; I’ll hang myself. My death shall be anonymous, and my people shall not mourn me.’ I’m creating a new work where the singer will remove his costume, revealing the ‘young woman’ underneath. Then she hangs herself with the character’s long beard.

Disruptive. Radical. Provocative. Avant-Garde. Any of these descriptors seems fitting for someone who manages to take a tradition-bound piece of musical theater — one based on a real 17th Century historical figure — and turn it completely on its head as a commentary on gender roles; not incidentally, the Last Ming Emperor ChongZhen was also the last ethnic Han to sit on the throne.

Du Yun (who uses her first and last names together professionally) has forged a transnational career out of vigorously reimaging sonic landscapes and the performance contexts that contain them.

When she emerged as a Founding Composer of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) nearly two decades ago, then Executive Director Claire Chase predicted that her “highly disciplined technique and a total lack of interest in what anyone else thinks just might make her the rare artist who catapults into international success, but doesn’t feel the need to tame her wild side in the process.” Du Yun’s youthful works provided much of the ground from which that musicians’ collective was launched, helping to transform a bunch of her fellow Oberlin graduates into the commissioners and collaborators who reshaped the entire new music scene. A generous handful of those pieces — for soloists, duos, and chamber ensemble — comprise the program tonight.

Du Yun’s career, like a firecracker, has shot forth in many directions: into theater, in an original score for Kung Fu by David Henry Hwang, best known as the author of M. Butterfly; into animation, through her collaborations with Pakistani visual artist Shazia Sikander; and even into clubs, through the release of an experimental dance record, Shark in You (2011), made available on CD and gorgeous clear vinyl. Her vocalizations have more in common with indie pop diva Björk or the eccentric soprano Diamanda Galás than anyone in mainstream classical environs. Her band OK MISS leans towards neo-cabaret, jazz, and free improvisation.

Within a concert hall setting, Du Yun paid tribute to Ray Charles with Hundred Heads, a commission for the Seattle Symphony, and to a mythical beast with Kraken, a commission for the Detroit Symphony. Her most recent opera, Angel’s Bone, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music. An allegory for human trafficking, it is the story of two fallen angels forced into prostitution by their would-be rescuers. The role of female angel was written for a specialized vocal type: a punk singer.

“I never do these things to disrupt,” Du Yun continues. “It’s never because I want to say, ‘F--k you all.’ It’s always like, ‘What if I just do my own thing?’ But that doesn’t mean doing whatever I want, using styles like condiments, like MSG. You have to understand musical traditions on an atomic level and go from there. That’s the healthy way to rebel. It’s a very linear way of continuing the practice.”

“Practice means many things to me simultaneously, together. It means artistic practice, though not what I sing, play on piano, or write down on the staff. It has to do with critical thinking. How do I think about my relationship to working and what does the end product mean? How do you train — or trick — the mind to keep tackling your work in diverse ways to expand the ways that people think. It’s about an approach.”

Among musicians, “practice” is a common denominator, a mechanism by which sounds that dwell in the imagination contrive to manifest in audible wave form. On the most fundamental level, Du Yun equates the term with cultural practice: musical activities in a society that are passed down between generations and tend to come with unspoken rules. “Within a tradition, people typically believe there is only one way to do something.” she says. “That is the practice.”

It’s a perspective informed by her early musical education. She started piano lessons at four, and training at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at six, playing as many as eight hours a day in the hopes of becoming a concert pianist. “You have to do it, otherwise you will die,” she says of the highly pressured regimen, which made her later doctoral studies at Harvard feel like a piece of cake. “I’m laughing, but it’s true. If you think there is only one way, only one route available to make your life better, you’re going to take it.”

But Du Yun also refers to “practice” as her personal artistic process, an approach oriented towards seeking out and upending that “one-way” thinking. Consciously breaking with traditions — whether Chinese or European opera — affords us the possibility of extending them, much the way that children create tiny fissures in their bones by jumping and stomping; as the cracks heal, tibias and fibulas lengthen and grow stronger.

Learning that she could compose at the age of 11 — and that there was another way, a plan B — was a revelation. As Mozart once wrote, “A man [sic] of ordinary talent will always be ordinary, whether he travels or not; but a man [sic] of superior talent will go to pieces if he remains forever in the same place.”

Composing opened the door to a full scholarship at Oberlin, though it took her two years to matriculate. Her visa was denied. When her parents eventually attempted to follow her, her father’s visa would be denied over twenty times, so many that the family lost count. The apartment Du Yun occupies on the Upper East Side belongs to them, though she is quick to point out that they are not “crazy rich Asians,” just ultra thrifty immigrants, who invested their savings in deeply discounted, post-9/11 real estate.

As an immigrant, it is perhaps easier to trick the mind into expanding existing cultural practices, whether yours or someone else’s. What counts as familiar is always relative. New surroundings can shake up one’s most fundamental assumptions—as can the pre-determined expectations others have about you. “When I first came here, people actually asked me if we wore blue suits like Mao,” she says. “As a joke, I’d tell them, no, we actually have one more color.” Another type of one-way thinking that needs to be broken is the monolithic American narrative about China, which results, for example, she says, in the toxic Asian stereotypes on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Du Yun trained in a rigid Chinese conservatory setting, but also loved Hong Kong pop and American Top 40. In high school, she played in a reggae band with exchange students from Kenya.

To break with practice, it is valuable to have a routine — or anti-routine, the way Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis approached her day-to-day life in publishing, a career she started at age 46 (as documented in Tina Cassidy’s Jackie After O). Du Yun enjoys the unpredictability of urban human encounters, whether on a morning trip to Starbucks or in a WeWork space rented as much for people watching as the large computer screens. She reads to warm up her creative muscles before she turns to composing: “Difficult books, many at one time, a little bit of this and that. I never finish them.”

Critical writing on architecture is a favorite: Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, Ada Louise Huxtable’s On Architecture, and Jun’ya Ishigami’s Freeing Architecture. So are interviews and first person books by filmmakers and visual artists: Herzog on Herzog, Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating, and Marina Abramović’s Walk Through Walls. (“An amazing book,” Du Yun says. “Don’t believe The New York Times review.”) Sometimes she digs into the biographies of entrepreneurs — stories that informed her four years as the artistic director of MATA, the New York-based, internationally acclaimed festival supporting young composers.

Why can’t music be done like theater, the way you have adaptations of a play? The original and the adaptation don’t just look different — they feel different. Many composers don’t seem to want their music to be touched, which is the Germanic idea of the composer with a capital ‘C.’ But if your work is about human relationships, the synergy is naturally going to shift over time.

In one sense, tonight’s concert is a retrospective of Du Yun’s music, a group of pieces curated to illuminate where she has come from. Like the concurrent release of the recording Dinosaur Scar, it traces her relationship with the International Contemporary Ensemble, performers who were part of her formative creative experiences. The music was not written in abstraction — “with pitches like the acupuncture points on a skeleton,” she says — but for living, breathing people. These are the same people for whom she once wrote and rewrote as they needed material for the young ensemble’s various configurations (sometimes resulting in many versions of the same composition), on whose couches she slept on while rehearsing for days on end, and with whom she ambitiously sought to change the music world — and did.

The program begins with solos:

An Empty Garlic, composed for flutist Claire Chase in memoriam for a beloved friend, draws on the sarabande, a baroque dance form, and more specifically one well known from Bach’s A minor Partita for solo flute. At the same time, it was inspired by one of Rumi’s mystical poems. “I often wonder about bereavement,” Du Yun writes in the program notes for the 2014 premiere. “When and how it pauses, recharges, morphs and restarts… I am so close to you I am distant, I am so mingled with you I am apart, I am so open I am hidden, I am so strong I totter.”

Ixtab, written for bassoonist Rebekah Heller, appears on her debut recording 100 Names (2013). Without time to create something more formal, composer and performer together assembled a graphic score. (It might have actually been written on a napkin, Heller remembers). Du Yun produced a background track of layered, pre-recorded sounds, noise against which Heller could improvise, including Du Yun playing organ and an Icelandic man singing a solitary folk tune. The piece was named for the Mayan goddess of suicide, for whom death was a source of power rather than despair.

Dinosaur Scar (1999), the earliest work on the program, was recently adopted by saxophonist Ryan Muncy, though he has owned the score for several years. Du Yun explains the title this way: “The dinosaurs were so physically large that it would take time for the rest of their nervous systems to figure it out if they’d received a killing blow. To me, that’s a beautiful idea—that sometimes you do things without knowing that you’re doing them and what impact it will have later.”

Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016) was written for violinist David Bowlin. Although the piece does not literally recreate a chant, udātta refers to a raised accent in recitations of ancient Vedic Sanskrit texts.

The program continues with a duo:

Zinc Oxide (2010) was one in a program of cello works written for Katinka Kleijn, in which various composers chose a chemical ingredient from women’s cosmetics as the starting point for a piece. Du Yun and Kleijn will together narrate, reading the composer’s surreal text.

The first half will close with:

Air Glow has existed in several versions. This one, for five trumpets, guitar, and bass, and anchored by an electronic beat, was commissioned by Dave Douglas’s Festival of New Trumpet Music for Micah Killion’s Practical Trumpet Society in 2006. It features serpentine horns interlacing, nattering, and charging, gorgeously blending over a rushing backdrop of sounds like the wind.

The second half features two pieces for larger performing forces:

Vicissitudes No. 1 (2002) was originally written for a Bang on a Can All Stars residency while Du Yun was a doctoral student, and was tailored to their instrumentation: guitar, bass, cello, piano, clarinet, and percussion. Dan Lippel is featured in a steel-string guitar solo that cuts through the texture to evoke Japanese shamisen and Chinese pipa.

Impeccable Quake (2004), another piece with many versions, had its earliest incarnations while Du Yun was still an undergraduate.  It utilizes 15 members of ICE plus conductor, featuring percussion, wah-wah electric guitar, and strings, with individual voices emerging from the frenetic ensemble passages. It ends someplace completely different from where it began. Du Yun writes in the liner notes for the recording: “The sound that comes out of the back of my head, the familiar music sound home…and the energy that sprang from the bottom of my throat follows me everywhere like a shadow. This remembrance and familiarity were so intact and worn-out that they are, to me, senses of nausea…They are blinding, the form, the narrative of this explosion.”

Through Dinosaur Scar, Du Yun sought to examine the meaning of actions taken without knowing what their impact would be. She now knows. Although this concert involves looking back, her new vantage point offers different insights. Sometimes the best practice to disrupt is one’s own. Why? “Have you met me?” she asks. “Because it’s much more fun. I want to do something different every time.” That’s a lesson she has taken away from her readings about producing theater and curating art.

Du Yun refuses to see music as a fixed object. Fluidity can mean different compositional versions (as in Vicissitudes No. 1 and Impeccable Quake), or different instrumentation (as in Air Glow). But, most importantly, it involves the dynamics of the performance. Dan Lippel describes this synergy between Du Yun and ICE in his liner notes for Abandoned Time (2008):

"As a group, ICE generally is interested in getting beyond the surface of the notation, and inside the composer’s motivations for their musical choices. With Du Yun, the group has been able to take that one step further, as the notation is primarily a springboard for the all-important last stage of composition — that stage that happens between composer and performer during working sessions. Du Yun brings her sound out of players, through singing, wild gestures, and the sheer force of her personality."

And performers give of themselves in this communal, collaborative process. For this program, Du Yun will be setting the ICE musicians on what she refers to as LEGOS, platforms that will allow her “solo works” to be performed in the context of the collective. The tails of once separate pieces will overlap, creating new shapes, and with one piece sometimes reworked into another (such as the combination of Ixtab and Dinosaur Scar, turning formerly solo works into a duo). It’s a bit like remixing on turntables, a productive layering that encourages performers to play off of their relationships to each other, and allows one piece to alter the context for another, how we hear it, and how we experience it. In breaking with her past work, Du Yun’s concert tonight will be both like and unlike what has come before, a linear extension of her own ongoing practice.

 

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.