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Composer Portraits: Wang Lu

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 actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.  (Oxford English Dictionary)
“Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it, but can only describe it from the vantage point of distance.”  —Charles Lindberg​

Wang Lu is where she is supposed to be, having landed on schedule in a functional but overly beige hotel room in Midtown Manhattan—despite her original plan to arrive there from somewhere else entirely.

Winner of the Spring 2019 Berlin Prize, the composer should have begun her prestigious residency in Germany a week earlier in mid-January. Instead, a visa delayed for reasons that no one can explain kept her in Chicago for its historic cold snap; she has been sequestered there with her husband, composer Anthony Cheung, and their infant daughter, on maternity leave from her professorship at Brown University. Once Wang and her family finally reach Berlin, there will be another trip back to New York City in February (for the performance you are about to see), and one to Paris for a concert at the Columbia Global Center in March. She will return to the States for a lecture in Seattle in June, and family time in San Francisco over the summer months.

Travel, it would seem, does not faze her. Not even on a frigid New York morning. Not even with a four-month-old in tow. She is fueled by changes in scenery. “When I arrive someplace, it is as if all of the other places I have been cease to exist,” she says, settling in an office chair near the window.

The impetus behind this 36-hour sojourn is an OpenICE workshop at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts titled “Collecting Wang Lu,” featuring saxophonist Ryan Muncy and guitarist Dan Lippel. That evening, the musicians pace through Ryan and Dan (2016), a duo with tangy quartertones and telescoping reverb, which they’re supposed to play as if no one else is listening. After a lively discussion with Wang and the audience, the pair continues with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2017), a graphic score that directs them through musical chutes and ladders in response to T.S. Eliot Prize winner Ocean Vuong’s poem “Telemachus.”

3965 mi, a new work for Muncy alone and the last on the program for the workshop, marks the distance between New York and Berlin, where the saxophonist frequents the burgeoning techno scene and planned a solo recital to coincide with Wang’s residency. She wants the piece to evoke the sensation of dancing in a space dense with sound, and has Muncy attempting to deploy the foot pedal for a pair of hi-hat cymbals while producing buzzing low notes on the horn. The consensus is that it’s not quite working, at least not yet. But she still has a few weeks to figure it out.

Likewise, the piece destined for tonight’s performance, co-commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation and Miller Theatre for Yarn/Wire, is still a work in progress. A-PPA-Aratus was inspired by Wang’s visit to a textile factory outside of her home city Xi’an. It joins a body of music tied to spinning, weaving, and sewing, including Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade and Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth, a recent New York Philharmonic premiere about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But Wang’s new work is bound to sound nothing like them. Video she shared from her trip shows a facility so vast that its rows and rows of spindles and looms recede from view at a vanishing point somewhere in the distance. There are no people. The space vibrates with the overwhelming noise of robots.

“There is no writer’s block,” she tells me, able to switch gears on a dime once a project is underway. “You just focus and you can always write the piece. I’ll use whatever time I have to work: 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there. I’ll sit and finish the melody or a percussion part. Or at least I would if you weren’t here.”

Wang’s career could be told as a series of flight paths between fixed points, creating trajectories she has traversed time and time again. From Xi’an, the terminus of the Silk Road, to Beijing, where she attended the Central Conservatory of Music, arguably China’s top music school. From Beijing to New York for graduate study here at Columbia University. From New York to Chicago, because her husband finished his Ph.D. first and won a professorship at the University of Chicago. And from Chicago to Providence for her own academic appointment. It is the distance around which the couple must now navigate their relationship.

A child of the 1980s, Wang began her musical training like millions of others in China as part of an unimaginable boom centered around the piano, a western import that signified upward mobility and a more promising future. Her grandfather used precious savings to buy the instrument, which she shared with a cousin. “I was not the kind of kid who needed to be pinned down,” she remembers. “I enjoyed practice.”

She stuck to it, even when friends came calling at the window or knocked on the door. It didn’t hurt that her father was ready to speed their departure with a piece of candy. Music had already proven its worth to their family: he performed for a decade as an opera singer with a military troupe during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which enabled him to transition to working for the government when that violent political movement had passed. “Where he lived, there was no school,” Wang explains. “The choice was to be a farmer or a factory worker. He was lucky because he loved music.”

As Chinese culture turned to embrace all that had once been forbidden—the Beatles, Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, and Hong Kong pop, among them—contemporary classical composition was able to reestablish its European roots and engage more fully on a global level than in previous generations. “Our music theory texts were French and Russian,” Wang explains. “But, even as students, we were expected to use that foundation to create something new.”

Studying at the Central Conservatory, she joined a formidable lineage of composers that includes Zhou Long, Chen Yi, and Tan Dun, with whom she is connected by an additional thread: her Chinese American mentor Chou Wen-chung (b. 1923). A student of French-born composer Edgard Varèse, Chou attempted to reconcile China’s monophonic traditions, which privilege startling tone colors and constantly shifting dynamics with the harmonically driven music of the West. As the Vice-Dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts and Director of the Fritz Reiner Center for Contemporary Music, he also made it his personal mission to establish academic ties with China and bring promising composers to study here.

Wang arrived at Columbia University in 2005 and earned her Ph.D. in 2012. Not surprisingly, studying in a foreign country where you do not yet know the language presented its share of challenges.

“For the first two years, I couldn’t say anything,” she says, recalling her linguistically imposed silence at the weekly doctoral composition seminars. “I had a response to the music—I knew what I thought about what I’d heard—but I could not join the conversation.”

Although Wang’s music lives in the interstices between Eastern and Western realms of sound, more and more it seems to come from the studied perspective of an outsider, a stance facilitated by her itinerant career. As a matter of course, new environs offer new experiences and fresh perspectives. “You get to breathe different air, eat different food, meet different people,” she says. Her compositions depart from these encounters, creating storylines that logically structure the works. She typically finishes them in a place removed from their point of origin, such is her life. In the music, you may sense Wang measuring those distances through a solitary practice that is much like going to the piano (quite literally in the case of 3965 mi).

Urban Inventory (2015)

Much of Wang’s sonic world can be experienced through Urban Inventory, the first work on tonight’s program. Released on her debut recording for New Focus Records last March, it grew from a series of field recordings Wang made with her iPhone in Xi’an. The first movement, “city park,” takes us on an audio tour around the 13th Century Ming Dynasty Wall that encircles the city, abuzz with crying babies, bicycle gears, music for tai chi, and constant human chatter.

While it might be tempting to describe Urban Inventory as collage—it is composed around disparate sounds found to occupy the same sphere, like the music of Charles Ives—the piece has more in common with a multi-dimensional, virtual reality experience. Framed by the chamber ensemble, these musical artifacts remain behind glass: lifelike, but ambiguous, and ultimately unreachable.

When a melody from the ballet The Red Detachment of Women (1964)—a fictional narrative about a peasant girl’s rise through the Communist Party,  and one of the so-called “eight model plays” produced during the Cultural Revolution—bursts forth in the third movement, is it ironic or sentimental? “At karaoke, my parents’ friends will sing this,” she says. “This is music that they know, but it does not represent a good time in their lives. It is not as simple as nostalgia.” In the sixth movement, “tell you softly,” do we embrace samples of 1990s pop singer Yang Yuying as representing the voice of a new generation, or another mass-produced commodity who maintains the distinction of being China’s best-selling artist?

Yang Yuying

Throughout the work, it is possible to sense China’s vastness and fluidity. It is the kind of place where office towers appear suddenly, as if they had fallen out of the sky, and full neighborhoods can disappear practically overnight. Everything is heard at maximum volume “to cover the noise,” Wang says, “the construction, the cellphones, the chaos.” China and its music have always been noisy from a timbral perspective, but amplification is a response to modernity; in Wang’s music, distortion is a compositional element. The last sound you will hear is a recycling truck crushing debris from old houses, wiping out their memories with them.

Rates of Extinction (2016)

This work for solo piano, written for Yarn/Wire’s Ning Yu, uses gradually decelerating layers of pulse to represent the heart rates of animals that had recently become extinct. The two hands often occupy extremes of range, producing low tones that rumble and gradually decay while insistently repeated notes in the upper register convey fragility, breathless and unsustainable. Over five crystalline movements, these lines converge and mingle, sweeping through the keyboard to dance and fall silent.

“As a pianist, I didn’t play contemporary music. I played the repertoire: Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt,” Wang says. “So when I write for piano, those influences come out.”

Visual artist Polly Apfelbaum, known for floral woodblocks prints and so-called “fallen paintings,” (intricate, hand-dyed fabric installations arranged on the floor), created projections to accompany the work using animal paper cuts. They were manipulated on screen by the same means as animals in nature—human hands.

Childhood Amnesia (2017)

Sometimes we experience distance as a space between generations, or between ourselves and our past. Of Childhood Amnesia, Wang wrote for its premiere, “The inability to retrieve very early childhood memories makes our parents’ stories about our own childhoods fascinating and moving experiences. They can take on the quality of fiction and myth, even if they stem from a past that we cannot remember.”

Dreamlike with a dash of humor, the six movements borrow from songs and games from Wang’s childhood, punctuated with shakers, ratchets, and cowbells: “Diu Shou Juan,” which accompanies a game similar to duck-duck-goose played with a dropped handkerchief; “Zhao Peng You” (“Looking for Friends”); “Xiao Yan Zi” (“Little Swallow”); “Yang Wa Wa He Xiao Xiong Tiao Wu” (“The Toy Baby Dances with Little Bear”); and music from the video game Pac-Man.

Siren Song (2008)

Like the other works on this concert, Siren Song is infused with the tonality of the Guanzhong dialect of Xi’an, which may not be understood by Mandarin speakers. The piece takes as its central idea the transliteration of a language, with its expressive leaps and sliding, glissando-like tones, for an instrumental ensemble. It is in effect a short, dramatic opera. Along with her father, Wang’s maternal grandmother is a devotee of local Qinqiang opera, constantly leaving it to play on the local TV channel and singing herself on radio call-in shows.

Wang writes, “I was particularly fond of a dry, panicking, yet seductive old male voice I heard from one story-teller sung in this ancient dialect. It was in the back of my head when I was composing this piece. In the story, an old eunuch buys a young wife because he is drawn to the beauty of her face and wants to have her buried with him when he eventually dies. The moment he first sees her, we hear his monologue, sung while imitating the eunuch’s high, shrill voice: ‘What an exquisite beauty standing in front of me. With her oval, peach flower-colored face, I have to tell myself, this could only be heaven or hell.’”

A-PPA-Aratus (2019)

The aforementioned opera-loving maternal grandmother, as well as all of her siblings, once worked in the textile factory Wang visited—the source of recordings she digitally processed for A-PPA-Aratus. A vibrant town with its own schools, hospital, and other amenities once surrounded the plant, but has been erased because of the need for fewer workers and ever-increasing automation. “How we treat those people in the jobs that are left is critical,” Wang says, pushing back against the idea that we live in a post-industrial world.

Poetry was another springboard for the composition: Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyn. (There is also an award-winning Iron Moon documentary and series of documentary shorts.) “The title has multiple meanings,” Wang says. “An apparatus is a machine. Aratus was a poet from ancient Greece and PPA is the abbreviation for ‘prep, planning, and assessment,’ the planning periods given to teachers. These workers work so hard in a world ruled by machines, and in the few moments they have to relax they write poetry. It is an escape that they need.”

Wherever Wang goes, there she is, ready to embrace what she hears and sees. Through the discipline of her practice, she is equally prepared to relinquish the outside world in order to carry out her solitary labors wherever she may be. The subjects she explores and the elements that form her musical language might seem carefully curated, but she spends much of their energy considering unchosen realities.

“Music comes from the street where you live,” she says. “Like my parents’ generation’s associations with propaganda music: when they hear it, they still get excited, or sad, or nostalgic. It’s from that time and that place. They didn’t—and don’t—have a choice about whether or not they hear it. I don’t have a choice either. The only choice I have is to expand my world from one to another.”


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.

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