Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your composing correspondent has been preoccupied in a backbreaking position, engraving by hand the final portion of his saxophone quartet. Previously fond of a text-interface, open source engraver, he found proportional notation and 50-year-old special symbols to be insurmountable obstacles in the program and fell back on a steady hand and fine pencil.

I've been taken in by a 1968 Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, American premiere recording of Penderecki's Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra. Soloist Paul Zukopsky projects a sublime sound full of that unconventional tension, an energetic signature of the composer. I haven't quite found another to match it but will seek new recordings with open ear.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


There's little more important to my art than expression valued. Thank you for showing your appreciation by contributing.

Having completed a procession, young men cooperate to set down a great Balinese funeral tower for cremation. Photo Credit: Robert Kevess

Friday, December 10, 2010

in which there are No Women

American Composers Forum just hosted a master class this afternoon at International House on UPenn campus. Vincent Royer gave an astonishing lecture and demo of spectral viola music and Alex Waterman followed with his take on exploring extended technique by controlling "risky" sounds like harmonics with changing partials, wolf tones (inaccurate, but check out the similarity between mute and eliminator), and flutter fingering*. Not only was it inspiring and educational, a wealth for my ears, but I will never hear and touch my violin the same way again. Five stars on content, four on presentation.

Ready for the two-star part?

As the title indicates, all the organizers, participants, and guests were men. Most were white; the three student composers whose works were read were white and Japanese. I'm glad they were there, but it doesn't temper my disappointment that a socially progressive-branded organization like ACF failed to attract a more diverse audience. The timing was problematic and likely a function of when the guests were available before a show tonight: early Friday afternoon during finals. If it were my event, I would have explicitly invited women and composers of color at least to find out why they couldn't participate.

Another administrative discomfiture for me started the moment I walked in the master class and worsened as the program progressed. No one clued me in on what was going on when the program didn't start until 15 mins after the advertised time; participants trickled in silently and eventually, after I wandered out and in again, James introduced himself to check me off the guest list. There were no more than ten participants but there was no attempt to invite conversation or even to introduce the student composers. Maybe I'm spoiled from my time at piano master classes and Rob Kyr's composer symposium, but at a master class I expect copies of scores for the audience to follow along. This was a prime opportunity for young composers to support one another, and it could have used more facilitation.

It's unfair to compare my story to the experience of women in male-dominated fields and a sexist world. I'm sharing it simply to emphasize the perilous state in which I find arts participation. What is at stake when we create environments over and over wherein a female** participant looks around and sees only men? In middle school, I had a passion for engineering: building model boats and carbon dioxide canister race cars, power tools, lots of moving and clicking parts. My two male teachers were ecstatic about my progress and encouraged me to join the technology club. I loved it until, insecure as I had become about fitting in, I looked around the club and suddenly realized there were only boys. I never went back, and to this day, I don't know how to wire a light switch. How powerful that fear of stigma must have been to turn me away from an instinctive creative practice!

* I forget the foreign term he used for this method of producing a flutter of artificial harmonics.
** Or any oppressed group

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Henryk Gorecki, in memory

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, whose composition Symphony of Sorrowful Songs brought him to international attention, passed away last month of a chronic lung infection. He would have turned 77 yesterday. He is buried in Slaskie Voivodeship, Poland.

The Symphony, whose 1992 recording by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta first exposed the composer to fame outside his home country, is heartbreaking. It is a must-listen; the simplicity of the musical style, effective selection of texts, and elegant congruity consume me on every hearing.

Gorecki composed primarily for voice but few of his works have passed into popular circulation as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is among the masterpieces of the 20th century, and I commemorate this master.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Music pedagogy and institutional oppression

When I recently picked up my violin for the first time in 11 years, I didn't expect it would trigger memories of being lost and isolated in high school orchestra. I was a composer, I didn't care what others might think of sounds of my exploration, and my college musical training had given me the ears I needed to find pitches and tune strings. But today I was struck by how persistent I must have been and how deeply music moved me at a time when I had so little support, indeed, so much silencing in artistic development.

Like most middle- and upper-class children of Chinese immigrants, I was sent to weekly piano lessons from an early age. My parents were on the lower end of middle back then, so I was ten before I had my first lesson. My mother chose Chinese teachers, as is the custom among other families she knew. Mine were strict, emotionally withdrawn, and sometimes a parent would sit and watch the lesson to offer criticism afterward. I'm staying away from the topic of misguidance among Chinese parents in starting their kids (1) at the piano (2) with traumatized members of the post-Cultural Revolution deposed bourgeoisie. While I learned to push buttons and roughly read music in two clefs, I retained almost nothing of theory and never witnessed improvisation or composition/arrangement.

At the same time, I took bare bones violin lessons in grade school with rented instruments that allowed me to perform with the orchestras in middle and high schools. I took practicing seriously, though it seemed clear there were talented, well-trained young musicians in the orchestra and I was not one of them. Often the parts were beyond my training and I even took to asking for the second violin part, which I could at least reach. Beyond that pathetic accommodation the conductor paid me no heed.

I should have learned then that the norm for classical or art music leaders is a cold, impersonal authority figure who doesn't care to nurture or figure out what a child has to offer the art; rather, he judges how she might fit into the institution. That's how musicians get emotionally and physically injured: we love the art so far beyond support in our training that we put our real lives and bodies at stake. To protect myself, I should have quit music altogether, but I didn't know a self worth protecting; by instinct, it was my only outlet during a tough time.

In spring of my senior year in high school, I was crippled with pain in my hands and arms so I curled up and wept on days that I practiced. I had quit the orchestra and banished myself, in teen angst, to the solitude of the piano. Medical specialists diagnosed me with overuse tendonitis and put me in PT. They made me stop playing for four months, then with time limits and brutally painful icing before and after. Still, I could barely turn a key in a lock. The field of medicine also produces authorities who impose their will without attempting to understand reality.

The revelation that music can be a healing art came when I started college and an attentive and informed pianist sent me to Susan Nowicki. After my first lesson with her, I never had pain again. Of course I studied with her through college. Not only did she help me unlearn and relearn technique so I worked with human physiology instead of fantasy, she demonstrated a caring and judicious approach to teaching that opened to me a world of health and musical expression. (I have to stop when it hurts? I can change how I move so it never hurts again? I can access the sounds I want by controlling touch?) I have little doubt that without this training I would not have studied music and ultimately come to compose. Indeed, practice in facilitating a healthy relationship between my body and what I do helped me to survive gender transition in an essentialist society.

I don't think I can assault the norm of authoritarian music teacher much more in one post, but to add one more twist to the handle: I detest race and gender lines in music teaching. That a teacher who nurtures, encourages, and coaxes students doesn't get far among Chinese parents because she's seen as lazy or incapable; that men have to assert authority in their subject and mustn't waver in their professional demeanor to be helpful to a struggling student; that although many master artists in every discipline were openly gay, teachers rarely appropriately discuss it with today's generation of queer and questioning young artists -- these are counterproductive agents in our art culture that perpetuate oppression in America.

We all harbor these prejudices as graduates and participants of this culture. We need to identify the problem openly so we can change our unhealthy practices. What do we need to start sharing and learning from these experiences?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Balinese gamelan concert Sunday

To tell you the truth, I walked out of my first gamelan concert but gradually fell irrevocably in love with it. Not to worry -- we'll demonstrate how it's put together and afterwards you can ask me about how Indonesian music showed me the way to my own Chinese heritage. Spend a few moments trying out the instruments after the show!

Philadelphia area listeners: Come and be dazzled by vibrant, refined dances and glittering bronze music rich in rhythms and fluctuating energy. This semester we are premiering a new version of our teacher's Prayer for Peace and performing some of our favorite traditional pieces.

Swarthmore College Lang Concert Hall
3pm December 5
Families welcome
Free and open to the public

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

gamelan and taiko

Fantastic news: my workshop on different Asian and Asian American voices, funded by the Leeway Foundation, will be presented at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 26.

Taiko artist Joe Small and I will play a new work-in-progress for gamelan and taiko. We'll also present samples of our independent work. The workshop focuses on our stories of discovery and cultural exchange in pursuing our arts in Asia and America as outsiders and its impact on our values and identities. It will culminate in a loud, hands-on demo.

Mark your calendars and keep an eye out for a complete announcement.