Saturday, December 31, 2011

Campaign update: 5% there!

Happy 2012! Hope you had as much fun as I did, surrounded by a cheerful crowd at last night's joged dance where (unusually) Classically-trained Balinese dancers snagged men from the audience to dance with them, to the riotous amusement of onlookers.

The first response to the challenge has come in from Munduk visitor Abe Minzer of Colorado, totaling $100 with my family's matching gift. Keep it coming quick! Just 4 more days before I have to skip town for visa renewal.

Also, check out my Soundcloud (right task bar) for that gorgeous flute solo I mentioned in my original open letter.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Collection for new instruments campaign update

Fantastic news on my fundraising campaign to buy instruments for my teacher (see my Facebook Page for details)! My beloved family has given a generous matching challenge: they will match every dollar that you give up to the goal of $2000. 

Your gift will now go twice as far, whether it's $100 or $20, it will have the impact of $200 or $40. We really want to see this happen. It would be not only a purchase but an investment because my teacher regularly needs these instruments to play gigs. Since selling them a year ago to help pay medical expenses for his late wife, he's had to rent to play gigs and been unable to teach visiting students like me.

Email me for the US address if you want to mail a check, or Paypal directly to my email address. In the next few days I will upload a particularly mesmerizing selection from a live recording last week at a gender wayang gig at the local hotel.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

If you neglect your pious duties in Bali, the spirits may out your misbehavior to the whole village. Just as I was pondering my thus-far secular appreciation of the arts on this visit...

This was from a ceremonial performance earlier this month, but in the same (acoustically faulty) pavilion where three dancers from different dances, all of whom had gotten costumed at the house where I'm staying, fell into trance. It was a routine performance for tourists at the hotel.

I first noticed something when, at the start of a mask dance, Pak Terip left his instrument and hurried backstage. His body language told me something was amiss, but I thought maybe the mask dance wasn't going well and he wanted to check in with the other dancers. Another dance later I saw him just behind the curtains talking to someone with the arm of a dancer pressed against his back. It was actively following the accents of the dance onstage. I assumed they were just being playful.

But during that very dance, Wirabuana, one of the pair of unison dancers flared out with exaggerated movements at extreme positions; at the final gong, the other dancer closed her stance and exited while she arched backward like a scorpion's tail, hands still fluttering -- her fan dropped and before she could follow, two men stepped forward out of nowhere, caught her, and carried her backstage.

A long-time German expat next to me remarked that trance often happens here. I tried to gracefully end my sound recording and go backstage in case I could be useful. Backstage a lot of men and women rushed about, though calmly. After a few moments, Terip's son Putu left his drum to come backstage and shouted something at the top of his lungs before entering the little house where one of the women was trancing out.

If you haven't seen it before, trance is more like a grand mal seizure than anything else you've likely seen. For these dancers, the movements alternated between that, wild crying, and traditional dance movements. It can be distressing for a foreigner to witness, and is why I at first thought she was fainting from illness.

After the concert ended and tourists went back to their cottages, Pak Terip and Putu spoke in high Balinese with the spirits, finding out where they had to make offerings, and promising to do so.

It was common knowledge among friends and family that these two sometimes forgot to pray, as the commentary ran through the night. Terip admitted it last happened to him at the Arts Festival in Denpasar when six dancers fell into trance after exiting the stage. He admitted to a feeling of apprehension when he sat down to play last night and realized he had neglected to pray for some time. And the dancer whose head he held backstage was the calmest of the three, he claimed because he was the one the spirits wanted. They are direct descendants of a priest, and in combination with taksu, likened to the inspiration of the Greek Muses, are vulnerable to "miscommunication" (Terip's word choice) with spirits.

So, before you listen, I suggest, for pious types, setting right your practice. [Link is coming soon]

Here's the women's gamelan which won last year's competition at the island-wide arts festival.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Meet my Balinese family

Family has a way of defying every level-headed attempt at delineating boundaries, establishing independence, and showing affection. It is with this bone-deep sense of belonging that I apply the term to my Balinese hosts. They've changed since I saw them four and a half years ago: both my teacher and his son have been widowed by sudden illness within the past seven months and they and the son's small children are relying on a sister-in-law to keep it together domestically.

I'm still getting my bearings on Day 3 in the village. There's passable internet at a couple of places, the Balinese can be cloyingly hospitable even as internet operators. I walked out of the cafe with a gifted salak fruit today. Yesterday I had supper very late because an aunt I somehow gave away my love of noodles and had a bowl in my hand before I'd known what I was being asked. After stopping briefly at her tailoring storefront, I saw the niece and another woman I didn't recognize carrying bucketfuls of dirt to the construction site (pictured) below. I wanted to help them, not least because I've had no exercise since leaving Bandung, but as they had just filled up their buckets and there were no extra containers, I followed them empty-handed.

I've mostly gotten my level back since the end of CELTA. Job hunting is a serious habit for me and I've had to remind myself not to get too discouraged when I meet dead ends. I have the rest of the month to get the full picture of options, including volunteering to teach and teaching theater improv and Classical music.

I'm glad to be here alone -- on my first trip I was always accompanied by a white guy who'd been here much longer and knew the languages better, so Balinese usually addressed him whereas now they either bother to try my Indonesian or they don't.

I can tell it's a long coming out process as most locals read me as male but some remember me from before. I actually pulled the legal document to get my teacher to start answering correctly when others ask about my gender. I figure he should know, since they have to register when they have a guest staying at their house and as far as Immigration knows, I'm male. Aside from that, it's no matter: the strange cultural practices Balinese're accustomed to witnessing from visitors far exceed transgender, and I know that's saying a lot. It really doesn't insult me the same way that the family sometimes makes mistakes about my gender. For example, they've suggested a compromise for traditional ceremonial clothing where I tie my sarong in the male way but don't wear the male headdress. I guess it'll be the ultimate sign of their acceptance when they put that on me...

The view from my balcony, left.

This is the sister-in-law who has been taking care of me at the house. Fortunately it seems some other family members, particularly the kids, also eat the abundant veggie food she makes for me. That's granddaughter #2, who is surprisingly calm and quiet. Unsurprisingly, she's completely adorable. Here's the proud grandpa, a quiet sweet man who enigmatically patted me on the ass last night:

This is the eldest son who got seriously ill after his wife passed away suddenly. He's still quite thin compared to how I rememeber him but now in better spirits. The big pictures are Bagawan Baba, explained to me by the young man to took me to prayer as a godfather of a minority of Bali Hindus.

This is the big cheese himself. Last night at women's gamelan I witnessed a cool moment when he paused for a few seconds while we practiced a repeating section, then taught an improvised counterpoint on 10-key jublag. When I expressed surprise about that and the 8-key jegog, he answered that it's traditional. (For the uninitiated, whenever I've noticed those instruments before, they had five keys each.)

Life in Munduk isn't the same without my teacher's wife, and life in the family compound is startlingly quiet without dance lessons by the son's wife and rehearsals in the (now under construction) sanggar.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Break out of "authorized responses"

Browsing MIT's Open Courseware, I found this 15-page essay by contemporary Italian author Umberto Eco (Name of the Rose) on modern music.

Key concepts:
  1. Contemporary analysis may focus on what drove artists to call on performers and audience to make constructive decisions about aleatoric performance.
  2. Following the Enlightenment, fascination with the evocative power of suggestive art led to contemporary use of symbols without objective keys and provoking questioning of existing values and institutions. (pp 5-6)
  3. This shift of value from the author's singular reality to a plurality of possible audience experiences rejects "any ideal normative conception of the world" -- likened to Copernicus's challenge to the Aristotelian legacy.
I'm not sure the parallel between openness in art (specifically, music that doesn't follow Classical tonal structure) and contemporary physics is any more than metaphorical. Theoretical science can get pretty outlandish by itself. But! I do get that as scientists have revealed and explored concepts such as Heisenburg uncertainty and artists, the I Ching to their audiences, outlandish concepts such as every conscious being a world unto themself have become household. My work tends increasingly to celebrate the capacity of individuals to create, recreate, and transform realities. 

It's easy to indulge in dramatizing the 20th century's bent "toward the ambiguous and the indeterminate" as a decay in crisis or chaos. I agree with the counterargument that it is, rather, a social development, driven by growing cultural, economic, and political empowerment, to actualize the creative and transformative power individuals inherently possess. The essay instead presents an alternative analogy: a universe (literally turned into one) in which chance and discontinuity perfectly follow an absolute rule -- untestable, undefinable, divine. In it, any work of art opens up to the perceiver's potentials while simultaneously belonging to the artist and obeying her rule.

It breaks down after that, but you don't have to take my word for it. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Call for artist collaboration on OWS

My call for collaboration on moving the Occupy effort forward was posted to The Leeway Foundation's blog yesterday. With violence and arrest again threatening the Oakland GA and harsh winter, those of northeastern cities, our challenges demand speedy action.

There are those of us who feel the potential to be a greater force in the OWS movement, but also uncertainty about how to apply our skills optimally or to balance advocacy with ongoing projects. Let's meet by video chat or conference call weekends to pick each others' brains and motivate each other.

I know Occupy Boston and other cold-clime sites need group movement leaders to keep bodies warm. We're uniquely good at engaging others' attention and provoking them to problemsolve in unaccustomed ways. How can you apply your skills, confidence, and voice to the movement near you? Who are artists you'd be excited to ask to give a workshop at an Occupy site near them?

We need all hands on deck. If there's no demonstration near you (I'm in Indonesia as I write) let's network other, appropriate actions for economic justice and
transparent governance.

Email with your availability and tech needs to get on call scheduling!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Idul Adha in Bandung

I arrived in Bandung Friday night after a 22-hour, two-leg flight and 4-1/2 hour bus ride through urban Javanese traffic. My fabulous hosts hired a cab to pick me up from the bus station, and when I saw the narrow alleys we had to wind through to get to their door I understood it wouldn't have been easy had I hired a cab myself.

Jakarta and Bandung have so far been strongly reminiscent of but markedly different from my previous trips to the next island over. I'm staying in a house abutting a mosque, which broadcasts prayers regularly, even more so in advance of the holiday celebrating the end of the annual pilgrimage. Waking at 3am to multiple calls to prayer was precious. I'm in Indonesia.

Let's watch.

Monday, October 31, 2011

One Journey

To follow up on my first transition post, I'm sharing the license detail for the completed score, an interactive, multidisciplinary improvisational performance piece.

A year ago I had a long email exchange with pianist, composer, and publisher Dennis Tobenski about new music copyright. As a habitual user of free content, I want to encourage others to be inspired and draw on my work in an attitude of cooperative cultural development. At the same time, we're all striving artists. I've never asked a composer for a copy of a score and been denied or asked for financial compensation. I support the norm of expecting critical feedback -- of course that's why I've been crazy about Feedback Circle. But the controversy of making a living from our calling is silencing: I don't know an emerging artist who doesn't feel even a little conflicted about their uncreative or even creativity-robbing day job, and I attest to frequent guilt trips of underemployment; yet we fear marketing our art would cheapen it. So it does, but in whose eyes?

For now I've stopped posting full scores online, instead giving teaser pages like this for performers to consider and sharing electronic copies for individually.

Creative Commons License
One Journey by Qian Li is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

9/11 Further reflections

This piece has made it onto Pandora stations. It's no background music for me, sparking examination of how my society's psyche has dramatically changed in ten years.

When I was in high school, an English assignment included listing remarkable events that occurred the day one was born. I had nothing to report. Through adolescence I didn't imagine anything massively traumatic would happen to my peers, family, or me in a lifetime.

September 11th was, however regrettably, part of my cohort's coming of age. Reports from battlefronts and vets in Iraq and Afghanistan made real to me wartime casualties as a physical and collective psychological threat. Living in San Francisco I became accustomed to the inevitability of mass destruction through natural earthquake and measures we must take as a civilization to reduce those risks. I focused more and more on invisible and silent threats of mass deaths from hate violence, suicide, and neglected social services.

Deliberate violence may be taking fewer lives in the current era, and that's worthy of celebration. How can we take that spirit forward to do better to provide one another the resources we need for collective safety, health, and well-being?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Adult entertainment

I provided the following context to my friends, family, and followers, in an email about my work and whereabouts, for adult videos that I designed and in which I modeled this summer.

"As a few of my recent compositions reference, sexuality and BDSM appeal to my creative and expressive impulse to explore power dynamics and cultural signification of the body. While I haven't had the opportunity directly to produce music with these videos, it's with the same calling to expression and social change that I reveal and model responsibility, safety, and ownership in a stigmatized and poorly regulated adult industry."

Of course my thoughts and politics on the matter go further. What this post now presents, though, is megabytes of pretty and authentic (all NSFW):

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Transition 3: Feedback Circle continues

It's been a while since I mentioned it, but the multidisciplinary peer feedback group I started a year ago still meets, though irregularly. We restructured over the summer to have presenters bottom line scheduling for the web conference and reminders. We've had a couple of meetings to do group improvisation as well. We're always open to new members, so check out the Google group to participate.

Here's a screenshot from a meeting earlier this year:

The document you see in the background is my chickenscratch under the formal categories we explore in turn on the call.

I expect to have enough connectivity in Jakarta next month to be available for these conference calls. The vast majority of participants return again and again because the process allows us to voice responses that makes it easy to understand diverse concerns and adaptability of its members. It's worth continuing, so I am.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Transition 2: Philadelphia

My last scheduled performance before moving to Jakarta will be at Andrea Clearfield's salon in Philadelphia. For more information, please visit her site.

Oh, did I mention I'm moving to Indonesia? On both visits in 2003 and 2007 I left resolved to find a way to live there, only to fully engage in cataclysmic changes back in the States. So, at the end of my savings, I'm finally ready to treat living abroad as a reset button. I'm enrolled in a certificate program to teach English as a second language starting Nov 11. I dream of teaching not only the language but the impulse to communicate and to express through improvisation. Last night I literally dreamed about starting off class with Theatre of the Oppressed. The unconscious has the cart before the horse, I think.

The program is only a month long, but there's time for outreach with HIV services organizations and gamelan music as well. And if I am at least as resourceful there as I have been here, I will find more options for living and portals to bring forward my art.

Transition from Austerlitz

"How was your residency?" I hear you ask. My response comes in a series of posts beginning with a small taste of the sweet productivity I experienced.

One Journey is a new piece for choir, soloists, and piano quartet. Rather than transmitting a message to an audience, it demands the performers themselves to fragment and to explore alternatives to their collective and personal experiences of home, travel, yearning, bodies, and death through improvised drama nested in the through-composed score. In addition to rehearsals of the music, I would co-facilitate preparatory theater games as indicated at the bottom of instructions for each improv. Here is a sample of the draft.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

fan mail

Your correspondent is working hard at scoring these days. Think zombie... scoring is possibly my least favorite part of composing.

Thanks to nat/Erika in Philadelphia for making me laugh in the middle of it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

NNM shorts released

All five are here on Network for New Music's channel. Get out your best headphones or plug in the speakers and start with this one.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Thanks to Gabe for sending this to me. I do listen to NPR mornings but not for hours like I do out there.

Steve Reich's WTC is presented as a 9/11 tenth anniversary tribute. As I said to my feedback circle, take a deep breath and probably don't have anything more to do the day you listen to it.

Initially I was put off that he would write a second Different Trains (1988), as if in service to fans, but it's an original work. I don't study Reich so can't analyze it in terms of his development over intervening years, but WTC is original. Not having family members who were involved in WWII, I think I took Different Trains abstractly or idealistically. But the composer worked from his own experience, however distant, of the time and with survivors to reconcile apparent disagreements of the truth. That work infuses the sounds with meaning and energy; that's what impacts me.

It's interesting to note Reich's choices of trains and Ground Zero for the subjects of these string quartet and tape pieces are both tiny frames of the conflicts referenced. Yet their poignancy as sensations and memories firmly recall those upheavals of our world.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Residency mailing address

I'd love to get mail from you in the next 3 weeks at my residency:

Millay Colony, PO Box 3, 454 East Hill Road, Austerlitz, NY 12017

Use the street address for non-USPS deliveries... hint. Good loose leaf tea, spices, and vegan chocolate are especially welcome.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Request for prayer & donations

My teacher's son Putu Putrawan is severely ill and hospitalized in Bali. He's my age and a celebrated musician who has himself taught and performed gamelan internationally. Please send funds (personal checks are fine, just include the name and bank info) to the address below; the goal is currently US$3750.

Stichting Taksu

Sarphatistraat 80 HS, 1018 GS
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Bank: Triodos Bank
Account number: 390248843
IBAN: NL94TRIO0390248843

Please mention 'Putu Putrawan'

Monday, August 29, 2011

On genius and perfection

My first guest post is by Jeri Lynne Johnson, Founder and Music Director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia. Please join me in gratitude for her contribution by commenting and sharing.

Arthur Koestler an early 20th century British novelist, journalist and critic said “The principle mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.”

Criticism is a vital phase of the creative process. It helps us analyze our mistakes, identify areas for improvement and refine our process to better bring our inspirations into reality. But for musicians and artists pursuing something new and different, criticism of the work into which they have poured so much of themselves can be especially painful. Negative, unhelpful opinions from people who cannot understand or are threatened by anything new and different can bring visionaries soaring on the wings of inspiration crashing back down to earth. As artists we eventually learn to shrug off or shut out external criticism and many even regard a growing number of what the modern vernacular terms “haters” as a sign of true genius and often use this to fuel their creative fires.

Unfortunately, however, we are sometimes our own worst critics. When the criticism comes from within, when we cannot externalize and therefore dismiss criticism as jealousy or fear from other people, when criticism stems from internal insecurities, habitual thinking or ingrained attitudes, it clips the artists’ wings so that they cannot even get off the ground, let alone soar. This kind of criticism stymies inspiration and can even become so destructive that it consumes the creative process destroying it entirely. For many frustrated artists, what lies behind this cancerous form of criticism is the pursuit of perfection. Perfection is static -- an impossible concept that connotes completion, totality, finality. Whereas creation is dynamic -- artists striving with new ideas, thriving in the potential and kinetic energies that make this world go around. As long as something is in motion, it cannot be perfect because it is moving toward something. So I agree with Koestler and feel that creative dynamism is truly at the heart of a genius. For in using healthy criticism to fully realize her dreams, the true genius does not seek a perfect end to her struggles, but the opportunity to realize bigger and more beautiful new dreams.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Media updates

Lots of media goings-on these long summer days. I'm anticipating the arrival of raw footage from Percussing Difference back in March... on DV tape. Uhm, how to convert to digital...?

Network for New Music will be releasing the first of my five shorts on their website any day now. I have to admit I was never happy with the last of the series, but I'll take it Balinese temple style and let it be a work-in-progress, as is the world.

My visit in San Francisco is three-quarters done, and I'm as satisfied as I could hope to be. On Monday August 22nd (subject to change) I will be hosting a public Theatre of the Oppressed session in Berkeley. Doodle for a date here:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Review of Makeout Room free first Monday

A friend had a rendezvous at The Makeout Room in the Mission District, SF last night and I went to a show. There were three sets.

Will Redmond, guitar
Rob Pumpelly, drums

Phillip Greenlief,alto saxophone
John Shiurba, guitar
Tom Scandura, drums

Kjell Nordeson - Aram Shelton Duo

I missed most of the first, but heard way too loud though interesting electric guitar improv. I stayed on the sidewalk, listening to the second set. I forgot noise concerts require earplugs. But these guys played the kind of noise influenced by progressive rock and jazz and who knows what contemporary explorations that kept me bouncing and savoring. I'd been in a critical, depressed head space walking to the show, so it really picked me up. I caught Tom afterward and demanded to be emailed as soon as PG13 puts out a CD. We'll see if those guys get it together.

After the first set they shut the bottom half of the bar door and I noticed when someone pushed it open, it freed lower fundamentals in lazy swings.

The last set was dreamy. The sax player said at the end of their first piece "I thought everyone had left. My eyes were closed... I heard something and thought they were stacking chairs." I actually got to sit and watch this set because it was unamplified. There were several moments the extended drum set got too loud for comfort, but they always passed with sensitive use of dynamics and textures. The drummer used hands, toy bongos, and cymbal on snare; the sax (alto and tenor alternating) traded long, long solos of fluttering runs, polyphonics, and breathy trills. The audience around the stage area listened with rapt attention, and cheered appreciatively. Near the front of the bar was constant conversation, which sometimes drifted over during the quietest moments. I appreciate that. I itched to jam with them.

Anything eccentric in the Mission attracts the white hipster, etc. crowd. Across the street a cafe had a student piano sextet playing Schubert, which created a glut of foot traffic. But it's satisfying to find a casually social audience for this kind of music, loud enough to compete with punk, tastefully complex enough for a classical tradition stage.

The calendar for noise style shows is the Bay Improviser.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Redefining 'drama'

I want to clarify what "drama-free" means. I don't use the term casually because, as a performer, I recognize that tension and conflict run beneath everything worth living for. Drama itself is a fact of human experience and expression. As Augusto Boal advocated, our gift of self examination allows us to exist in multiple and to empower ourselves. What I think the term refers to is communication that captures life's inevitable tensions and expresses and processes it in a way that reflects the respect, care, and compassion we deserve from one another.

Life hands me drama. I work to let it bring out truth between friends, to transcend it in relying on my family, and to signify it in my music. Deliberate, exploratory dramatization can help me tap into emotions I habitually tamp down to be "presentable" -- that's not drama-free; that's a public face. I try to respect others' public-private boundaries, but mine is an essential part of the exploration.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Evidence that through composition and improv do not conflict

Since I won't be updating en masse over the summer, here's what I've been working on. It makes me wonder if there's grad level research I can get my hands on so I don't have to figure it all out from scratch. But there is value in that, especially given who's been in grad school before me.

Yes, those are column headings.

As I play with improv beyond "here are your timing/ rhythmic/ dynamic/ pitch constraints" and toss around the questions of privilege around musical skill and audience fitness and class- and culturally-proscribed behavior, I find myself delighting in questioning also my role as composer. Am I equivalent to a BDSM Dominant, calling the shots and bossing my players and producers around? Or a submissive, catering to the whims of the talent, a beneficent performing group, and ultimately the paying, soul-hungry audience? Evidence supports the conclusion that it does not matter as long as details of the arrangement are transparent to all parties and consensual.

What does this look like in practice? A few months ago, a favorite pianist at New Keys asked for additional movements to The Jots, a four-hand, sight-reading piece I dashed off earlier this year. I was experiencing a personal renaissance in ... a universal daily bodily function pertaining to internal movement. Writing the companion movement as a multi-phase improv theater pierce set my mind reeling on the topics above.

What I want to do exceeds the human resources of a conventional music concert; it needs the participants of an improv theater workshop for an audience. Further, working with the subject is helping me cope with the offensive aspects of reality like unresponsive audience and power vested in skilled artists. It's not bad; it's necessary and colorful sensation.

If you're in the SF Bay area in the upcoming weeks I'm organizing casual meetups to play theater games. No acting experience required! just respond to a scheduling poll.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A lifelong search

After finishing a series of video shorts enticing shy listeners to new music, I've found myself distant and unmotivated from attending live performances.

In my work I have the luxury of seeking deeply in myself and the potentials of the world I know. With alarming frequency I uncover concepts and truths that challenge the way I think and live, forcing me into a struggle of emotion and problemsolving. There is a beautiful piece of poetry Coleman Barks translated from Rumi beginning "When you are not with me I resemble..." I love the casual way he treats the juxtaposition of yearning and celebration, all in absence of the beloved. It also directed me to consider how fantasy coexists with reality in our living and coping. Yearning need not be grieving alone but a powerful manifestation of the divine.

In the course of relating to many others as I develop, I notice patterns like friends don't stay fast over long distances, few friendships are ever carried out to mutual satisfaction, and investment in relationship building comes at the expense of that in my work. Other patterns are challenged by new experiences, for example I've come to believe differences never have to cast two parties apart, and when they do, it is for lack of trust in and commitment to resolution for the sake of the friendship. I used to respond extremely badly to strong "negative" expressions directed at me, but am practicing to respond contructively, step back and view the possible larger context of the scene (I might be wrong!), and redirect destructive energies.

This search has led me to a place of being with my self, trajectory, and environment that troubles me with irrelevance to the classical music community. As my original music source, its preoccupations with control and class leave little space for the work I'm interested in doing with audiences. Who hasn't felt captive by norms of conduct in the face of an awful or frustrating performance in any genre? I want to harness the power of those conventionally captive voices.

Tomorrow I attend the wedding of a childhood friend, a first attendance at that of my own friend, as opposed to a significant other's family and, well, my loved ones are scattered across the earth. As I watch the lovingly interpreted rituals unfold, I too will be part of a performance in which by attending I consent to a form of captivity. Sometimes I wonder at the image of myself holding simultaneously disjointed past years, potential future relations, the refracted interpretations of the moment, and their many alternatives.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Baffling: political protest of an LGBT film festival

I just got this on a queer Asians listserv:


SF Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Trans Film Festival PINKWASHESWar Crimes

Apartheid -- Occupation -- Invasion -- Murder -- Racism -- Ethnic Cleansing

The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival has accepted
sponsorship and money from the Israeli consulate for the second year
in a row. Every Palestinian queer organization, along with a number
of local and international queer groups, have demanded that the
festival presenter, Frameline, stand up for human rights and
international law by refusing to partner with the Israeli
government. The Consulate and its supporters have threatened to
brand the festival as “anti-Jewish” if they decline their money. But
by accepting it, and ignoring the voices and the lives of Palestinian
queers, Frameline has shown itself to be anti-queer as well as anti-

Join the Protest
Friday, June 17, 5:30-7:00 pm
Castro Theater, San Francisco

Shame on Frameline! All Queers Count!

Sponsored by Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT!), SouthWest
Asian and North African Bay Area Queers (SWANABAQ), Middle East
Children's Alliance, Arab Resource and Organizing Center,
International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Israeli Queers for
Palestine, Palestinian Queers for BDS

for info:;;


I don't know the back story, but it seems these protesters don't understand what "anti-queer" and "anti-Palestinian" mean any better than the Consulate understands "anti-Jewish." Nonprofit arts organizations exert the most power through the art they promote. Unless Israel's support influences Frameline's screening choices it makes no sense to pick on a presenter about a domestic political issue. Yes, a U.S. policy problem.

LGBTQ Pride Month

Someone shared an appreciation of Pride events on a San Francisco radical queer social listserv I use. It was in the context of habitual distaste for assimilationist gayness and the persistent need for safety from persecution of gays. Here is my reply:

I had my first Pride outside SF last weekend in Washington, DC. It was a wake-up call that SF Bay is still very much a world class oasis. Compared to what I got used to in the Bay, it was a baby Pride: no barriers, little security, tiny contingencies, a few trucks instead of hours of floats. It was wonderfully homey, though: hotels, storefronts, and churches got decked out in rainbow around the parade route; lots of hand-painted signs and lovingly assembled costumes everywhere. Out here, I take comfort that the militant eccentricity, flamboyance, and diversity of the Bay goes on and on. It reminds me what sometimes annoys me comes from a genuine need.

As for making gender & sexual nonconformity more okay, the best work I've done is still CUAV's speaker bureau. They are now an independent volunteer-run collective, I haven't spoken with them since they inherited the program from CUAV but I'd be happy to share my experiences with you if you email me.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cultural appropriation vis-a-vis globalization

As I edit these shorts, a topic recurs as it does whenever I encounter Asian or folk influence in contemporary music performance. I've encountered views on the topic with a range of tone (here's an irritating one), but none yet that attempts to address the complex experience of 2nd- plus-generation immigrants coming of age in white Eurocentric culture. Try this:
  1. Am I assimilated because I've accessed white privileged education, move in white queer or liberal circles, and know relatively little about my culture of origin?
  2. If I'm assimilated, is my interest in minority cultures and use of artifacts (including artistic) from these cultures appropriative exactly as if I were white?
  3. Is the only way for me to escape the white man's path, to be more Chinesey by investing more of myself in my culture of origin, whatever that is and regardless of the reasons my family chose to leave it?
There's a narrative that I need to investigate. In a globalized world, I can't believe I'm alone on this! As I touched on in my previous post I filled a spiritual void in childhood from whatever I could get my hands on. Coming into awareness that there is a tremendous complexity and history behind each culture I encounter was a difficult step for me. I don't dispute that we owe other cultures deeper respect and serious and cautious study. What irks me right now is the alienating, silencing effect when one who is genuinely interested in a non-origin culture hears his expression is appropriative.

Serious questions:

Can a musician incorporate elements of culture of non-origin music into her work without knowledge of the cultural significance of this sort of music and without being appropriative? Can one who studies a non-origin culture extensively and still be appropriative?

Lest I be blamed for leaving it out on this post, I'll write it here: Orientalism. Now, your turn to sound off.

Btw #3 is a ridiculous suggestion because it is both impossible and uninteresting. Having had the Western, stereotype-focused anti-oppression education that I have makes it impossible for me to retrace my parents' values to 1980s China and somehow claim them. What would be interesting is to see how my generation of organizers all over the world, including in the mainland, conceptualize oppression.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On religion

Speculation on the timing of the Biblical Rapture has led me to consider my standing relative to America's dominant religion. I have to admit picking up Douglas Adams's posthumous publication A Salmon of Doubt contributed.

Unlike most of my peers I grew up with no religion, indeed, little talk at all of spiritual belief and the meaning of life and death. Yet, in an antagonistic adolescent world, I experienced what I still consider a divine moment in 2001, hearing Smetana's Die Moldau at New Haven's Woolsey Hall. It felt qualitatively as a transport to paradise. I experienced it again when I visited Bali two years later, again on hearing fine concerted sound that instantly bridged the sacred and the profane.

No doubt my choices of expression, society, and service work come from a common source with these moments of acute awareness. My faith is in a life and strength that feeds my daily choices of right from wrong, but have presence beyond that. As I grow older, the way I relate to others gains depths of gratitude, forgiveness, and generosity that surprise me even as they bear me forward from moments of spiritual devastation. These teach me to be steadfast in practice, even when progress appears impossible.

This life and strength, the common source, is as unmistakable to me as those moments of transcendence through music. It renders meaningless categories of self and other, mortality and eternity. When I'm aware of it I'm empowered in doing my life in the completeness of reality.

In holding this divinity the questions "do you take Jesus as your lord and personal savior" or "do you believe in God" make no sense. The source is empty of questions, judgment, or answers, yet all the music ever played, now sounding, and yet to be conceived flow continuously from it, soundlessly ghosted in our world.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Songwriting and Theater of the Oppressed

My friend Martin has a peculiar practice of what I call "intimate economy." Whenever he abandons his home for a new life on the other side of the world, he gifts trinkets, books, accessories -- all those comfort items that make a home -- to appropriate friends. This time I got this:
Now, I'm not a songwriter so I don't know how to write guitar chords or catchy lyrics (though I've tried my hand at hip-hop). But since my experimentation has plunged me headfirst into the world of improv, it seemed appropriate to document these compositions, so. If this inspires you to write pop style songs, by all means share.
I've continued my Theater of the Oppressed journey with Morgan Andrews here in Philly. Last weekend he facilitated an incredibly sensitive, intimate Rainbow of Desire session featuring a black female couple's dispute over public presentation of their relationship. The 30-some odd participants selected their story over four others' from the room. I know Morgan is a master theater facilitator, so he changes up the process according to everyone's energies, but overall Rainbow of Desire is designed to refract the multiple simultaneous impulses of each individual in a provocative scenario into discernible facets, characterize them, process them through image making and image dynamism, and release them in support of the individual's true practice.

Almost every time I disclose that I'm a composer, someone asks what kind of music. We are such powerful, complex beings. We deserve all of one another, and we have the potential to make this world better in our lifetimes. This is the work I mean when I answer. How can I better put in words the calling to dress myself in rope bondage and medical needles, beat a violin, and step all over my audience members?

Friday, April 15, 2011

On Queer and Questioning

For GLSEN's Day of Silence to draw attention to oppression of sexuality & gender minority youth (not linked because I bear a methodological grudge against the national organization), I have a message to voice.

I first came out not as lesbian when I dated girls in high school nor as transgender or genderqueer when I finally gave up trying to fit in, but as Questioning. That means I'm willing to own that I'm "questioning" my identity, but more importantly, I'm refusing to let you put your label on me. Queer and Questioning are identities of refusal. They deny the ultimate denier, dominant society and culture, which silences or appropriates our myriad ways of being.

So to those who, through silence or voice, self-identify as Questioning, I raise a coffeecup toast.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Curtis Symphony Orchestra: Turangalila-symphonie

On Tuesday I had the too-rare privilege of attending a performance I knew I would thoroughly enjoy. Olivier Messiaen's epic work demands not only unfaltering virtuosity from all performers but a unique instrumentation. I once saw this piece struck from a university program because it calls for the electronic keyboard instrument ondes Martenot in addition to the composer's customary arsenal of percussion.

What do I love about this piece? Of course Messiaen leaves a legacy of color, but that means little on its own. He creates in each piece a fantasy world: laws of materials physics reinvented, transitions as dramatic as scenes cut in film, mammoth layers of soundcraft like fine masonry; the brass Statue Theme, the full-ensemble Joie that bursts out singing and dancing, the Garden of Sleeping Lovers, and his masterful blocks of contrasting textures and themes. I think most of all I admire the "ten thousand worlds" of passions and tenderness it holds as a mortal's expression of the infinity and contradiction of divine love. Love is simple. How one arrives at its power -- through life and the troubling world that shapes ours -- is complex.

Some describe the Turangalila-symphonie as a piano concerto; I think of it as a double concerto for ondes Martenot as well. Although the ondes Martenot produces only one voice, the part is wildly expressive and varied. It was curious to watch Thomas Bloch's quiet poise through the piece. For years I have giggled at extravagant gestures by Western string players -- it's refreshing to examine options for stage presence developed by theater, folk, experimental, noise, and pop artists.

Another memorable moment was the closing of movement 5, Joie du sang des etoiles (though I'd have to check the score), when pianist Di Wu* lit fireworks of chords in enormous leaps and rapid succession all over the keyboard. My seat was two tiers up but quite close to the orchestra so my eyes feasted on her lightning placements.

I should mention eight years ago the Swarthmore College gamelan opened for the Philadelphia Orchestra when they gave this piece. Christoph Eschenbach conducted those performances as well, and though my ears are something else now I dare say the Curtis Orchestra was at least as tight. From my seat the glockenspiel (sometimes two doubling!) and remainder of the orchestra usually overpowered the piano solos. That may be an artifact of many hearings of recordings with balance adjusted, but I hesitate to fault the composer.

Before the feature, Curtis Institute of Music faculty member Alan Morrison gave brief introductions to organ pieces by Messiaen's contemporaries Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire. I found it unfortunate they programmed Curtis student Bryan Anderson to play Messiaen's organ pieces after the symphony, when my head was exploding from spent neurotransmitters and the hall rapidly emptied. Yes, I want to hear that music, but at the time, my ears could only hold ambience.

*[EDIT 4/22] This post helped me frame the question: can an East Asian woman wear her hair permed without being accused of assimilation? Conversely, can one avoid being offered a perm every time she enters a salon?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Educational Bodies Conference

I returned yesterday from the aforementioned conference with something of a new head.

My host's second-floor flat in Cambridge has a unique sound world I freshly re-experienced upon arrival Thursday afternoon. The house is adjacent a city park and across the street from a public school. Its construction filters sound in a quite warm yet distant way. Dozens or kids were playing outside and a couple of times marching band drum practice struck up a pattern briefly. Their youthful shouts, the dull smacks of balls, and cheers filled the sunlit room. Upstairs neighbors added a rare, even slower, duller thud here and there. My host sat across the room in a matching easy chair silently pivoting her bare feet on the edge of a shaft of sunlight and irregularly touching off a battery of Mac laptop keyboard clicks. She slurped coffee now and again, then once more quietly, holding it on her tongue for a breath before swallowing wetly in the ensuing silence. I breathed my coffee the way the moon fills a bay with the tide. I listened to my own breaths -- higher overtones on the inhale than the exhale, a bit more labored than usual. Closer, sharper, charged.

I wish I could say I existed in the sound world with such fervor throughout the visit. But I have no idea what to expect from an academic conference. My most memorable moments were meeting co-panelists Pavlos Kountouriotis, Matthew Cumbie, and Amanda Jackson; staring at Rachel Taranta's "quasi-monochromatic illumination" of brightly painted squiggles; chatting about the impossibility of young immigrant passing in academic and professional America with Andy Reyes; experiencing Jill Sigman's mummification-hot wax-inscriptions THE MACHINE and talking about it after the conference; and of course performing full-contact violin.

Found onstage, crumpled into a tiny ball at the end of the performance:
That, and my first hustle making music. My attention deteriorated more rapidly than after any other type of performance. The needles are a fine engine for me to transcend the myth of performance so I can be myself with the instrument, but I don't come back to my rational self before a good night's sleep. That I finally got last night and I woke up lit "like a pinball machine." The Muse can make a fine lover even though she's batshit insane most of the time.

So I thank the fine presenters and audience and welcome questions and remarks.

EDIT 4/15: I've uploaded some audio selections from the performance to my SoundCloud page (right).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cambridge Performance of Gender & Sexuality in Academia

The next performance of full-contact violin will be here. You have my permission to giggle at the abstract.

Yenching Auditorium, 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA
13:30 – 14:30 Panel 2: Perverse Bodies

Matt Cumbie and Amanda Jackson
Qian Li
Andrés Castro Samayoa

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Thanks to you enthusiastic, responsive, inquisitive folks who made it to Percussing Difference Saturday. It was a complex machine to put together on my own, but I look forward to day- and weekend-long workshops in the future.

Special thanks to Matt Palmer and Abram Lipman for joining me onstage on short notice and to Gregory Holt and Kristel Baldoz for an astonishing dance. It's so satisfying to have both music and movement at last. I look forward to a performance with live music next chance we have a piano at the venue.

I treated myself to three days without internet or radio -- actually without any control over sound playback at all -- as the guest of a community member in Virginia and then a dear friend in DC. Moments of overwhelming environmental sound recalled Touch the Sound in which Evelyn Glennie describes sound overstimulation. My favorite sounds during the trip included sitting alone near the back of a local bus and realizing the emergency vehicle sirens I kept hearing were overtones from the engine filtered through the back vents, improvisation over Gregorian chant with my host, and tourists viewing cherry blossoms chattering in assorted languages.

Among things I forgot during the show was to announce my colleague's fundraiser (now passed) for the crisis in Japan. If you want to contribute, Makoto Hirano recommends this site.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Asian Arts Initiative this Saturday at 2!

Full-steam ahead with my free workshop Percussing Difference in Philadelphia Chinatown.

Welcoming guest performers Matt Palmer, Kristel Baldoz, and Abram Lipman to the show! Matt teaches taiko at Asian Arts Initiative and Kristel is joining choreographer Gregory Holt in dance for my original piano piece. Abram and I have been playing Balinese gender wayang, music for the shadow play, since we were students at Swarthmore together.

I've got a set of group activities to complement the rhythm, movement, questioning, and silence breaking. Comment or RSVP if you will be there!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Insofar as Context

My next post was going to include a link to a video of the pilot study for full-contact violin, but given my video editing woes (I run Linux on a 2007 Thinkpad) I thought I'd better just write something.

About 30 folks filled our playroom, and from different lifestyles and backgrounds like the artists. Joy Mariama Smith transformed our stairway into a luxurious bed, complete with distorted video projection of herself sleeping (sometimes with cat) while Gabe and Ben played a selection of lovingly crafted yet garage band style songs. I'm still waiting to see indee's dance performance on video, and missed Morgan's group theater game compositions while I changed before my piece. Morgan and I talked afterward, and having heard expressions of calming effects and intrigue from participants today, I imagine it was a brilliant shaping of personal sensory experiences.

I call the composition full-contact violin and yesterday's performance a pilot study because it was so rewarding to do that I intend to repeat it, with variations to the presentation in response to different spaces and audiences. You have to participate to experience the piece, but I'll post a trailer this week.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 13 Home Theater Festival

I know you've all checked out the announcement a couple posts back, but I've finalized the lineup and, perhaps with most relevance, my performance. It starts at 1PM EDT. Yes, Daylight Savings Time!

Did you know songbird chicks produce a boggling array of sounds never heard from adults? And that physical touch contribute to babies' growth and well-being? I'm putting these ideas together for a new piece for full-contact violin to be premiered at Insofar as Context: Home Theater Festival Philadelphia.

Reply with your email or Facebook address for the venue location. $4.99-7.99 sliding scale, all proceeds go to performers, bring extra for donations.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Curtis Student Recital: Early 20th-century Eastern European composers

I treated myself to a recital at Field Concert Hall last night to celebrate my selection for a residence at Millay Colony.

Prokofiev's Sonata in D for violin and piano was showy as expected, the string part far outshining the accompaniment. When the piano sounds like accompaniment, I doubt my hearing. The relative positions of the players -- violinist Ji-Won Song standing directly downstage from pianist Jiuming Shen rather than nestled in the shoulder of his instrument -- and their body language signaled hierarchy. I have seen a rare pianist command an equal or even authoritative role in chamber performance, but this was not the music for it.

Jessica T. Chang played Bartok's viola concerto, Francesco Lecce-Chong accompanying on piano. His Asian collar shirt caught my eye as they came onstage. As an aspiring viola lover, I admit I am unfamiliar with the piece. I missed Bartok's masterful orchestration in Lecce-Chong's execution and will have to study the piece carefully. Chang's playing was surprisingly straight in executing work from a composer known for rhythmic and metric aggression, but her sound was remarkably resonant. I found out from her afterward her instrument features an asymmetrical tailpiece intended to maximize the length of lower strings and, through pressure, their conduction into the body. Hot. Unfortunately for extended technique the piece is metal alloy and too slippery to bow (but maybe tough enough to be beaten).

The second half was all spectacle, and every soul outside the concert hall ceased to exist.

Identical twins Michelle and Christina Naughton with impressive coordination Ravel's exuberantly playful piano duet, La Valse. After a point I get weirded out by the medical exoticism people direct toward twins, but that might be me. The piece opens with indistinct bass clusters perversely harped on vaguely in waltz rhythm by one player, then passed to the other. I don't think I would try to dance to this one.

After some piano juggling Yue Chu and Michelle Cann performed Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps 4-hands, the version Stravinsky prepared for a friend and himself to rehearse the orchestral piece. I'd heard it in recording before but never witnessed the demanding changes of hands between players, part crossing and overlapping, and polymetric coordination in addition to the usual requirements of timing and balance. Some moments I found it hard to remember what the orchestration was, other times I heard the accustomed rich timbres, but most of the time I was able to enjoy fully the piano idiom. In it I was able to hear thematic material and elements of compositional mastery more clearly. It was a daring choice, and though a sloppy pedal release or grace scale was exposed on rare occasions, the performance was finely and musically prepared. I welcome such boldness from young musicians. Both Chu and Cann warmly greeted admirers in the lobby and expressed eagerness for contemporary repertoire.

Conclusion: these musicians are so young!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Home Theater Festival Philadelphia Mar. 13

Updated time and date! Sunday March 13 from noon-4

I bring the artist-run performance series Home Theater Festival to Philadelphia next month, when events take over 31 salons and living rooms worldwide. A project to cultivate self-sufficiency among emerging artists, Home Theater Festival was created by Philip Huang in Berkeley.

Philadelphia's show features:

(check back for updates)
Joy Mariama Smith, performance installation
indee, speaking/moving truth to power in the name sake
The Logical Phalluses, jazz and progressive rock
Morgan Andrews, Philadelphia Theater of the Oppressed
Yours Truly, something never witnessed before

Substance-free, 18+
$4.99-7.99 cover
Donations accepted for vegan fudge
All takings go to performers
Comment with your Facebook URL or email me to RSVP and for West Philadelphia address

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The tickle is in me, not the feather

Trade Winds From China concert review

I just can't miss an NNM concert. This week it was like having to see the Phillies play (I think, I don't actually follow sports) in the sense of Pierre Boulez's aleatoric concert as a game without rules -- everyone vaguely familiar with the contemporary music scene has heard of Bright Sheng, but I couldn't even remember my opinion of his work when I walked into the pre-concert lecture. I knew I was taking a gamble, but a combination of intense personal events left me with those metaphorical cotton-stuffed ears I've resented in audiences prior. Worrisome at first, it has led me to contemplate Galileo's metaphysical observation that the tickle is in us and not in the feather that draws it out of us. I didn't have my usual tickle for new music worship Sunday night, and that anomaly is as much a blessing as a curse.

My feeling of denial solidified in the very first piece, Sheng's Three Fantasies for Violin and Piano; it just wasn't in me to suspend disbelief. That said, I was able to enjoy the trees: astonishingly clean, sharp pizzicato (I thought at first violinist Hirono Oka was using the mute for a plectrum), ornaments and sudden flashes of melody shaken from long sustains, a palette of harsh, stompy clusters in the piano, a fun vocabulary of double stops. I could hear Chinese and Western European tradition pitch and maybe ornamentation throughout the three movements, but what grabbed me were Oka's body language and facial expressions: forward, stony, even stiff, but arresting in the way she shifted weight bringing feet together and apart. Pianist Susan Nowicki was in tears at the bow and neither performer returned for second bows though the audience applauded heartily for the better part of a minute.

Shih-Hui Chen spoke with appreciable energy in a muted voice at the pre-concert lecture. She shared a movement from Mei-Hua for string quartet with high school players from the Philadelphia Sinfonia under Gary White's direction, a sensitive piece marked with broken narrative. Already before the concert I was hearing as through sweet mud or underwater. This sample was easier to listen to that her featured work, Our Names for narrator, percussion, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Context: I am attuned to words as a bird is to light. Our Names was a notated melodram, the players and narrator speaking lines from a poem lamenting the appropriation of Taiwanese names in precisely predetermined rhythm. In this hierarchy of sound interpretation it was difficult for me to hear the music, which I yearned to hear without the words. Moments that made an impression were "A flood of power" accompanied fittingly by too much energy in a flute entry and "The shadow of inferiority at the edge of society/ Has overflowed in our hearts" with layer on layer simultaneous, independent voices from all instruments.

While I complain regularly about the heartache of reviewing concerts involving performers I know personally, I had the perk of being introduced to composer Chou Wen-chung with whom I exchanged a few simple but satisfying remarks in Mandarin. Attentive and discerning at 88, Professor Chou had the air of a venerable elder when giving anecdotes in response to questions during the lecture. After the concert, he serenely challenged me to describe my response to his Ode to Eternal Pine. Context again: though he's been in America since before my parents were born, I recognized an Asian elder by softening my posture to make myself lower than he, a practice that feels even more awkward at a concert reception. It was a chamber piece interpreted from his 2008 work for traditional instruments. From spacious instrumental whispers, inexplicable explosions, a remorseful tone in a cello melody, cascading textures with sudden onset like laughter, a sinuous violin line, atonal abbreviated straying, ear-splitting piccolo and Eb clarinet screeches, and mallet/string stroke piano passages that kept Nowicki in constant, high-tension motion, all in a short, continuous five movements, I blurted some prattle about expansive openness and sounds of nature. He smiled and replied in Mandarin, "I think your hearing is accurate." I allowed myself some relief, but don't know how much he's letting on.

He went on to characterize that openness as a feature of Eastern writing and narrow focus as a Western norm. Never having studied any Eastern music theory in depth, I can approximate this projection on my Western training to develop ever elemental material. The programming, indeed of the Trade Winds series, obsesses over ways composers incorporate the two practices with some semblance of balance. I heard Ode to Pines as entirely original Western contemporary music. I think it was Crumb who, when questioned about whether his work was gamelan-influenced, claimed it's all in the Western ear now.

Since Feb. 11th I've been drawn for moments into preoccupation with the possibility of a new movement for democracy in China fueled by the rapid, apparent success of demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, bolstered by an overcautious but supportive international show of sentiment. Throughout the lecture by composers Chen and Chou, I itched to ask them to frame their work in a political context. "Will Taiwan unite with the mainland before China transitions to democracy? What role do leading emigrants have in reforming Asian nations' images in the West? Do non-Mandarin native speakers hear your music differently? Which of your pieces would you have performed in the Koreas' DMZ? in Tiananmen Square?" I was in too much an introverted mood to pose these questions that night, but they are as much on my mind today.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Meredith Monk

Until Sunday I'd never knowingly heard Meredith Monk. A dancer took me to her concert at Bryn Mawr, and let's say I had an experience.

My experiential practice has come a long way since I walked out of my first gamelan concert, Germanic sensibilities offended by the invitation to the audience to walk around the shadow puppet screen onstage while a leaf shape twitched on the screen. After some reflection and hearing from another composer, I understand there is strong ritual emphasis in Monk's work as well. I'm also retrospectively (no pun intended) interested in what her performance calls for from the audience, although the proscenium staging did set one up to sit and watch dumbly.

I had no idea her music would be minimalist in a most stereotyped style, combined with melodramatic, simple movement.* The presentation and movement, too, were more awkward and simpler I expected. The acoustic effect of the synthesized keyboard in persistent patterns can wear down one's consciousness -- another dancer acquaintance admitted she'd slept through part of the concert, too exhausted by the sound.

When I sensed the first, long piece was coming to a close, I became genuinely afraid I would not maintain control of my vocal muscles and first covered my mouth forcefully, then jammed the whole hand in hard enough to leave teethmarks. Only during intermission did I read that the first piece was adapted for the stage from an original site-specific piece. Still, the performances repeatedly provoked my disbelief that such a popular artist could give so little material, so awkwardly timed, so slowly. The style, including that of the Girlchild costume, evoked tribal and Japanese court traditions in a way that made me suspicious.

My metaphor for my experience was to witness the concoction of a powerful medicine, and then be made to take it even though it was certainly not for my illness.

So what do you think of Meredith Monk?

*It begged the question why Glass is better known, if not accepted, among Western classical tradition musicians than Monk. She's been no less academically recognized. The multidisciplinary focus? her popularity? that she's a she?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Non-profit in the arts

Last night I played a set among five by Leeway Foundation grantees. We were all young artists of color performing in classical, contemporary, hip-hop, punk, and jazz styles. I appreciated how warm toward and supportive of one another the performers were.

Among announcements and general rallying cries were cheers for non-profits. I feel odd expressing pride in non-profit as a brand, kind of like pride in studying formal music theory or pride in disinfectant. As a musician and queer, I have practices of which I am proud that require one or another functional necessities. I'm not ashamed of such necessities, but it would be an uncomfortable stretch to extend my pride to them.

Are there context-specific reasons for pride in non-profit status distinct from those in the benefit and virtue such agencies generate?

Again I emphasize I have no shame about the non-profit brand. Jeri Johnson of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra struggled heroically to make her group survive as a NP agency. There's even more room for businesses to become better for-benefit agents. The pay discrepancy between NP, government, and for-profit jobs is at once alarming for the talent drain, but encouraging as well. That passion and willingness to sacrifice comfort and lifestyle for service is prideworthy.

Monday, January 24, 2011


My favorite aspect of mass emails about my music journey is responses from old friends. After the most recent blast, a friend from high school (he was an adult then) replied in verse. I've excerpted my response.

What a great question! what is "modern" if styles and ideas are no newer than those of the past generation?

I picked up Huang's translation of the I Ching yesterday. Can you believe I don't know anything about it except what I read in His Dark Materials? I was moved by Huang's insistence that divination should not be used when reason, common sense, or moral principles give an answer. It seems obvious, but we commonly find it so hard to act on a choice that we'd rather give up the power to choose! If, however, we're willing to let something like the I Ching choose for us, that power to act is no less ours -- it always has been.

It's true that much of what today's avant garde does relates back to John Cage's avant garde's work of over 30 years ago, but I think he would agree that all these ideas and potentials have existed continuously. It's not to devalue innovation or change; rather, I have felt empowered in connecting to this continuity. How could an individual possibly be ready to compete with the innovation of historical predecessors, yet action necessarily begins in one? For now, I like to believe that by allowing myself to experience and to work instinctively, my actions originate also from the same potential that has ever coaxed beauty and change out of the cosmos.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On parenting: Chinese mothers

A friend recently directed me to this New York Times Saturday Essay by a Yale professor of law. In it, Amy Chua displays a dazzling armory in her brand of "Chinese" parenting to emphasize its superiority to "Western" parenting. In her list of a "Chinese mother's" mandatory requirements is playing the violin and piano. It's a fascinating topic not least because of the prevalence of Chinese youth in the classical music scene, and certain to draw criticism from Asian readers. Besides, one of my recent blog visitors found it by googling "Chinese parents grades."

She begins by creating a false dichotomy of Chinese versus Western mothers, including in the latter group ethnic Chinese immigrants who adopt "Western" parenting practices. The conclusion that my mother might not be Chinese enough is so problematic that it warrants dismantling beyond the scope of this post. I won't even get into the detail of why a solid hour (or three!) of instrument practice is counterproductive for adults and children. I want to explore success and happiness in the cultural context of 1.5- and 2nd-generation immigrant families.

Chua fails to consider community -- are the kids who surround her daughters Chinese, white, or mixed? Do they have peer support and understanding for that level of discipline? Her anecdote about calling a daughter "garbage" at a dinner party suggests not. How, then, can these children process this brand of verbal abuse in an age-appropriate way? Nor does the anecdote about learning the difficult piano piece prove Lulu's acceptance of Chua's coercive methods; abuse commonly strengthens codependency in relationships. I was deeply ostracized from grade school through middle school, in addition to being the only Asian, for rarely paying social visits or attending club activities. Social isolation can only hinder success in adulthood.

Chua's Chinese mother is incapable of hearing what her child is trying to say. I was a stubborn kid and learned the way to get my way was by manipulating, lying, and equivocating according to my mother's professed values. I was "the kid who tried that one." After encountering only disgust and fear in response to topics relating to the body, I learned to silence my body's changes and needs. After being explicitly forbidden to date, I kept my activities a secret. Clinging to rules and ideals, I stayed with an abusive boyfriend with the intention to marry this one-and-only. To this day, my family knows nothing about my love life or partners. Chua won't be so self-congratulatory about her unidirectional parenting if one or more of her daughters comes out as queer or trans. Despite recognizing my fierce confidence and tireless work ethic, my mother regrets that I'm not headed toward a full-time job with a normal marriage and lots of letters after my name.

The most grievous time in my mother's life may have been when I cut off all communication for three years after college. It was my trial by fire for all the "future" for which my parents couldn't prepare me with their input-only practice. I desperately sought community but feared and felt alienated from my own heritage. It wasn't until I built a strong individual identity that I could reach for understanding of my parents and culture of origin.

In a rapidly transforming society, and especially for immigrant families, it's not enough simply to replicate your parents' practice. I don't suggest throwing away everything you remember and copying your white neighbors' practices wholesale. Parenting is a highly individualized process.

I've now forgiven the strained, one-dimensional parenting that was Mom and Dad's way to show love so I could again be a part of my family of origin. The rewards have exceeded my expectations. We even had our first conversation in which they expressed genuine interest and analysis in a significant topic in my life!

[EDIT 1/21] In a conversation off-blog, a teacher noticed Chua "doesn't quite read emotions and tones well..." My response:
Your observation is germane to my personal experience -- my parents are especially bad at reading people, a state that I realized only after years of being better socialized as an adult. For example, it is a piece of cake to lie to them because they can't recognize signs of guilt. I'm still relatively poor at social cues, but the realization was key to adopting methods of compensation. Perhaps too many artists indulge ourselves in this. A pianist correspondent finds ill sentiment in art music circles toward financially successful composers, perhaps for their ability to navigate contracts more easily.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Upcoming events with gamelan-related works

The Leeway Foundation is presenting a Balinese gamelan gender wayang duet followed by a playback of my piece for solo piano, Saih Lima (2005) at the Rotunda next month. Check out details and the other artists. I will be playing traditional music with Abram Lipman. Free and open to the public.

My Leeway-funded workshop on different Asian voices and perspectives in America will be March 26 at Asian Arts Initiative. Space is limited, so please RSVP here and invite others via the Facebook page. Please send questions and concerns to

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New Year's Present

(Sylvester for my European readers)

My response in verse after attending an excellent performance of Varese's Ameriques at UC Berkeley a couple years ago.

Some devastating sadness today.

So sad
   terrible to name
   such sweeping vengeance
    at the silent audience after Varese
    I wanted to drill thru their cotton-compacted ears to let the music in - though to hear not
is I suppose
    punishment enough