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Posts tagged 'Wang Lu'

Catching Up with Wang Lu

PSNY continues to catch up with our composers to explore the different pathways taken through the ever-changing new reality of music-making in the late stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked with Wang Lu about new kinds of physical performances, new media, and the new compositional landscape in which she continues to work. 

Listening to Social (and Musical) Distance with Wang Lu

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to make live concerts with large audiences impossible, musicians and composers are faced with a unique opportunity to think carefully about the sociality of composition, performance, and listening: since sound can travel through physical space (and digital space), what can music mean, or do, in a time of social distance?

Wang Lu is a composer whose work has explored ideas of the distances of time, memory, and place—often evoking, recreating, altering, manifesting places and times from her own distant memories. The titular work on her recently-released album, An Atlas of Time, maps and remembers sound and space from her own past: the opening melody of a children’s television broadcast is reincarnated in the strangeness of the present; fragments of the ambitiously trans-historical "Internationale" struggle among instruments responding to its insistent reemergence. In this sense, Wang’s pre-COVID music was already exploring ideas of “social distance”: a kind of musical sociality between people that connects them through time and space. 

During the COVID era, Wang has had the opportunity to stage this kind of “distant musical sociality” through a residency as a Vanguard Young Composer in Residence at Chicago Opera Theater: a paradoxical residency that is at once physically present yet also largely virtual. The experience of working with music and theater is new to Wang, who says that it has changed the way she thinks about her role as the composer: not only is she working with performers and conductors, but now also a director and a dramaturg, all of whom increase the complexity of composing in musical time. Wang reflects: “Now I have to think about dramatic action, movement, breathing, how much time and space a person needs to express themselves… and to translate that into Sibelius, with its insistent metronome—it’s hard to translate time!”  

One example of how Wang is navigating this new dynamic is a series of four art songs she has composed for the singers of the Chicago Opera Theater—who, she reports, have been living in a “pod” and quarantining before rehearsals in order to continue their craft. In “The Everlasting Voices”, sung by bass-baritone Keanon Kyles, Wang translates the senses of time, distance, and memory she has developed in her works for chamber ensembles into a composition for a single voice—from extremely dense polyphony to the simple, modal writing of an a capella voce.  

Wang also brought this sense of a personal unfolding of time to her new work Like Clockwork, which was commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Modern Orchestra—entirely remotely. For this work, written with Beethoven’s 250th birthyear in mind, Wang created a score that includes guided improvisation, asking five performers to record themselves at home, listening to recordings of each other as they improvise, remembering what role Beethoven’s music played in their own musical development. “Some repertoire might be right on your fingertips, memories in your hands from training… each gesture moves through the next like a clock—it’s what retains a sense of time, clock and calendar.” In Like Clockwork, Wang meditates on her own memories: “like walking through an old conservatory building in china, where all of the practice rooms leak sound”, creating a spatial memory. 

In June 2021, Wang is scheduled to premiere a new work for The Crossing: a socially-distanced, outdoor performance for 24 singers, each equipped with their own personal microphone and speaker, allowing them to stand in a 170-foot-diameter circle. A concentric circle inside will contain loudspeakers, and inside that circle, pods of audience members will listen in the round. Wang says that this work, which will set poems from Forrest Gander’s 2018 Be With, will continue to explore topics of distance, connection, and mourning. “Intricate rhythm of response isn’t possible with physical distance. But like ‘mountain songs’ sung by distant lovers across valleys, with communication across physical distance, it makes private relationships become uniquely public.” 


The Music of Wang Lu

The music of Wang Lu (b. 1982) incorporates delicate instrumental textures, field recordings, live electronics, and a wide instrumentation to evoke and enchant scenes of contemporary life on a global scale. Born in Xi’an, China, Wang studied at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and at Columbia University in the City of New York, before joining the composition faculty at Brown University; she was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2014, and will spend 2019 in Berlin as a recipient of the Berlin Prize. Her music evokes, documents, and transforms all at the same time: it sounds the echoes of possible future soundscapes in real time. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in her 2015 work Urban Inventory, which seamlessly weaves together the sounds of the urban environment, explorations of linguistic intonation, and traditions of free improvisation into a complex fabric of extended techniques and textures. As Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker, “every moment is vividly etched, drenched in instrumental color [...] the flow of events is so rapid and so variegated that nothing settles into the groove of the familiar.” 

Wang describes this piece as "a way for me to try to redefine and expand a specific period in recent history, as well as convey popular public spaces bustling with activity—which are both dear to my heart." Wang included field recordings of a public park she visited every day in her youth; clips from The Red Detachment of Women, a 1964 propaganda ballet; and the voice of 1990s pop icon Yang Yuying (杨钰莹), putting the listener inside the firing synapses of a composer whose ears are always open to possibilities.

In her 2016 work Cloud Intimacy for ensemble and electronics, Wang moves from urban soundscapes to virtual soundscapes, exploring the sounds of tweets, swipes, and skeuomorphic camera shutters to imagine sound of “cloud intimacy” in the age of Tinder. The listener is inserted into the aural flow of Wang’s imaginative and unpredictable compositional consciousness, creating new sonic and affective connections between increasingly everyday sounds. The delicacy of Wang’s writing for acoustic instruments is matched by her mastery of electronic processing: sound is presented in a seamless, transformative fabric of many colors.

Patrick Castillo chose the premiere of Wang's Cloud Intimacy at the Mostly Mozart festival as one of his "top new-music moments of 2016" for WQXR. Castillo writes, "Wang’s music provides poetic and deeply personal commentary on the whole of modern civilization, meditating with equal gravitas on Tiananmen Square and Tinder. The results are in turns cheeky and devastating, and the sheer sound of it is utterly her own."

Wang's new album, "Urban Inventory," which contains recordings of that work as well as Cloud Intimacy is available from New Focus Records and may be purchased from Spotify or Bandcamp

Not all of Wang's music points outward: it can also reference the inner struggle that we must all face with a world accelerating into the anthropocene. In 2017, Wang composed Unbreathable Colors, a work for solo violin, commissioned by and dedicated to the celebrated violinist and violist Miranda Cuckson. Unbreathable Colors takes its name from the daily air quality report that represents the beige-and-gray smog of air pollution in a rainbow of color. When she composed the piece, "it had been purple for days, which means it has exceeded the [health] index." Though the pollution Wang describes is most often prevalent in Chinese cities, it is also a global problem, and Unbreathable Colors is a meditation on the inescapability of struggle, whether the skies, or their representations, are gray or purple or blue. 

Since its premiere at Brooklyn's National Sawdust in April 2017, it has been performed by the Niew Ensemble in Amsterdam, as well as Nunc's 2018 residency at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music in Houston. Check out an excerpt from Cuckson's performance below.

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