5 Questions to Vivian Fung (composer)

Vivian Fung has attained the kind of success that is the result of a strong, not easily confined musical personality, redoubtable skill and technique, and a gift for building relationships with performers. In barely two decades, she has produced numerous works for various forces: orchestral, concerti, chamber including four string quartets, choral, vocal and solo. There is an ever-present immediacy to her music, a sense of forward motion and often a visual narrative. Her first violin concerto won the JUNO Award for Classical Composition of the Year in 2013. Her music has been released on several labels, most recently on Cedille as part of the Notorious RBG in Song album. NPR called her “one of today’s most eclectic composers.”

Another factor of her staying power as a composer is undoubtedly her cultural inquisitiveness. She has travelled to Bali, Cambodia and Yunnan province in China to explore her roots, as well as to research musical traditions which frequently inspire her own compositions; not as exotic material but as part of a genuine expression of her own multicultural identity. Her Yunnan Folk Songs is one such example.

Fung had several premieres in 2019 including her Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, and A Child Dreams of Toys at the Winnipeg New Music Festival, and the UK premiere of Birdsong by violinist Midori. 2020 will see the world premiere of her trumpet concerto with trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden and the Erie Philharmonic. Born in Edmonton, Canada, Fung initially studied with Violet Archer and later earned her doctorate at Juilliard. She currently serves on the faculty at Santa Clara University, and is highly engaged with mentoring, founding a workshop for members of the San José Youth Chamber Orchestra.

Listening to your work, I’m struck that each subsequent piece is a fresh encounter with worldbuilding, to borrow a term from the writing world, though in a nonfictional sense. Can you talk about your decision making process when starting a new piece in terms of determining compositional techniques?

Each piece and project is different and is shaped by who I am writing for and for what forces and occasion. I consider myself a humanist, giving voice to emotions and sentiments that cannot be expressed in words. I react to the environment around the piece, and that will determine what “techniques” I use. The process evolves organically, but each project takes on a world of its own, so much so that when I am deeply involved in the creative process, the experience is almost spiritual.  In the most intense moments, I feel as though I am a conduit from a higher being, as if someone else were writing the music and I am simply a channel to receive the mysterious blessings.

Vivian Fung--Photo by Charles Boudreau

Vivian Fung–Photo by Charles Boudreau

What commission(s) are you working on at the moment?

I am completing a trumpet concerto for trumpet player extraordinaire Mary Bowden. It is commissioned by a consortium of orchestras including Erie Philharmonic, Anchorage Symphony, Waynesboro Symphony, Santa Fe Symphony, San José Chamber Orchestra, San Diego State University, Chicago Youth Orchestra, and Shenandoah Conservatory. The premiere will be in March 2020 in Erie, Pennsylvania. By all accounts, it will be the first trumpet concerto by a female composer for a female soloist ever to be premiered in North America.

I am also working on a work for Standing Wave ensemble (Pierrot ensemble with percussion) to be premiered in May 2020 in Vancouver.

In your 2013 article, “Embracing My Banana-ness: One Composer’s Journey Towards Finding Her Identity,” you wrote that “(b)eing a composer has helped me accept the fact that I do not have to feel like I belong to any single cultural circle, but it was not always that way.” Can you reflect on how that sense of balance and representation of your cultural sides has developed?

I think the most important lesson that I have gathered through the years is to trust my instincts, but it has taken me years to learn to build that trust with myself. The creative process is a mind game, and oftentimes I go through phases of crippling self-doubt and self-censorship. Through the years, though, I have learned to trust that little voice that is inside me, and I am learning to listen more earnestly to it. This rings true with my identity as well—I am wary of the idea of rigid boundaries when it comes to race and identity. One can be influenced by a variety of different cultural experiences, and I think it is important to do so. That is why I believe traveling to different countries is so meaningful and important.

Your recent essay “Motherhood and the Creative Process (According to Five Canadian Composers)” is a timely exploration of your own experiences. What do you think needs to happen in the classical music world to better support mothers who are composers?

When I was a student, I never could really talk about the idea of juggling family with work. I felt like that was a taboo subject in my circle. I was not aware of any mentors in the field with whom I could connect, and it was hard to sort through the advice I was getting. So I believe that we need strong mentors to support the next generation to remove some of the uncertainties about juggling both family and career. We also need to have an open discussion about these topics in the field.

I talk to other musicians who are parents, and I think time management, childcare, and overall help with everyday tasks are things that we all grapple with, regardless of gender. So, for instance, if there is an artist residency, something that we need to address is childcare during that residency—who will take care of him while I am gone?  Can I bring him along?  Can my husband join?

As far as the concert experience, concerts are often at night, which means that I cannot bring my son to the event as the concert will coincide with his bedtime. The exception is an afternoon concert—the recent US premiere of The Ice Is Talking with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players took place at an afternoon concert, which meant that I could bring my son to attend the event. I was so happy that I could share that experience with him, and I was thrilled that another composer-friend also brought his own toddler to the concert!

What fuels your passion about being a mentor?

As mentioned above, I wish I had someone to talk to when I was student about life, including about composing and having a family. In fact, I delayed, postponed, and agonized over becoming a mother until the figurative last possible minute, because for a long time I felt that I could not do both. Now that I am no longer considered a “young” composer, I feel a responsibility to help the next generation, if anything, to have someone to talk to and perhaps help them through life decisions and the creative process.

I am also fueled by seeing the world through the eyes of my son—he is now 4-years-old, and everything is filled with wonder and excitement. I want to make the world a better place for him and for the next generation.