ListN Up: Du Yun (September 18, 2020)

ListN Up is a series of weekly artist-curated playlists. Born from a desire to keep artists sharing and connected during times of isolation, ListN Up offers an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, and currently based in New York City, Du Yun works at the intersection of opera, orchestral, theatre, cabaret, musical, oral tradition, public performances, electronics, visual arts, and noise. Her body of work is championed by some of today’s finest performing groups and organizations around the world. Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize; in 2018 she was named a Guggenheim Fellow and one of 38 Great Immigrants by the Carnegie Foundation; in 2019 she was nominated for a Grammy Award and named “Artist of the Year” by the Beijing Music Festival. Sweet Land—Du Yun’s most recent opera venture, co-composed with Raven Chacon and produced by The Industry—disrupts the dominant narrative of American identity through grotesque historical pageantry. Du Yun is a Professor of Composition at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. A community champion, Du Yun founded FutureTradition, an ongoing initiative through which she works with folk musicians from around the world in order to champion cross-regional collaborations.

I learned about suffrage in the U.S. quite late in my life. When I studied the U.S. Constitution for my American citizen test only a few years back, I was struck by the pure poeticsm in its words. To me, it unfolds a truth, it tells an inspiration, a heightened ideal that had encouraged many people who yearn for changes and transformations. In my own lifetime, I have witnessed many people who have died, and are still dying, for the rights to vote.

The year was/is 2020, the year of the existential crisis. Many of us have been brewing doubts about where we belong. Culture becomes a privilege, a mirror of values, a nexus of self and socio-economic realization. In this time of rampant nationalism and “cancel culture,” current social structures highlight the divides between us all; a global pandemic, to many of us, only heightened these walls. Today, I’m choosing these artists who inspired me to rethink our gateways, our entry points to the world.

If all our multiplicities are our bloodline, could we then all thrive? As we get stuck in between, the stasis afloat, our planet hung.

Immigrant Warrior by Sunny Jain

Sunny Jain was born in Rochester, NY to Rajasthani parents. Sunny’s ancestors migrated from a small village in Rajasthan to Punjab, after invasions in the twelfth century, There, they adopted Punjabi culture while keeping their Jain religion. The 1947 India-Pakistan partition resulted in a mass migration displacing around 14 million people of Punjab and dividing the state in two (one in India, the other in Pakistan). His parents eventually immigrated to the U.S., and Sunny learned the instrument Dhol in his upbringing.

Being a Punjabi Jain has complex layers. Sunny’s other band Red Baraat is often marketed by presenters as “New Orleans marching band meets Bollywood.” Hmm…  To really get into his background, we should read his article, “The Tradition of Now: At the Intersection of Jainism, Jazz, and the Punjabi Dhol Drum” on the Smithsonian’s site.

Spiral XIV “Nimitta” by Chinary Ung, performed by Brian Walsh, Nicholas Terry, Justin DeHart, and Shannon Wettstein

Even though we have never met in person, the Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung is one of my role models. Chinary came to New York from Cambodia in 1964 to study the clarinet and later composition at Columbia University. He was able to remain in the U.S. as the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Approximately two million Cambodians perished under the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge, including a majority of Chinary’s family.

For more than 40 years, he has worked on his initiative, Nirmita Composers Institute. Chinary bridged contemporary music practice to the local musicians, practitioners, and composers in Cambodia, the Mekong region (a trans-boundary river in East Asia and Southeast Asia), and beyond. His work towards establishing a new way of looking into traditions is beyond impactful in the Southeast Asian region. In this work, released this year, the instrumentalists again embody the roles of the vocalists.

Overheard Song by Raven Chacon

I have such an immense respect for Raven Chacon, not only as an artist but also because of how inspiring he is for many younger generations. Raven is an artist who is hard to categorize, and this is what excites me about him. He works and travels in many disciplines, but every summer, we find him back to teaching 20 high school students from reservations how to write string quartets for the Native American Composer Apprenticeship Project (NACAP).

Amlochley by Tyondai Braxton

Tyondai’s album HIVE1 blows my mind. The live performance of HIVE at the Kitchen back in 2015 blew my mind even more. Double blown!

Order to Survive by Sainkho Namtchylak

This track has been giving me joys. Tuvan experimental singer Sainkho, perhaps also with Diamanda Gallas, taught me not to be afraid of vocal ranges and expressions. What is a soprano, you say?

Portraits by Gabriel Dharmoo/Bijuriya

Watching Gabriel Dharmoo’s transformation from his composer-vocalist artist-self into the fictional character Daçji is an incredible experience. The final character in Gabriel Dharmoo/Bijuriya’s “Portraits,” Daçji is bold, bewitching, and fleeting, reflecting the unpredictability of life. I knew Gabriel as a composer from Montreal many years ago, and throughout the years his music and expression remain just as poignant and more vibrant than ever.

天高云淡 “Sky High Pale Cloud” by Feng Mantian

Please listen to this Ruan instrument. Feng Mantian single-handedly transformed this ancient instrument Ruan into something sounding a bit like Zheng, a bit like Pipa, a bit like Qin, combining many of the guitar techniques as well. The result is Feng Mantian’s Ruan.

Koto by Liza Lim, performed by ELISION Ensemble

Liza Lim is an Australian composer who focuses many of her works and initiatives on transcultural practices, including researching disappearing dialects and languages. Liza and I recently talked about the importance of finding ways to mediate collaborations within and between communities, namely indigenous ones. Of the piece, she says, “As a composer, the meta-language of a musical culture is what always attracts my ear. The Koto used here is a voice more than the instrument itself.”

Šu Sheng Concerto by Unsuk Chin, performed by Wu Wei and the Bamberg Symphony

Unsuk Chin’s Sheng Concerto is one of the most substantial concerti written in recent years. I would also love for our listeners to explore Wu Wei on the Sheng. The Sheng is one of the oldest Chinese instruments with cave images depicting its shape that date back to 1100 BCE. Korea’s Saenghwang, Japan’s Shō, Vietnam’s Khèn Mông, Lao’s Khene, Hmong (Miao)’s Lusheng all share some intricate migration routes with the Sheng. More than often, works of instruments exhibit more histories to us than our own historical narratives.

Epilogue by Du Yun, performed by JACK Quartet

Wuhan is one of the oldest cities in China: as a settlement, it has been around for more than 3,500 years. “Wu” refers to the city of Wuchang, which lies on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, while “Han” refers to the city of Hankou, which lies on the northern bank of the Yangtze. The peach blossom is the city’s official flower.

Epilogue includes a field recording from my friend Yang Nan, a journalist for the Southern Weekly who was stationed in Wuhan for four months this year. Recorded in the market, the audio was taken the very first day Wuhan opened its city lockdown and includes the calling of selected lottery numbers for the street vendors for them to be able to sell again.


UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.

We are thankful for our promotional partnership with the New York Philharmonic, whose Project 19 is the largest women-only commissioning project in history and was born of the conviction that an orchestra can participate in conversations about social imperatives and even change the status quo.

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is a program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. Editorial decisions are made at the sole discretion of the editor-in-chief. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.