5 Questions to Wang Jie (composer)

Award-winning composer Wang Jie grew up in Shanghai in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. A gifted pianist, she studied piano for 15 years with Yang Liqing, then the head of the composition department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In the early 1980s, when Wang Jie was still a young child, her father studied at the Conservatory and became a music director, conductor, and composer, which were exceedingly rare occupations in early-1980s China.

In 2000, Wang Jie was awarded a scholarship to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music. In the years since, she has written numerous operatic and vocal works, as well as orchestral pieces. She continues to live in New York with a delightfully fluffy white Sealyham Terrier called Pilot, and she is a mentor at the Curtis Institute and CUNY. On August 4, the Colorado Music Festival will premiere her new work, Flying On the Scaly Back of Our Mountains, a commission for orchestra inspired by Su Dongpo’s Song dynasty era poetry about Mount Lu, in Central China.

Your Colorado Music Festival commission was originally scheduled for May 2020. What were the early stages of the pandemic like for you, and how did the postponement change the piece that you’ve written for the Festival?

The work of a composer often means that for hours a day I write alone in my studio. For reasons beyond my control, the act of composing connects me to a world yet to be named, vibrant communities of musicians and their faces, composers and their voices. Like a motion picture flickering away in my mind. I had never felt alone in my writing. That is, until the pandemic started.

All of a sudden, concerts were canceled, musicians were not performing. The world became about the pandemic. I lost sight of the musicians’ faces. It was no longer true to imagine my music being the reason that connects people. As scared as I was, the worst was that I felt my body vibrating in dissonance — the body that is my instrument for feeling in tones and the host for my power to transform these feelings into music composition. My instrument was out of tune. The postponement gave me more time to take in reality. More importantly, I got to learn the new tuning of my instrument so that it vibrates in sync with the sudden changes in the world.

I have no doubt that the pandemic has changed me in profound ways. I could have changed the original idea of the piece to reflect our pandemic times, but I didn’t need to — the mountains have seen it all. They bore witness to the many pandemics of isolation, the rising and falling of civilizations, ancient and recent. Flying On the Scaly Back of Our Mountains bears witness to my longing to connect with these monumental spirits that endured.

Wang Jie--Photo by Kevin Hsu

Wang Jie–Photo by Kevin Hsu

How do you think about your future audience when you’re working on a new piece?

I hold audiences in my mind at all times: audiences past, present and future. It’s just the way my brain is wired — I think in 3D motion picture with voices; in my earlier movies, I saw audiences as me versus them. The voices that guided me said, “We are different people. Here’s how we are different.”

For example, since immigrating to the U.S., some of my earlier works showcased musical flavors from China, or what was taught to be “Chinese.” I didn’t question it until I started to feel the divisive effect of this approach. I was losing audiences, particularly the ones who cared about me as a human being. In retrospect, I could only express differences because I felt like an outsider. I had yet to discover how we were the same, and our shared value does not take away from how we are different.

Once I felt my audiences’ capacity to hear the music beyond the notes, I, too, began to hear music beyond the notes. When I was ready to know the people behind their facade, I trusted that my audiences were also ready to know the me beyond the color of my face, and that I’m a woman. I’d like to think that, with each piece I create, I’m getting better at shifting out of my comfort zone, into a space that is me with them. It’s the difference in me being a Chinese woman and me being human.

How do extramusical elements like the poetry of Su Dongpo influence your music, and do you find ways to translate the material into music or compose with a more abstract response?

Most classical poems I learned to recite as part of my schooling were forgotten. Su Dongpo was born in 1037 A.D. in a mountainous region in Western China. That was a long time ago and very far away for a Shanghai school girl in the 1980s. Classical Chinese was a product from a culture so foreign to me that learning English felt easier. But, somehow, this poem by Su Dongpo stayed alive in my consciousness for over 30 years, and it continues to resonate with me. The poem seems to be about mountains, but Su was an extraordinary artist. Reading the mountains in his poem is about seeing the landscapes of our minds. As I see it, what makes us humans needs no translation.

Fluency in English opened doors for me. But becoming fluent in multiple languages is not the same as fluency in multiple cultures, especially music cultures. It was through a process akin to counterpoint, through integrating otherwise autonomous cultures, that I got to create a new culture that accomplishes something neither culture would be able to do alone. Figuring out the connecting points that ensured my music’s integrity was my lifeline.

Wang Jie--Photo by Kevin Hsu

Wang Jie–Photo by Kevin Hsu

As soon as I ventured outside the realm of languages, what came into view was ideas that resist translation, those vibrations some call “feelings,” and those memorable moments that make us human. Mere words and translations did not satisfy me. What I needed was to first explore my culture of origin from the inside out. I then dared to fly far away, in order to re-explore that culture from the outside in. The experience of alternating these viewpoints eventually afforded me the possibility of serious inquiries into a kind of collaboration that transcends the differences in language and culture. This privileged view, made available in such transparency, is what this poem by Su Dongpo accomplished. I hope I can accomplish that, too, but with music.

Your father was a musician and composer – do you have sheet music or recordings of his music? How did your parents influence your choices around pursuing music?

I only have mental recordings of my late father’s compositions. He did not consider his music worthy. Think J.S. Bach, producing a new cantata every week, but then recycling his manuscript papers for other purposes, with the new cantata on it! My father was churning out choral works that were essentially propaganda music. Many titles had words such as “in the style of Shanxi folk song…” As a government-employed music director, that was his job. He became an influential figure. For a while, it meant something to be his daughter. But somehow, he wanted a different musical path for me. At age four, he introduced me to his musical heroes by having me copy sheet music: Bach, Debussy, Puccini, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, any the work of other composers, except his own. My evenings were “sacred time with pure music,” as he used to call it.

My father’s story didn’t end well. His numerous works that once served popular societal functions were all deemed disposable along with his career. He never recovered from the humiliation of his musical demise. His life was a cautionary tale for me.

I seemed to have stumbled into a boundless kingdom of art that required me to unlearn everything that got me here. I went back to re-introducing myself to the rudimentary things that makes music music, and makes humans human.”

You made the decision to stay in the United States after your studies – how has living here influenced the way you think about identity in general and your own personal identity?

There is no “I” in my music. The best thing that ever happened to me was when I found myself in a creative drought, having published piece after piece of the so-called self-expression. I used to make it all about me and what I presumed to be my identity. But I also couldn’t stand the feeling of disconnection when people showed up to listen to my music and they didn’t want to hear it again. In contrast, my composer heroes, for reasons I didn’t care to understand until recently, wrote music that I listen to again and again, and each time, I heard something new. How is it that Mozart knew everything about me, back when I was a Shanghai schoolgirl, and now a freelance composer just like him?

I seemed to have stumbled into a boundless kingdom of art that required me to unlearn everything that got me here. I went back to re-introducing myself to the rudimentary things that makes music music, and makes humans human. And I discovered they happen to share the same principle: vibrations. The fun begins when shared vibrations transform into organized tones in the hands of a composer. I have the most privileged power of touching the bodies of my audiences with my music. Every cell in their body vibrates in a way I designed it to vibrate. It’s about what my music activates in their bodies. When I realized what is actually involved in the experience of listening, when I woke up to recognize the sacredness of this task, I realized I could never look back.

What keeps me going is the hope that I get to transport my audiences to a world of awe, where beauty is just around the corner. It’s a preferable world that demands return. My pedigree and my craft can seem powerful, but the real power is the composer’s ability to intuit what is imaginable for the audiences. That’s what gives the feeling of “relatedness.” This is not magic; these are the necessary conditions for imagination: The composer shifts the one-person perspective to be able to hold a million other perspectives. When I create music, I can shape-shift to become anything: soot in free fall, an air-purifier at a coffee shop, an angry sea cucumber, or, when I need to be, the maker and destroyer of entire worlds past and present.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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