Dai Wei Finds Freedom in Expression in Unconventional Career, with New Orchestral Commission

This sponsored article is part of a paid partnership with the Curtis Institute of Music.

Dai Wei was a timid child with a giant tape recorder in her room. At age 11, she started recording herself singing and strumming guitar onto a blank cassette, the tape recorder as her personal diary. When her mother discovered the secret tape, Dai Wei felt that she had done something wrong. Fortunately, her mother was supportive and encouraged her to keep pursuing music.

Four years later, Dai Wei asked her parents’ permission to audition for a popular televised talent show in China, but they said she was too young and needed to focus on school. She asked three years in a row before her parents finally relented. Dai Wei made it onto the show, sang in front of a national audience on TV for the first time, and won a four-year singer-songwriter contract.

She fulfilled the contract during her undergraduate years at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music, where she studied music composition by day and wrote Mandopop demos for the A&R people by night. She describes this as a “precious” experience that paved the path for who she is today. Among other things, it taught her how to communicate with an audience through music.

As college drew to an end, Dai Wei realized that her composing toolbox was running “low on fuel.” She had mastered the four-minute pop song but knew that there were many topics (like death and earthquakes) that she didn’t have the skills to express through music yet. She felt boxed in by the mainstream pop formula and was tired of producing songs with the same structure over and over again. “You have to attract your listener within 15 seconds or you lose your market,” she told me via video call. “In a four-minute song, there’s only 50 seconds of useful content, and the rest is repetition.”

Dai Wei wanted to expand her skills by studying composition abroad. First, she went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for an MM. After a two-year hiatus back in China to help care for her ailing mother, she returned to the U.S., where she earned an Artist Diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in music composition at Princeton University.

The piece I like best is the next piece, even though it hasn’t been created yet.

Now that her composing toolbox has grown, Dai Wei feels free to approach structure not as a finite form to squish every piece into but as a frame that can be molded to support different purposes and messages. Instead of crafting 15-second hooks, she ponders, “What will be left in the listener’s heart or in my own heart after the listening journey of this piece?” It might be a catchy melody, a chord, an experience, or something personal that resonates with listeners.

Dai Wei’s music is born from a wellspring of influences and interests — Eastern and Western music, folk, classical, pop songwriting, experimental vocals, electronics — and the list is ever-growing. “I like to consider myself as a white paper that you can keep writing new things on,” she told me.

Her list of works reflects an experimental blend of tastes, including compositions for common instrumental configurations (such as solo harp, cello/piano, and string quartet) and pieces involving electronics and voice. A skilled vocal performer, Dai Wei often writes parts for herself to sing; a recent work, Partial Men, includes playback of her dreamy pre-recorded layered vocals soaring beside a live string quartet and her own live throat singing.

At Curtis, Dai Wei received her first opportunity to write for orchestra and have a fully rehearsed premiere. “It’s one of the best gifts I can imagine as a composer, to have your own orchestral piece played in front of you,” Dai Wei told me. Her first attempt taught her a lot about orchestration and balance, but not without her “monkey brain” trying to take over first. She wrestled with thoughts like Why did they accept me? I don’t know how to write for orchestra! I didn’t grow up listening to classical music!, but with only nine days to write, she had to stop overthinking and pour all of her energy into it.

She looks back on her first orchestral piece with amusement, noting its optimism but lack of a clear “Dai Wei” sound. “It’s so easy to lose your own personality when writing an orchestra piece,” she told me. She calls the orchestra a “giant monster” with a plethora of possibilities that require the composer to “think differently” than they would writing chamber music. Dai Wei has improved considerably since that first orchestra piece, but she keeps her gaze toward the future. “The piece I like best is the next piece, even though it hasn’t been created yet.”

With support from Allen R. and Judy Brick Freedman, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra recently commissioned a new orchestral work from Dai Wei for their first-ever West Coast tour (coming up May 12-22). Dai Wei’s idea for Awakening Lion began with the simple realization that she had never represented her Cantonese identity in music before. With that as her starting point, she approached the composition “like a chef,” grabbing different ingredients — short sounds, ideas, and motives — to support the concept of a Cantonese Lion Dance. One of the ingredients in the piece is having two cellists evoke a guqin by plucking their strings with a guitar pick. Another is having the orchestra imitate martial arts calls by shouting “oooooooo a-HA!” “I aimed to provoke the spirit of the awakening lion,” Dai Wei said, “the inner strength which presents in everyone, regardless of where we come from, who we love, or our gender.”

Dai Wei -- Photo by Sha Tao

Dai Wei — Photo by Sha Tao

Dai Wei’s own vocals are not featured in Awakening Lion; her focus for 2023 is to remove herself as a performer in her compositions and instead concentrate on honing her instrumental writing. She feels that it will challenge her to inject more personality into the instrumental parts themselves instead of relying on the natural personality that comes with a solo voice. “When I am not there, how can I make the ‘Wei’ sound?”

On the flip side, she is carving out a separate world for herself where she writes solely for her own voice. She is in the process of creating a one-person a cappella album that she hopes to release by the end of the year. “Only good music,” she clarified during our conversation; “the quality must satisfy me first.” This project is especially meaningful to Dai Wei, as she feels that she is coming full circle. “I finally have the toolbox to write a piece that I really want to do, and I’m also going back to a moment when I was little, just working by myself with the tape recorder.”


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