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Composer Focus: Du Yun

Updated: May 1, 2019

This month our Composer in Residence Līva Blūma writes about Du Yun (1977), a Chinese born composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist based in New York City. For more on Du Yun and her work visit her website or listen to her music on our April playlist on Patreon.

Growing up in a family of factory workers in Shanghai, Du Yun, like many other prolific Chinese musicians, started her music education early, taking up piano lessons at the age of 4. She did not, however, become a concert pianist, but instead pursued music composition. As a mature professional, Du Yun has explored the vast territory of sound design, performance art, noise and sound installations, forging provocative soundworlds that have become her signature.

She began her studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, after which she went on to study in the USA, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She received her PhD from Harvard University, studying with Bernard Rands and Mario Davidovsky.

Du Yun has been a faculty member at the State University Of New York, Purchase and in 2017, joined the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, the oldest conservatory in the United States.

Du Yun’s music is an exotic mixture of the most varied genres such as opera, indie pop, punk, theatre, oral tradition, sound installations. Her body of work includes compositions for solo instruments, electroacoustic music, chamber music and orchestral works. Her music has been performed globally and she has received several prizes and fellowships including the Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2019 Grammy nomination in the category of Best Classical Contemporary Composition for her work ‘Air Glow’.

Her musical influences are no less varied than the genres in which she writes. In an interview with MusicalAmerica.com in 2011, she described her influences as ranging from “Elliot Carter to Kurt Weill, from Bjork to Xenakis”. Such eclecticism, further enriched by oral folklore tradition and electronic pop, foster fundamental aural instability for even regular listeners of Du Yun’s music. Her album ‘Shark In You’ (2011) consisting of her compositions for trumpet, percussion, electronics and her own Bjork-like vocals, is a perfect example of her successful deconstruction of genre-boundary. Stay shuttles the listener back and forth from sonic worlds of triphop, indie-pop and slow rock.

Her most recent album ‘Dinosaur Scar’ explores utterly new territory and shows her versatility in terms of the instrumentation and stylistics employed. Vicissitudes alone for steel string guitar and electronics create a sound scape reminiscent of both sultry flamenco music as well as Chinese traditional music. On the other hand, Air Glow for five trumpets, laptops and electric guitar, aims for a different aural outcome; it functions like a kaleidoscope of different musical moods – offering sounds sometimes lyrical and eerie, sometimes vivid and lively. The percussive quality of the electric guitar brings to mind progressive rock, a probable influence.

Most contemporary composers would describe their creative process as unique to their own particular sense of direction… But one could find it helpful and not unforgivably crude to divide composers into two groups: the first group includes those who spend extensive amounts of time in the pre-compositional phase, sagely pondering the plethora of compositional tools at their disposal. For the second group, the composition process is primarily intuitive. Writing music for this second set is a voyage into the unknown, a ramble through dark, dense woods, with the composer eager to encounter surprises and novelties in the process. In an interview with Frank J. Oteri, Du Yun describes her compositional process and pledges allegiance to the second group of this makeshift typology: “My challenge to myself is to write music without the aid of a piano ever, not even checking things. I don’t want to be too comfortable when I write music. When I create, I don’t want to fall back to the safety net that I’ve acquired. So I love feeling like I don’t know how to walk and then find the platform to focus on the next step.”

This particular process, along with her diverse influences, vividly manifest themselves in her chamber-opera “Angel’s Bone”, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2017. The libretto, written by Royce Vavreck, tells a horrifying story about two fallen angels who are rescued by a financially troubled suburban couple who force the angels into prostitution.

The work is a collage of choral bits that evoke sacred motets and are abruptly substituted by avant-garde harmonies and structures, mixed with rich samples of deep, thudding electronics. The electronic rhythmic pulse of the piece seems to be extracted from an underground industrial electronic music party. Disturbing, yet captivating, this work speaks harshly and personally about the theme of human trafficking – an eternal scourge in human life. To catch a short glimpse of this opera, consider viewing this short movie, featuring the composer herself as one of the fallen angels and the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer as Mrs. X.E., the woman who finds, grooms and nurses to health the two fallen angels, yet ends up prostituting them.

Social engagement is an important part of Du Yun’s music – a fact illustrated by one of her latest works, the video oratorio ‘Where We Lost Our Shadows’ (2019). The multimedia piece for orchestra, 3 soloists and film is a collaboration between the composer and the Palestinian filmmaker Khaled Jarrar. Documenting the migration of Syrian refugees making their way to Europe, the film material portrays how war and the despair it has caused might have stripped these refugees of their home, but not of their hopes and dreams. It is ultimately a testament to the never endling resilience of human spirit.

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