World / Reporter's Journal

Chinese composer on odyssey from East to West and back again

By Chris Davis in New York (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-06-03 00:32

The American Academy of Arts and Letters Wladamir and Rhoda Lakond Award is given biennially to promising up and coming or accomplished mid-career composers of serious concert music.

This year the $10,00 honor went to Taiwan-born composer Chiayu Hsu, a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who is no stranger to awards, having already a dozen on her mantle. But this one took her a bit by surprise.

She had been nominated for it once before and got a rejection letter in the mail. So this year, when the envelope arrived, she thought it was another sorry. "But then I opened it and — Oh! — I won," she said in an interview.

Chinese composer on odyssey from East to West and back again

Chiayu started studying piano at the age of 5. At 14, at the suggestion of her teacher, she started taking private composition lessons and entered the National Academy of Arts when she was 15. From there it was an arpeggio of blue ribbon music degrees — a BA at Curtis, a master's at Yale and a PhD at Duke.

Asked which composers influenced her the most, she said, "Obviously, my favorite is Bach, later on Brahms and further along Bartok. And the first period of Stravinsky, the ballets."

Trained in Western style, she has been trying in her recent works to incorporate some elements from her Chinese background by imitating the sounds of Chinese instruments on Western instruments or borrowing Chinese folk tunes.

"Or sometimes it can be more abstract, like some of the concepts of Chinese calligraphy or poetry embedded into the music," she said.

Chiayu does not use the opus number system to keep track of her body of work, preferring to sort it by instrumentation and year. "Somehow the opus numbers, I feel, is for past centuries."

She has written for solo piano, viola, chamber ensembles, choir and orchestra. "The one genre that's left — and that will be my next big project — is opera," she said.

She plans to base the work on the Chinese Valentine story The Cowherd Boy and the Weaver Girl, a tale of forbidden lovers banished to opposite sides of the Silver River that's considered one of China's four great folk tales.

Overall the structure and singing will probably be using more Western technique but she is thinking of trying to incorporate some of the singing techniques from Peking opera.

"If it's going to be performed here, I'm not sure how many singers will have the training to sing in that style," she said.

A question she gets asked a lot is if she has ever incorporated traditional Chinese instruments into her ensembles. "I've never done anything like that — yet. But I would be very interested in doing something like that," she said, adding that she is talking with someone who has that kind of ensemble.

She has a busy teaching schedule and focuses on composing during summer and winter breaks.

Her work habits are not fixed. "I like to start my day listening to music," she said, "especially those pieces that relate to the project I am writing."

She is working on a band piece for the UW-Eau Claire centennial celebration this year. She wants to incorporate narration and divide the band into different locations within the hall. So she is listening to Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait and John Corigliano's Circus Maximus.

In general her music is not completely atonic, she said. "There is some sort of harmony but it does not follow the traditional progression. From time to time there are still melodic ideas you can keep track of. I like writing in contrapuntal style and that's probably why I like Brahms and Bach."

She said it probably has to do with the two years of strict counterpoint she had in school, following all of the rules. "After that, I think of music contrapuntally," she said.

Her first album Journeys was released by Naxos Records last year and embraces a fusion of Chinese and Western cultural idiom and theme.

Before she gets to her opera she has to finish her band piece for the centennial, and few other projects still in the negotiation stages — a piano concerto, an orchestral work and a piece for string octet.

The awards ceremony on May 18 at the academy in New York City, she said, "was quite an amazing experience, like living a dream. You see all these famous composers sitting around you. I saw Joan Tower, and then Aaron Jay Kernis. And Merryl Streep was there."

She was told it was the most difficult cocktail party to get into in New York.

Perhaps the best thing that has come out of the award for her came shortly after the announcement: she got an email from Steinway Hall requesting copies of her music for their library.

She said she will use the $10,000 award to get started on her second album.

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