A Conversation with Composer Du Yun on Upcoming Youngstown Performance and Masterclass

When composer, activist, and performer Du Yun recounts her music making process, a few words come to mind. Conviction. Dialogue. Truth. Described by The New Yorker as “irrepressible” and “idiosyncratic”, her seditious writing unites the far-reaching edges of artistry and awakens what it means to create in the 21st century. Combining orchestral music with opera, chamber music, noise, electronics, theater, cabaret, oral tradition, indie pop, avante garde, and all that exists between, Du Yun imagines a world where classical music knows no boundaries. 

The composer’s next appearance is in the Pipino Performing Arts Series at Youngstown State University on February 24 involving a 2:00 pm masterclass and 7:00 pm performance. After joining me and ClevelandClassical.com editor Daniel Hathway in a Zoom conversation over the weekend, Du Yun left much to the imagination as to what exactly she would present in the upcoming performance. Phoning in from Ghana, she mentioned her current residency as part of global-scale musical collaboration with FutureInitiatives, and noted her intention to spotlight the initiative during the Youngstown presentation. Yet, program or not, Du Yun’s performances are naturally filled with surprises. As an Oberlin alum herself, the artist’s legacy lives on in said corner of Ohio; the college and community may remember the Oberlin Opera Theater Department’s Winter Term performance of her 2017 Pulitzer Prize-Winning chamber opera, Angel’s Bone. In addition to her Pulitzer Prize for Music, Du Yun was also named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2018, and consequently nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Composition Category in 2019.

Du Yun recalled her experiences mentoring students and collaborating with musicians across the globe. Surprisingly enough, becoming an educator is the last thing she expected for herself. As a current Professor of Composition at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the composer revealed how as a student she was often vexed by academic constraints that felt antagonistic to her creative process. 

Grades confounded her. Even at Oberlin— an institution with plenty of wiggle room—she relished in telling her superiors “no.” Elaborating, she remembers with a laugh that her grades in college were deplorable. For Du Yun, to not have perfect grades was, indeed,  “perfect” for her as an artist; as a budding composer, she inherently followed her own creative timeline. When creating, she wanted to “have [her] own individuality… have [her] own ideas…  ask questions.” Today she mentors students in the studio or during masterclasses, she reminds them composing is “not a writing assignment. It’s more for fun, more for exercise… for me, if I write music, it’s writing music. It’s my composition. I don’t understand what an ‘assignment’ is. So I wouldn’t do it. To this day I still don’t really understand ‘assignments.’” 

Thus, Du Yun’s individuality paves a unique didactic path. One of the reasons the artist originally dismissed teaching was the thought of constantly repeating herself. Even during our conversation, she would often exclaim “I didn’t mean that!” when referencing moments from interviews years prior. “I’m a true believer in multiplicity,” she explains, describing how her creative process a few years ago was true for that moment in time, but does not apply to her musicianship now. As a composer, she describes herself as a revisionist only in the sense of “trying something new,” like mixing, uprooting different musical contexts and “giving new life” to previous works, but never returning to a place she once was. 

Such a concept of blending innovation with tradition is at the core of her work, FutureTradition, an initiative that partners with artists of various disciplines, such as the performing arts, visual arts, academia, and film. Masters and amateurs alike collaborate together cross-regionally, unearthing rich historical art forms as ways to create new works. Not only her residency in Ghana, but countries such as Turkey, China, and Tibet have been loci for other projects. Du Yun’s identity as an American immigrant from China has impacted much of her writing, carrying traditions from one place to another and watching how they adapt and change. Thus, her experimental guidance also arises from a life of venturing into the unknown. 

Taking risks—whether it’s crossing the continent or setting pen to paper — Du Yun believes is a strength. She describes vulnerability as an emotional space where “we are constantly learning.” The composer described her stay in Ghana as returning to a blank slate; “In Africa, this is not part of my culture… in many ways I feel like I am just a student here,” learning from native musicians and their traditions. To be humbled is to be human, and Du Yun believes every musician needs to navigate new environments while taming their ego: “To be without ego is different from having conviction and knowing your vision. I think oftentimes young people get confused with [this].” When speaking about vulnerability in music, she aims for a balance of ego and empathy. “We know exactly who we are, but at the same time we want to listen, want to learn, want to grow.” 

Heralding back to her alma mater, Du Yun reminisced on her studies at Oberlin. The conservatory changed how she views the world, reminding us that in the performing arts, “curiosity and perseverance are always going to win.” Her studies also changed how she views herself in relation to everything else, emphasizing that she doesn’t see herself as a composer with a capital “C”. Thinking out loud, she asked, “what does a ‘lead creator’ even mean?” Above all, the composer believes collaboration boils down to human connection. For as much as her work is described as provocative, what she truly wants is for her audience to feel linked to the music and to find pockets of their own identity within it, seeing themselves in a performance refracted like “rays of light through a window.” If listeners have to feel uncomfortable to understand her message, to reach that “spark,” she admits, so be it. Provocative, sure, but she believes there is indeed a way to engage in the performing arts that sparks collective growth and, above else, a perpetual dialogue. Especially in light of Covid-19, Du Yun concludes, art without humanity is a life not worth living.

Both performance and masterclass events are open and free to the public. Find more information here.

Featured image by Zhen-Qin.

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