Interview with Ken Gallo of Meet
"I never dreamt I would write another piece for pipa
and orchestra until I got a call from the New Jersey Symphony,"
says Chinese born composer Bun-Ching Lam of her newest piece, Song
of the Pipa, which will premiere during the second half of her
two-week Music Alive residency at the NJSO in April 2001 (the first
week completed in November 2000). Her first piece for pipa and orchestra,
Sudden Thunder, was written for the American Composer's Orchestra
and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1995.
What would seem like a strange pairing, the pipa, a four-stringed
lute from China's Wei Dynasty (386-534) with the traditionally Western
orchestra is becoming commonplace as many American orchestras begin
implementing interdisciplinary elements into their programming.
"I have attempted to combine my Chinese sensibility with Western
compositional techniques," she says, "creating a music that is contemporary."
Coincidently, she is one of three Asian-American composers featured
in Music Alive's inaugural season, along with Chinese-born Bright
Sheng with the Seattle Symphony and Vietnamese-born PQ Phan with
the American Composers Orchestra. Bun-Ching was born in Macau, a
Portuguese-governed colony, where she was influenced as much by
Western ideology as Eastern politics and art. "My piano teacher
was Portuguese and we spoke English most of the time," she says.
"My background is very different from other Chinese-American composers."
She received her Ph.D. at the University of California/San Diego
in 1981, and, in addition to the NJSO and the American Composer's
Orchestra, Lam's compositions have been presented worldwide by Bang
on a Can, New Music America, ISCM World Music Days (Hong Kong),
Pacific Soundings (Japan), and Aspeckte (Austria). She is the recipient
of grants and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts,
The National Endowment for the Arts, and a Meet The Composer Lila
Wallace-Reader's Digest Commission, to name a few. Two CD's are
available of Lam's works: Mountain Clear Water Remote (Composers Recordings,
Inc. 1996), and
Like Water (Tzadik 1997).
She spoke about her songs, her Eastern and Western influences, the
orchestra, and Music Alive.
MTC: What are your methods when composing?
BCL: Whatever works. (laughs)
MTC: Do you write in the morning?
BCL: It is a very romantic notion to have the feeling to
wake up and write music. Sometimes I dream about music. Usually
I do write in the morning; that's when I work the best. I get my
cup of tea and start working. Everyday, especially when working
on a project. Everyday and no weekends. (laughs)
MTC: What attracted you to the orchestra?
BCL: The amazing palette of tone color. The whole energy
of sounds together. It can make a lot of noise, but it can also
be very quiet. It's the most highly evolved organization of musicians.
MTC: Do you have a favorite instrument?
BCL: I love the contra-bassoon. I use that a little bit,
but I think all instruments are wonderful. The new piece for the
NJSO, The Song of the Pipa, is a piece for pipa and orchestra.
I also use the solo cello in it quite a bit. It's almost a dialogue
between the pipa and the cello.
MTC: What is that piece about?
BCL: Song of the
Pipa is based on the poem of the same name written by Bai Ju-yi
during the Tang Dynasty. It's a very famous poem that all Chinese
know and contains the most vivid description of pipa playing that
I know of. The piece is patterned after the narrative and unfolds
slowly, like a Chinese scroll painting. It's dedicated to my mother,
as she used to recite me the poem from memory.
pipa player Wu Man will be the featured performer in that piece. Did
you write the piece with her in mind?
BCL: I had already
written a piece for her at The American Composers Orchestra; a pipa
concerto titled Sudden Thunder. I know her very well. I know
her playing. I definitely had her in mind. She has a wonderful sense
of…in Chinese there is something called "yun wei" meaning a particular
kind of finesse, taste or flavor; not how to play fast or loud. It's
between the notes and how she articulates them.
MTC: In part of your residency you went to schools
in New Jersey to introduce the students to Chinese instruments.
What were their reactions to them?
BCL: One player from the NJSO came with me. She plays the
piccolo, and also a little bit of the Chinese dizi: the bamboo flute.
She demonstrated it to them. Children are very excited to hear a
"new" instrument. They all tried to make some noise come out of
it. This particular school in New Jersey was very interesting because
the school actually has a Chinese language program. Most of the
kids were taking Chinese lessons, but none of them were Chinese.
They were a mixture of all races. I would say some Chinese to them
and they would answer back in Chinese. It was fun.
MTC: How do you incorporate traditional Eastern instruments
into the orchestra? Do you approach it differently?
BCL: In Song of the Pipa, for example, the pipa is
the solo instrument; it's out front. I don't see any difference.
Nowadays you can put everything together and make it work in a way
that can be wonderful. There are no barriers between Eastern and
Western. Everything works. We live in a wonderful time. People have
no expectations; they love to be surprised. It's not a problem.
It's just a wonderful possibility to create new sounds.
MTC: How do you think Eastern composers are changing
the landscape of the traditionally Western orchestra? What is the
audience reaction to Eastern instruments?
BCL: I can only speak from my own experience. Sudden Thunder
was very well received. The people really enjoyed hearing different
timbres; different tunings in a sense. In that particular context,
it worked very well. Last year, for Song of the Pipa, we
did a presentation at one of the NJSO board meetings about it. The
board was very excited. They seemed very curious to see how it works.
I explained to them how I think about the piece; the structure.
They were genuinely interested. I hope that it's not just exotic
or foreign. It should make musical sense. I am not changing the
tradition of the Western orchestra, I am extending it. Nowadays,
with the symphony orchestra, the structure has to change. A lot
of orchestras are adding electronic elements and looking into new
technologies and cultures. It's a very exciting thing.
MTC: Are there ever conflicts between Eastern
heritage and Western influence?
BCL: Half of my life I have lived in the United States and
I grew up in Macau (China), which was a Portuguese colony. So, I
was well versed in Western culture; but still deeply rooted in my
Chinese culture. I have the best of both worlds. Actually, I don't
think of it as two worlds. It's one world; one with a very cosmopolitan
view. I'm comfortable here; I'm comfortable in China, and, actually,
I'm comfortable in Europe. I speak all these different languages.
There is no conflict in who I am. Sometimes I feel like eating Japanese
food; sometimes I feel like eating French. I am a citizen of the
world. It's all the same to me.
MTC: You didn't grow up under Communist rule?
BCL: No, I grew up under Portuguese government. My piano
teacher was Portuguese and we spoke English most of the time. My
background is very different from other Chinese-American composers
like Bright Sheng, Zhou Long and Chen Yi, although we are all Chinese.
MTC: When you lived in China, did you know these other Chinese
composers who are now your American colleagues?
BCL: Actually, we only met in 1986 in Hong Kong during a
Chinese composers conference. That was the first time; 10 years
after the Cultural Revolution.
MTC: Did you find that you had any common stories to share
about the Cultural Revolution?
BCL: Not really. For example, Chen Yi is from Canton which
is not far from Macau; like from NYC to Albany. Although, we both
speak Cantonese, politically Canton was a very different climate
than Macau. I did go to a so-called "Communist school," so I knew
all the Revolutionary songs. During the Cultural Revolution, when
I was in school, I was playing the accordion and singing songs praising
Chairman Mao. We all have that in common. When we met they were
very surprised when I knew all those songs.
MTC: Commissioned by Chamber Music America and performed
in November at NJSO was Omi Hakkei. How was that piece structured
and what is it about?
BCL: The piece is a very good example of what
I was mentioning: thinking as a citizen of the world. It is inspired
by Western instruments; the famous Debussy trio format: harp, flute
and viola. What I've put together is the Chinese counterpart of
it: the zheng, which is like a Chinese koto (a string instrument
analogous to the harp); Chinese dizi, flutes of different sizes;
and the erhu and zhonghu, which are two-stringed fiddles of different
sizes (the erhu is a little higher in pitch, and actually the zhonghu
is similar in timbre to the viola). Omi Hakkei means eight
views of Lake Biwa, which is a beautiful lake quite close to Kyoto.
A few years ago I was on a grant from The Asian Cultural Council
and I spent three months in Japan. I was very fascinated by Japanese
culture. I have always been. I really like Toru Takemitsu's music.
This piece was written as an homage and is dedicated to him. I have
visited these places near Lake Biwa; these eight locations or views;
these different landscapes. There was a very famous Japanese woodcut
artist named Hiroshige. He has a set of woodcuts on these "eight
views." One of them I discovered in a bookstore and asked my composer
friend where this place is and found out that this a well-documented
and famous landscape. Hiroshige has actually done quite a few variations
of the same woodcuts. All the titles of the movements from Omi
Hakkei come from titles of the Hiroshige woodcuts. I have six
of them. All together, the music makes up this imaginary landscape.
I have visited those places and have tried to present a sense of
the atmosphere. Also, the reason I went to Japan was, in a way,
I was trying the find ancient China in Japan. In China they have
been pretty successful in ruining and destroying everything, even
the landscape. In those times, the reason why artists did things
like "eight views," was because they were very influenced by the
Song dynasty painters; the Japanese were learning from the Chinese
and for a long time they used the same subject matter. Also, Debussy
had an interest in Japanese art and Takemitsu was influenced by
Debussy. So, it's all related, if not convoluted.
MTC: Has the first half of the residency had an impact on
New Jersey's Asian community?
BCL: We had a little bit of difficulty reaching
Chinese-Americans. There are no Chinese community centers. New Jersey
is so big and spread out and the residency is so short. It has taken
a lot of manpower. It's a challenge. The NJSO has worked very hard
and we found remedies for the second half. I will be visiting the
Chinese Heritage School in South Brunswick, which is in Central
New Jersey, to give a presentation to Chinese children and their
parents. Making a personal connection with as many as possible is
most important. If I can go to a school and talk to fifty people,
that's great. But, the impact is not widespread enough. A long term
objective would be a CD-ROM about the new piece. It obviously has
a lot to do with Chinese literature. From there, we could go on
to talk about Chinese art. Something like a CD-ROM can reach more
people. If that's the objective of a residency, then something should
be done like that in the future.
MTC: You're working on an Opera that was an MTC International
Creative Collaboration project that will premiere in NYC next year
called Wenji. Who was Wenji?
BCL: Wenji was a poet, musician and scholar. She was living
around the year 200; the daughter of a very prominent scholar. She
was kidnapped to Inner Mongolia; taken out of her parent's house
and forced to marry a chief and produce two children. Then after
12 years the Chinese government wanted her to go back to China.
The story is about her decision whether to go back or not to go
back. If she leaves, she will leave her children and never see them
again. The libretto is written in Chinese, using some of the poems
that she herself supposedly wrote. I'm almost finished with it.
It will premiere at the Asia Society in January or February of 2002,
and then go to the Hong Kong Arts festival, then to Macau. It will
be performed bi-lingually and directed by Rinde Eckert.
MTC: Beside Toru Takemitsu, who are some composers that have
had an influence on you?
BCL: There are so many. John Cage, Luciano Berio, George
Crumb, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Ligeti, Pauline Oliveros, Chou
Wen-Chung. Messiean. I could go on. They're all wonderful and some
of them are close friends.
MTC: Is there something that you've listened to recently
that inspired you?
BCL: At the Great Day in New York program last month
(Jan 2001), I heard some new music by Joan Tower, and the Bang on
a Can All Stars that I liked very much. They are good friends. I
don't have a lot of time to listen to music, but I try to go to
concerts as much as possible. It's very hard to sit down and listen
to music. Isn't that funny?
MTC: Well, there is music going on inside your head all the
time to inspire you, isn't there?
BCL: (laughs) I wish that was true. Sometimes when I get
up and try to work, it's empty. When you get an idea you better
grab on to it.