Yu Who? A Worthwhile New Composer from Hong Kong
There are few if any composers from Hong Kong who are well known in the United States, so it was my privilege and pleasure to meet one recently, and a fine one at that. Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan place, and so it is not surprising to find in Man-Ching Donald Yu’s music influences from both East and West. I caught up with him via e-mail in November of 2012 to explore his background and his approach to music.
Q: Did you grow up in a musical family? Was Hong Kong a good place in which to grow up to foster a love of music?
A: I did not really grow up in a musical family; my father does appreciate classical music, and is a good harmonica player and improviser, and perhaps his abilities have nurtured my inborn musical traits. However, I don’t think one needs to be nourished by, and to grow up in, a musical family to become accomplished in the art. My philosophy and perspective on music is that one always needs to regard composition and music as an ultimate life-long commitment in order to become successful. From a broader perspective in terms of culture, I found myself lucky to have grown up in Hong Kong, as one can experience various Western influences, and have the freedom to socialize and ally oneself with any particular political or ethnic group, even though this city is permeated by Chinese culture. These factors have definitely broadened and shaped my own unique compositional voice, which synthesizes Oriental and Western languages. It should be worth mentioning that the high school educational system in Hong Kong did not itself contribute to or influence my musical development. Rather, my molding as a composer came from my innate musical talent, which was shaped and refined by the training of my various experienced musical mentors.
Q: How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be a composer? Was it before or after you began serious studies on the piano?
A: I fell deeply in love with classical music from an early age; however, my dream of being a composer was not really initiated until I was exposed to various great composers’ masterpieces. This began when I was about seven or eight years old, and beginning at this age, whenever I heard catchy sounds or melodies, they stayed in my head, becoming almost an obsession. Since that time, I began to realize I was possessed of an innately musical mind that I really cannot explain. Also at the same age, without any teachers guiding me, I began to learn to read piano scores, having previously memorized the sound of the piece. By age nine, I fell under the spell of Mozart’s music; his Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, K 183, was the first classical piece that left a profound impression on me during my childhood. Even up to the present day, Mozart’s music seems to accompany me in my various life circumstances, and remains for me as a postmodern composer composing in a contemporary style, a constant inspiration to my musical imagination. I can truly state that Mozart, as much as anything or anyone in music, convinced me to dedicate my life to music.
Despite the musical passion I experienced in childhood, I didn’t begin my formal training on the piano until age 10, and a few years later, thanks to my teachers, I made my public debut as a pianist playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor. At this time, my commitment to music took a great leap forward, impelling me to read biographies of such composers as Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. I came to recognize those composers as geniuses in the history of music. Their compositional talent fascinated me, so much so that I wanted to follow in their footsteps and become a composer myself, hopefully to achieve something truly worthwhile. It is interesting that I found my desire to be a composer at this time in my life motivated by music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods but not that of the 20th century. However, as time passed, and being exposed to a wider scope of music, my interests continued to broaden to the point that numerous contemporary composers began to have an impact on my early compositional career.
Q: How has your piano playing influenced your composition (or vice versa)?
A: I regard my piano playing as the most crucial influence on my composition. The more masterpieces I have played, the more I have discovered about the process of composition, allowing the great masters of composition to be my instructors. This spurred me on in my own creative process. Additionally, composing at the piano stirs up my musical imagination, sparking a flow of musical ideas. I find that in combining composing
from the keyboard, where imagination is required, and
the keyboard, allowing the sounds to impress themselves on the mind, one achieves a good synthesis of the imaginative and audible components. So, I would contend that the piano provides an effective compositional tool for composers. One realizes that throughout music history, most great composers were also fine pianists, and that they spent most of their composing time at the piano.
Q: Or at least until the era of Finale and Sibelius computer music-writing systems! Do you use those at all?
A: Yes, my standard procedure of composing is to begin drafting by pen on paper, and then I input the draft into the Finale program. My thinking is that it is important to think of the music by writing it first—creating coherent musical context— before putting it into Finale. That’s the final step and produces a high end product.
Q: Did the 1997 transition in Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule produce any significant change in the support of composers and the arts?
A: The transition actually did not affect any changes in the support of composers and the arts, since artistic activities and freedoms have been preserved in Hong Kong to this day. Since the transition, though, we have seen more opportunities for musical and artistic collaboration between China and Hong Kong, and this is encouraging.
Q: Given the cosmopolitan nature of your city, do you believe that there is such a thing as a “Hong Kong” style of composition?
A: I believe that as a composer who has grown up in Hong Kong, I should have a distinct musical style that suggests my origin. In my music, I strive to produce an amalgamation of Chinese and eclectic postmodern Western elements, such as those that feature the complexities and cosmopolitan nature of my city. A particular style of music is often associated with a certain type of architecture in a city. Hong Kong has numerous modernized infrastructures reflecting new, subtle, and fresh ideas of Western culture, while at the same time retaining its own Chinese heritage, especially in certain traditionally styled buildings. So our architecture also portrays the fusion that I spoke about in the music of Hong Kong composers.
Q: I appreciate your comments about the architecture of Hong Kong, which greatly impressed my wife and me when we were there in 2009. Do you have a particular philosophy of writing music?
A: My main philosophy of writing music is to express passion through music from the heart, but such passion is governed by means of logical and systematic planning of musical organization. Therefore, refined techniques, personal passion, a consciousness of one’s own identity from one’s birthplace, and personal life experiences all contribute to produce genuine art. Furthermore, I believe that the process of creating music is more or less similar to scientific research and discovery, which involves one’s life-long commitment, objectiveness, innate experiences, and the discovery of beauty and nature. The resulting product, reflecting the distinct amalgamation and interaction of mind and soul, should capture the spirit of all natural phenomena and human beings, as well as something of the order of the cosmos.
In every great piece of music throughout history, dissonance and consonance have been based on systematic order and pattern. Dissonance itself has evolved from the consonances grammatically developed by the great composers. Putting it in another way, to produce great music, one must preserve intricacy and order, but at the same time retain the naturalness and accessibility of sound to promote music as a universal entity.
Q: Much of your music seems to be inspired by visual art. What kind of relationship do you see between the music and art worlds?
A: I believe that everything in the world is related to musical composition to some extent, in particular the visual arts. Music is conceptually based in time, whereas art is in space, and the combination of space and time covers the entire cosmos. Thus it may be seen that music and art are interdependent parts of the universe we live in. In various musical periods, there were greater or lesser associations with art, but in our own time, art, like music, often reflects current social phenomena attending our daily lives. These meld with the other aspects, such as cultural and personal identity, as I have pointed out above. I think that art also can serve as a bridge for connecting personal characteristics and social phenomena with our environment and culture.
Q: Do I rightfully assume that Salvador Dalí is one of your favorite painters? If so, what do you see in his work that motivates you to write music?
A: His art is imaginative, creative, and surrealistic in nature, and he has a conception that fits the postmodern world in which everything in our world has been overwhelmingly distorted and filled with uncertainty. Every different style and trend in art influences a particular style of music and vice versa; for instance, expressionism defines Schoenberg’s music, impressionism influenced Debussy’s, and cubism had an impact on Stravinsky’s music. My conviction is that surrealist art should be mapped onto an equivalent style of music, and thus Dalí’s painting always has inspired and solidified my personal style, even as I incorporate Chinese elements into it. I believe some contemporary Chinese artists have done something similar, creating artworks that have an influence from surrealism, and thereby reflect non-reality.
Q: What other painters do you particularly like?
A: I like most of the contemporary Chinese works of art, as the spirit of these works often reflects their artists’ feelings and impressions of today’s modern society. This is true whether they are in China or in other countries. Also, most such paintings exhibit
in conjunction with their portrayal of the upheaval in our postmodern world.
Q: Have you written a piano concerto, or other major work for your own instrument?
A: Yes, I have written my First Piano Concerto, and I will be the soloist in the piece. However, it is essential for me to compose in many different genres to develop my versatility. Throughout music history, most composers who have written piano concertos have themselves been pianists, since the medium of the piano concerto has afforded them an opportunity to utilize idiomatic piano writing.
Q: Well, I certainly hope to hear your concerto someday, and assume that when you say “first,” that there will eventually be a “second,” and maybe a “third!” What projects will you be working on next?
A: My next project will be Symphony No. 3, “Heavenly Justice,” again a work inspired by a modern Chinese painting. In this piece, I will be particularly attempting to utilize some specific pitch set-classes to link to particular hues in the painting. These will be augmented by various post-tonal materials and textures.
Q: Well, I’ll be looking forward to that work as well, and hope that I’ll have a chance to review it! Will your Second Symphony be recorded any time soon?
A: Yes, my Second Symphony is scheduled to be premiered and recorded by the Oskaloosa Symphony Orchestra at Indiana State in the Spring of 2013. This symphony includes chorus, with texts derived from two different poems by two seperate poets. The music expresses my heartfelt hope concerning the situation in our current world whereby redemption is possible for our future existence.
Symphony No. 1.
From the Depth.
Octet for Strings.
Sunset in my Homeland.
The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna.
for Piano and Electronics.
Two Poems by Ya Hsien.
Edwin Yu (fl);
Donald Yu (pn);
Amanda Li (sop);
Caleb Woo Wing Ching (bar);
Ukraine String Octet;
Op Hong Kong Ch;
Jimmy Chan, cond;
Hong Kong CO;
Serhij Chernyak, cond;
Lugansk Academic Philharmonic
ALBANY 1378 (78:00)
The present CD contains a generous sampling of music by Hong Kong composer and pianist, Dr. Man-Ching Donald Yu, who was born in 1980. As a pianist, Yu made his debut at the age of 16 with the Pan Asia Symphony Orchestra, and eventually earned a B.A. degree from Baylor University. Further musical studies took him to the Internationale Sommerakademie Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, and he completed his education, being awarded a Ph.D. in composition and music theory at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is currently on the faculty of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
The more than 150 compositions in Yu’s portfolio range from instrumental, vocal, and chamber pieces to large-scale operatic, choral, and symphonic works. The music on this, the second CD devoted to the composer’s music, has been selected to give an overview of the breadth of the genres in which this composer writes. Yu’s style, given that the reader likely is (as I was) encountering his name for the first time, forms an arresting and personal intermixing of tonal and atonal languages, with the musical colors and gestures of his native country infiltrating the mix.
Yu’s First Symphony (he has written two to date) is a powerful work, and rather dark in timbre, perhaps a cousin to the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. A three-movement work of some 20 minutes’ duration, the symphony remains one of its composer’s more substantial pieces. The more-or-less atonal language is softened by Yu’s use throughout of lyrical melodic elements. The work is cast in a cyclical form wherein motives from each of the movements show up in the others, serving to solidify the structure of the work. The quiet opening flute solo of the second movement yields to an energetic section that keeps the entire orchestra very busy, as motives are tossed adroitly from one orchestral choir to the next. The third movement begins with several ominous strokes on the timpani and the somber tone of the work continues, drawing on minor seconds and other dissonant intervals, but the symphony ends with a powerful and more-or-less affirming major triad.
From the Depth
is Yu’s setting of Psalm 130, sometimes known by its Latin title,
Many composers (this writer included) have set this stirring text, in which the exiled ancient Israelites cry out in despair from their Babylonian captivity. Yu’s stated intention in setting this psalm is to reflect on various unspecified unjust acts that have occurred in the world in modern times. There are plenty of these from which to draw one’s inspiration, to be sure. After a suitably solemn introduction, a soprano solo soars above the orchestra, and is shortly joined by the chorus, intoning the text in gentle harmonies. In the central portion of the work, the music reaches its dramatic zenith, becoming more agitated and chromatic. The work, like the symphony, is a powerful one, even in its quieter moments, although it is cut from a more tonal cloth than is its predecessor.
The harmonic language of the Octet for Strings reverts to that used in the symphony, and much of the work is ethereal and almost surreal in its effect upon the auditor. Tremolo and other devices are used to enhance the pitch set (0,1,4, e.g., C, D♭, E) that spins forth the work. The pitch set is expanded and contracted in various ways as the piece proceeds through slow outer sections alternating with fast, rhythmic sections in 6/16 meter.
Sunset in My Homeland,
scored for clarinet, violin, and piano, was written for the Equinox Trio, which is comprised of those instruments. This work follows a long tradition of music inspired by art—in this case, a 2001 painting,
by Chinese artist Zhang Guanghai. Here, I hear somewhat more overt references to Chinese music, with pitch bends in the clarinet and guzheng-like sounds from the piano in its lower register. Like the painting, this music also tends towards the dark side of musical expression.
In the next four works, we get to hear the considerable pianistic abilities of the composer.
The Maximum Speed of Raphael’s Madonna
is a work for flute and piano, and is also inspired from the world of art. In this case, the painting is the Salvador Dalí surrealistic canvas of the same name. The musical language is largely abstract and atonal, as it is in the following Dalí-inspired work for solo piano,
(after the painting of the same name). In this work, a number of abstract variations are worked out in this brief and rather virtuosic piece. Dalí, clearly a favorite painter of the composer, also served as the inspiration of
for piano and tape, the painting being his
Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.
The tape part was produced by the Granular Cloud Generator, and maintains a shimmering presence throughout the work, while the pianist plays musical filigree over this sonic background. It’s all extremely evocative and effective—all the more so if you know the original Dalí painting, which if you know anything about his work, you very likely do.
In his vocal music, Yu seems to trend more towards tonality. This is true, at least, of the
Two Poems by Ya Hsien,
From the Depth,
discussed above, as well as his Requiem to which I listened on his website.
was commissioned by the International Writers Workshop, and sets the poetry of the renowned Taiwanese poet. The texts, “Autumn Song” and “Blue Well” set a largely conjunct melodic vocal line against a kind of musical commentary by the piano, oftentimes in the extremes of its register. The CD closes with
a work for solo flute, in which the solo lines are interrupted by trills, sounds of breathing, fillips, and other effects.
The recorded sound of this CD, especially in the works for larger forces, is a bit rough around the edges, and the orchestras occasionally betray a ragged edge in their otherwise generally good readings. One could also find fault with the intonation of the soprano soloist in
From the Depth.
However, these are peccadilloes, and did not detract from my enjoyment of Yu’s finely wrought music. Consequently, I recommend this disc most heartily to those who find themselves absorbed in the music of our time.
David DeBoor Canfield