Tag: immigrant composers

Underscoring How Human and Relatable Immigrants Actually Are

I don’t think of myself as the type that gambles with the rent money, yet that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing during tech week of the live, online, remote song cycle I recently produced called Swell. The riskiness of the endeavor, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York along with assistance for ASL interpretation from A.R.T.-NY, didn’t become clear until one night in tech when the internet was bucking wildly and we couldn’t sync the audio feeds coming from various corners of the country the way we’d successfully done during the past two weeks of staging rehearsals. It occurred to me that choosing such an unpredictable medium for a live, remote production whose subject was very dear to me may not have been the most clear-eyed decision.

A few years in the making, Swell began with an encounter with a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s that hearkened back to a trip she’d taken to her mother country of Haiti. Listening to her, I began wanting to make work like that, work that transported me to another place and to another way of life. It made me immensely nostalgic for my own island of origin, Taiwan. After that experience, it became my mission to find composers who identified as immigrants/children of immigrants, ask them if they’d be willing to write a song about some aspect of that experience, and on top of that, ask if they’d be open to collaborating with me on the lyrics. (At the time, I’d been writing lyrics for about three years and working with a couple of different composers; I was enamored with what music could do to enhance text and could see no reason to stop.)

My definition of new music was fairly broad—electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned.

It took a while to track down composers in New York who fit the criteria, and who were also comfortable with new music. I remember explaining the idea for the song cycle to one composer from Israel that I’d approached, and afterward he had a pained look on his face. He asked, “What if I didn’t immigrate to escape war or poverty?” My immediate reply was that that was ideal, because not every immigrant’s experience involves fleeing horrific circumstances. He wound up writing perhaps the cycle’s most well-loved earworm. Another composer decided to set his memory piece at a breakneck tempo, because he wanted to emphasize the humor in the song, as well as play with the fact that not every immigrant from Mexico has the same journey, literally or figuratively, to the U.S.

As it turned out, my definition of new music was fairly broad, and by the time I’d found ten composers, the song cycle included electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned. I loved, too, that each composer had (sometimes vastly) different musical backgrounds and training. They were all accomplished, yet they’d entered the field from different directions, meeting finally at this project. In summer of 2019, I was offered a two-day workshop at HERE in New York to test out the concept. The workshop presentation utilized three singers, three instrumentalists, projections, a little bit of lighting design, a smaller amount of set design, and music stands because nobody could be expected to be off-book. I’d paid everyone out of my savings, which at the time added up to a few thousand dollars—it was my emergency fund, and being offered space to present this work on very short notice seemed like the perfect emergency. In naming the song cycle, I arrived at a term that evoked both turbulent seas (and sea-crossings), and voices rising in unison.

While people who looked and sounded like us were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were.

The workshop of Swell coincided with the weekend that ICE began conducting mass raids at the behest of then President Trump. It was an eerie coincidence, as the raids were originally scheduled to occur the weekend prior, but had been postponed for one week. So, while people who looked and sounded like us—people who came from immigrant families—were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were. Our show wasn’t exactly a solution to what was happening, but it was a place where people could, and did, gather in solidarity against it. Fast forward to March 17, 2021, when Swell opened for a five-day, live, online run, after being given the green light to convert its originally intended, fully staged, in-person production into a virtual one. That night, as we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed. It wasn’t being called a hate crime, but it looked at least like a violent act that grew partly out of racist thinking and misogynistic ideas. The following day, I was asked how I was doing and whether there was anything people could do to help. The only answer that made sense to me was to ask people to watch the show. As it happened, half our composers were of Asian descent. I felt, and continue to feel, that the show kept me buoyed during a time when it would otherwise have been easy to succumb to fear and anxiety. I made the show’s comp code available to the public, which was a decision I could make easily as producer. It felt to me like everyone, for different reasons, could use our show at that moment.

As we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed.

Aside from the piece itself being moving, there was the undeniable fact that thirty artists contributed to it in some way. That thirty individuals helped to make what amounted to an online experiment, during a pandemic, while getting paid, is inspiring in and of itself. What I think made it such a powerful antidote to the race-based hate and violence toward Asians/Asian Americans, is the community we created over the course of making the show. Although every rehearsal and every meeting took place virtually, we maintained a kind and supportive ethos, even as we were attempting something highly stressful with a considerable chance of failure. It was important to me, especially early on, to have as much individual time with everyone as possible. Along with talking about the music, I swapped life stories with the music director (whom I hadn’t worked with before). I walked the performers through setting up their lights and green screens, and gave them as much time as they needed to get comfortable with the equipment and with me. I found this early getting-to-know-each-other period crucial for buffering the stressors that would inevitably come later in the process, such as scheduling snafus, tech week, and the sundry unpredictable surprises that crop up, which producers tackle on a regular basis.

It’s generally assumed that I regard Swell as my baby. Though this is true, it’s also true that I regard every project of mine as my baby. In theater, I’ve found that producing one’s work is the surest way of seeing that work in the world. In music (or more aptly, music-theater) which I’m newer to, an artist who produces their own work, let alone produces the work of others, seems something of a unicorn. At its core, producing is a time-consuming, stress-inducing, sleep-depriving job, and requires a set of skills that, if one doesn’t already possess them, one must be open to acquiring. Having done it, I can say my favorite things about producing have nothing to do with seeing the work realized. Instead, what I most enjoy are the problem-solving aspect and the power of paying artists. Every day I worked on Swell seemed to present a new challenge, and every day ended, if I was lucky, with a creative solution. Apart from that, nothing gives me as much joy as sending money directly to an artist for making their art. It was almost as if every time I hit ‘send’ I was paying myself.

One of the accomplishments that came out of Swell that I will take to my grave is that many of the composers (perhaps all?) had the chance to write about themselves in a way they’d never been asked to before. This again, was a difference between this world and the theater world. In theater, writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive. Yet for composers who had never been given the chance to consider their heritage or their personal stories in the context of making work, they came away from Swell with a sense of self and a sense of purpose they hadn’t known they were missing. The other accomplishment of which I’m exceedingly proud is the ability to provide ASL interpretation for the show. What is meaningful to me about this is that for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, music can feel like an activity that belongs only to the hearing. Making this production accessible, with dynamic visuals, captioning, and a separate window for ASL interpretation (as large as the window for the show, if one chose to make it so on their computer screen) to a community that is not typically served, particularly when it comes to sound-based work, was revelatory. Suddenly it made sense to think of Swell as a work of art, rather than a work of sound.

Writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive.

When we finally got Swell up and running, the same butterflies that attend an in-person show came swarming in. I saw people in the audience I knew, and there were names I recognized. It felt so live, and because of that it was scary. Every night we had different things to contend with, sometimes software related, often internet related. At the end of one night that went particularly well, the applause (via chat) was instantaneous, and my phone and email blew up with messages of awe and appreciation. As with in-person performances, one night like that is almost enough to erase all the imperfections that, to the maker, seem so glaring. If I had known from the beginning what putting Swell online entailed, I think I would have gone ahead and done it anyway.

My Musical Life in the United States

It has been exactly ten years since I came back to Hong Kong from the United States, now that I think about it, and the three and a half years I spent there were truly life-changing.

It was in 2003 when I was 18 and first had the ambition to be a composer; this idea totally came from nowhere. I remember it was a normal school day, and during the break I bumped into a schoolmate (who is now a very fine pianist). I told him enthusiastically, “I want to be a composer.” But for an ordinary school kid who had very narrow training in music (singing in choir and playing the violin for almost ten years), the journey to becoming a composer was bumpy.

The three and a half years I spent in the United States were truly life-changing.

Back then I was what we call in Hong Kong a “science” student, taking physics, mathematics, and computer science at school. The main reason why I chose the sciences was because I was told that the better students always study science, but I struggled. Rather than going to lessons, I would instead go to the soccer field, computer room (for gaming), music room, and sometimes to karaoke during school time. I was glad that my high school teachers “allowed” me to do so. Many years after graduation they told me that they knew I’d be better off involved in the arts, so they let me spend my time how I wanted, in order not to waste more time.

An aerial view of Hong Kong at mid-day from Victoria Peak showing a group extremely tall skyscrapers, Photo courtesy of the Information Services Department of HKSARG

Near the end of form 6 (equivalent to grade 12 in the US system), most of my classmates had already planned where and what to study after graduation, and one day a friend of mine told me that he was going to study in the United States, starting from community college. Day after day he kept telling me stories about the “American dream,” and I thought my dream of being a composer could possibly come true. I went home and told my parents about my decision to study abroad—after a few fights with them, I flew to the United States on December 1, 2013, and enrolled in De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California.

I was very excited to begin my college life, because I had the chance to select the courses that I was interested in. During my one and a half years of study at De Anza, I had taken almost all the music courses offered. It was the first time in my life I had such an extensive education in music, and more importantly, with very welcoming lecturers. I remember it was Robert Farrington who taught me about jazz, Ronald Dunn taught world music, and Dan Mitchell was my music appreciation instructor. My fundamental knowledge in music theory came from Dr. Paul Setziol, who was crucial in the earliest stage of my composition career. I learned to write counterpoint and four-part harmony, plus I also did a few composition exercises under his guidance. He was kind to offer additional help outside the classroom, and he gave me suggestions on university selections when I was ready to transfer.

Aside from Dr. Setziol, I was glad to meet Loren Tayerle, the conductor of the De Anza Symphony. Not only did he place me in the concertmaster position for a year, he also loaned me his own violin. In the few semesters that I played in the orchestra, I had the chance to premiere new works, which was a brand new experience for me. A similar thing happened with the Vintage Singers, a chamber choir in De Anza, in which the conductor Roger Letson often programmed an interesting mix of old and new works—from Purcell to Lothar Bandermann, a California South Bay-based composer.

Lothar’s wife, Billie Bandermann, was my vocal teacher at De Anza. When I first came to the United States, I originally planned to have my major instrument be violin, but it was Billie who persuaded me to become a tenor. She was very kind to offer me free vocal lessons at her place while I was preparing materials for my transfer application. Sometimes she would even prepare breakfast for me when she found me very hungry during a lesson, and helped me in my audition tape recording.

After a careful consideration of the offers I had, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005 with the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship. Before I left De Anza, Dr. Setziol reminded me that the environment and pace in Berkeley would be much quicker than at De Anza, and he urged me to work hard and stay strong.

The learning atmosphere at Berkeley was very different, and the first few lessons were quite disastrous. I could barely understand the materials covered in class, particularly during David Pereira’s harmony lessons. I had to spend extra hours at the library every day to study Bach’s four-part harmony, as well as to read all kinds of music theory reference books. But after a few weeks of struggle, I began to understand harmony in a more thorough way, and the knowledge acquired is still very useful now—not only in terms of composition, but also in terms of how I teach it to others at the university.

As a voice major, there were times when I had to spend four days a week singing in the University Chorus and the Chamber Chorus, and another day for a major lesson with soprano Susan Gundunas. The training in the choir affected me a lot, especially in terms of the mentality of being a musician. Prof. Marika Kuzma, the conductor of the above mentioned choirs, often emphasized the importance of punctuality, preparation, and professionalism. This disciplined way of training later supported me through my down times. When none of my works were performed publicly during the first few years after my graduation, I was still able to keep on composing.

Other than my vocal training, I spent most of my course credits taking composition-related courses. My interest in writing music began with Prof. Cindy Cox’s “Twentieth-Century Harmony” course, in which she introduced many ways of how composers of the 20th century composed. That was also when my interest in set theory began (and even some of my recent works are still based on set theory). I later continued to take her year-long course “Music Composition,” and began to write my own music. During that time, I was still very much affected by the music I heard on the radio. (To improve my English, every day on my way to school I used to listen to the radio and repeat line after line what the broadcasters said.) My earliest works in 2006 strongly resemble cartoon music—or, more precisely, what I now call “Looney Tunes music.” The title of my very first composition was A Chick on a Stick, a solo clarinet work with a duration of roughly two minutes emphasizing some major seventh chords and portamento. After that I wrote another programmatic work for violin and piano, The Mat and the Course, portraying the catching game between a cat and a mouse.

I was nervous to present my works to Prof. Cox during tutorial sessions; she would ask questions about my choice of pitches, structure, and many other musical parameters. One time I told her my musical preference, and she told me that “composers need to be aware of what we listen to.” She encouraged me to listen to more kinds of music, because what we listen to often affects what we write—perhaps she wanted me to move on from the cartoon style to something else. During her course, we were required to keep a listening journal. I still remember one day I was listening to a Takemitsu’s work on an LP (though now I’ve forgotten whether it was Tree Line or Autumn). I was so puzzled by the music and I wrote in my journal, “I don’t understand his music, the notes are all written randomly.” Now it seems like such a naive comment. I am glad that my ears have been improved over the years.

My work gradually evolved into a more avant-garde style, ranging from my only attempt involving twelve-tone techniques to a more Lutosławski-inspired style of writing in 2007. It was always fun to try something new, because at the end of the semester Prof. Cox would invite professional musicians to read our works and give comments. (I still keep those recordings now.) Concurrently, I was also taking Prof. Jorge Liderman’s counterpoint course. Prof. Liderman was one of those “blackboard” teachers who would write anything that came to mind on the board. He strongly emphasized the importance of musicality, and he would either sing or play the lines he wrote on board on the piano—and that is also what I do now while teaching. His way of teaching was very consistent. Every time we were asked to write a fugue, we would need to compose at least three different fugal subjects. He would comment on each of them, and recommend that we work further on one of them. There was one time he blamed me for writing “cliché” subjects, and insisted that I write another three. I was surprised that he found out these three “cliché” subjects were all written in a hurry during Prof. Richard Taruskin’s history class.

It was also my privilege to have studied orchestration with Prof. John Thow, whose lectures were always inspiring. He was a strict teacher who demanded we memorize many pages of information right at the beginning of the semester. I remember that we had a quiz on the French, German, Italian, and English terms for all the orchestral instruments and various instrumental techniques during the second lecture. It was difficult at that time, but the knowledge acquired is still very useful today. Prof. Thow has great understanding in the use of instruments, and he could come up with all kinds of different ways to score even a simple major chord. Sometimes he would bring in professional musicians to demonstrate instrumental techniques, and he allowed us to write simple passages to explore the possibilities of each instrument. What I remember most from him was that he said if one day we can only take two scores with us, we should definitely pick Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky’s Firebird, because one can hardly find better orchestrated works. In fact, Daphnis et Chloé was the very first full score I bought in my life. We were all shocked by the news of Thow’s death in 2007, during the second semester of my final year while we were preparing for the orchestra reading session.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007 and returned to Hong Kong to pursue Master’s and doctorate degrees in composition at the University of Hong Kong, under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Chan. My stay in the United States was short, but it not only equipped me with the fundamental skills I need as a composer, it also provided me chances to witness how the teachers I studied with respect their professions. I could have included many more stories, but they would only tell more of how much I have learnt from these teachers during the early stage of my composition career. Currently I am still working hard for my composition career, and I am sure there will be more interesting stories that I can tell later.

Austin Yip

Austin Yip’s works have been performed worldwide, including at festivals he attended such as ISCM, Asian Composers League Festival & Conference (ACL), and the International Rostrum of Composers. His major commissioners include Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Radio and Television Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. His works have been published and recorded by ABRSM (UK), Ablaze Records (USA), Navona Records (USA), and Hugo Productions (HK). He holds a Ph.D./ M.Phil. in music composition from the University of Hong Kong, and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a lecturer at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Austin Yip’s music will be performed at the DiMenna Center in New York City on April 8, 2017 as part of a concert devoted to recent works by Hong Kong-based composers.