Composer-vocalist Fay Wang (also known as Fay-Kueen) captured my full attention when I saw her piece “Pisces Monodrama” being performed at the Flea Theater last May (on my birthday, I might add), and the performance, which featured Wang herself on vocals, as well as some people I knew in the selected ensemble, was like something that once again requires me to again question what to call this always puzzling genre we talk about known as “new music” or “alt-classical” (sorry, Nico Muhly).
I actually reviewed this concert, and as for Fay’s piece, my first thoughts were that it sounded indie. 😉
Fay had some time to discuss this piece, her music in general (Do check out some more of it on her YouTube channel), and another project she has coming up with Bang On a Can.
CM: Can you please talk about the beginning and tell us about the musical training and where it led you to the music you do now?
Fay: I was born in a musical family in Beijing. My mother was a soprano singer (she passed away 6 years ago), my father is a musicologist. I started playing piano/ear training/singing etc, since 4. But I hated practicing very much. For me, the best thing to do with piano was improvising little songs. I listened to a lot of western classical music when I was little, but never really learned the terms or remembered the names of the pieces. That’s why my music history still sucks as hell now. When I was in high school, most of my classmates and friends listened to Asian pop music all the time, but my ears instead, went into a completely different music world.
I listened to plenty of western indie rock, and bought cracked CDs from some underground stores (cause they were cheap, like maybe 3-5 bucks for each). But I remembered the first time that I head Bjork’s music, I was like “what the hell is this?! Is she throwing up?” I felt her voice was disgusting, yes, and later on this woman became my goddess. In Beijing, I made a lot of friends with “Chinese hipsters” in high school and college. I went the Beijing’s central conservatory of Music by the way, for the composition program. You know, in the conservatory, they all write very “academic” stuff, either close to “American” style or “European” style, and combine some “Chinese” elements indeed. I personally don’t like to be labeled as a “Chinese composer”. I mean, I am Chinese, and I love my country–there’s some natural Chinese things in my blood that can’t be ignored. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I should be an ambassador of Chinese music.
I dated a guy when I was in conservatory, he is a producer/recording engineer, with whom I’m still collaborating a lot now. He introduced me to listen to stuff that even more independent, experimental, weird, bizarre, and I started reaching some avant-garde arts and films etc. I was really into a Japanese female rock star Shiina Ringo who influenced me a lot (not musical style, but artistic ideas and personal energies). There was a period of time I was really into IDM and jazz, which I still very much enjoy nowadays.
But I was in a classical music program, all I learned was counterpoint, form, orchestration, set theory, blah-blah, I mean I love classical music, I love Stravinsky, Messiaen, Takemitsu, Feldman etc. But my problem was/is I’m like wandering between two worlds and don’t know which direction I should go. How could you possibly make a hybridization of Stravinsky, Takemitsu, Bjork, and maybe a bit of eastern taste? That’s how the “Monodrama” series came up in my mind. After I came to the States, started my new life in another country, I felt everything was fresh. Especially Yale is a very liberal place, I thought it might be a chance for me to make my musical goal become true.
CM: The piece “Pisces Monodrama” sounded wonderful at the Music With a View concert! Can you talk about this piece and its story?
Fay: Thank you. I’m glad that you enjoyed the performance. “Pisces Monodrama” is the opening chapter of my Monodrama Series. The other two are “Yaf’s Monodrama” and “Monodrama of Old Haven”. They were all done in New Haven. Many people have asked me what the Monodrama means. If you consider an opera or a music theater as a film, the Monodrama could be a long trailer, alternatively, a montage scene that doesn’t have a particular storyline, but hidden relations between each passage–“mono” also indicates multiple characters presented by single performer.
I planned to write “Pisces Monodrama” in the fall of 2009 when I was having a hard time dealing with some of my personal situations and struggling for deciding my future plan. Therefore, I was thinking of writing a work for myself, which will only represent my emotional and musical side without any additional concerns. I believe I’ve never done any work so personal, naturally, or anything that’s made me feel satisfied like this piece.
“Pisces Monodrama” basically describes a series of events and experiences in my 19th year, and remarkable people I met at that time as well. It is basically a 7-movement song cycle which includes vocal parts and narrating parts. It is inspired by various music genres and exactly represents the characteristic of my “hybrid” style. The seven parts are: I) Soulmate, II) Wave Hello To the Sun, III) Bunny Mustard, IV) Goodbye My Boy, V) Smiling Depression, VI) The Singer in The Paradise, and VII) Fay’s Fish. All the lyrics are written by me except for Wave Hello to The Sun which is written by a best friend of mine. The main themes of this work are love, fare ware and eternal.
CM: What are your thoughts on the different versions of the piece, between this concert with Samuel Carl Adams conducting and the Asian premiere that’s on YouTube?
Fay: There are actually 3 versions of the piece. The first one is featuring steel pan as the solo instrument. You must know Andy Akiho. We were classmates at Yale in 2009-2010. He’s really into associate steel pan with his compositions. I decided to use steel pan as a solo instrument, that is an unusual instrument in China and I had never experienced that before I met him. For the other instruments, I also chose two flutes, oboe and clarinet, which mostly play in high register, to display the rhythmic textures and some decorative segments. For string part, I only picked two cellos, which is quite odd for choosing string instruments. For me, cello has larger range and is more expressive for showing deep and strong feelings. Besides, piano has been used throughout the piece as a significant part.
The second version is performed by Chinese musicians in Beijing that you’ve watched on YouTube. The festival couldn’t find a good steel drum player in Beijing, obviously. So I rearranged the part to vibraphone. The percussionist did a great job, some of the parts were super hard but he pretty much made everything perfectly.
The third version is the “Flea Theatre” one, which was conducted by Samuel Carl Adams. BTW, Sam produced the electronics for “Yaf’s Monodrama” too. We are good friends/co-workers and I think he’s a very talented musician and distinctive person. Andy couldn’t make it for that show, so I made the part to vibraphone and electric guitar. Also I used drum-set, which made the version sound more “metal” compare to the former versions which sound–maybe more “Asian”?
Pisces Mondodrama 2.0 (excerpt; The Flea Theater, NYC; 5/26/12; Ensemble conducted by Samuel Adams)
CM: Your music has so much to offer. It’s like a mix of art-songs with hip-hop, some with symphonic arrangements. Where does this blend come from?
Fay: Hmm, I don’t see my music has anything to do with hip-hop. I wouldn’t say that, not I dislike hip-hop. Maybe the rhythmic stuff made you feel the hip-hop beats. Like I said before, my music is like a kaleidoscope. I have never tried to define my music with certain style. A Yale professor described my style as “hybrid music” after he attended the concert of “Pisces Monodrama”. I try to express the sense of other art forms with my music. I’ve mixed different culture, also put together various musical styles and performing forms.
This however makes me feel silly sometimes. Nowadays many musicians attempt to break down the boundaries between different genres. But I’m just doing what I feel is the most comfortable, and I don’t think of the result. Meanwhile, I’m still confused about my orientation, which is fine, I think, since I’m still young (is 26 old? Maybe, at least I look young). And I believe I would never stop exploring other directions, maybe going a more extreme way, or more structural way. Make my music more like an architectural work or in a completely opposite way, like an art work made by garbages, regardless the big picture behind the music but care more about the sound itself etc. Try not to be too generic, superficial but still want to be a rock star in the concert music world. [laughs] Maybe I was just born a paradox.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: 26 is not old, not to THIS writer–ahem, getting back to business…]
CM: Is it too soon to talk about “Weltinseln”, the piece you wrote for the Bang On a Can All-Stars?
Fay: “Weltinseln” is German for “Island Universe”. Immanuel Kant introduced the term for these distant nebulae in the 18th century. I was actually obsessed with playing the ipad game Biophilia and I’m always very interested in astronomy, cosmos kind of stuff. The designation of the game totally amazed me. The album of that title, indeed, is amazing too, could be my favorite Bjork album. But I wouldn’t say the sounding of my piece relates to the album, even though many people think my music sounds like Bjork. Well, apparently I’ve been strongly influenced by her, but not always.
The piece is written for the Bang On A Can All-Stars associated with the Roger Shapiro Fund for new music. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to be performing with the All-Stars. So I’ve talked to Kenny Savelson, and we made the deal that the piece should also be performed by them without me. In that case, I made the piece “with or without vocal”. The vocal part is notated but mostly for me to be improvising with the group. It’s not like the monodramas, it’s not a song cycle which features the vocal. My singing will be blended into the music as an instrument. We’ll see how it turns out…
CM: Can we expect a CD in the near future?
Fay: Thanks for the consideration. I actually already have an album of my works that was released in China last year. But that is more like a conclusion of my past. I’ve been thinking of making an album of my monodrama series, or some other works that show my “new ego”. It’s a bit hard though, especially for a foreigner, who barely has the connections.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Universe, are you listening?]
Melting Clock–String Quartet (Jingye Zhang. violin I; Da Li, violin II; Wenting Kang, viola; Mu Zhu, cello; Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing; 2009)
Fay Kueen Wang (Fay’s MySpace page)