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Vivian Fung: Composing Collaborations – between Gamelan and New Music Chamber Ensembles

Composer Vivian Fung

“I find the most inspiration while travelling” says composer Vivian Fung, whose first commission for the New York Chamber Society was performed under the baton of Gerard Schwarz, in 1995. She was 19 years old at the time. Her interests in music are influenced by her wide ranging travels and exude cross cultural pollination.

Fluent in Cantonese as well as English, Fung unites both worlds of her Asian heritage and the Western influences of her schooling and surroundings, comfortably within her personality. “My background is Chinese but I grew up in Edmonton, Canada, and my training is Western throughout,” Fung explains to me over lunch on the Upper West Side, at ‘Nick&Tony’ near Lincoln Center. Exclaiming to be a big “foodie,” the delicately built young composer examines the menu, settling for an exotic sounding version of a hamburger. She is decisive and matter of fact, yet agreeable and comfortable with defying categorizations. When it comes to music her take is especially definite:”There is no line for me, marking classical music from non-classical.”

After earning her doctorate in composition from Juilliard in 2002, the energetic young musician started teaching music theory as part of the faculty of Julliard’s Literature and Materials of Music department.

An inspirational trip to Bali in the summer of 2004 brought about some exploration of South East Asian Gamelan music and led her to curate the innovative ‘World Music Series,’ at Juilliard. This venture allowed her to channel some of the exciting and foreign artistic influences into her ‘other life’ in academia and to introduce the students to different cultural elements, broadening their musical horizons.

“I would invite top notch artists, talk about their culture and background and just introduce the students to different influences.” she remembers, contagiously excited. She explains how this came about: “I had just come back from Bali, and had studied with one of the foremost Balinese Gamelan groups named Cudamani, which happened to go on tour in the US that spring of 2005, and so I invited them to give a lecture-recital at Juilliard.”

It is easy to see how Fung’s innovative project won her enthusiastic followers throughout the Juilliard student body. Personal interaction is existentially important for Fung:”Since composing for me is a very collaborative process, with the performing musician(s)and Iam interested in a true involvement, it is important that there is a passionate approach towards my work, about my music. It helps, of course, to have a personal relationship as well. When the performer is enthusiastic, learns the piece by heart and gives the performance full attention and effort, the result is something greater than the piece itself. ”  

Naturally, the personal factor always comes into play; and especially so with most of the promising collaborative circles of new “music scenes,” with the often overlapping interaction of performers, composers, conductors and educators. Based mostly in America’s Metropolitan areas, these groups of musicians also seem to provide more and more often their own audience base. Remarkably though, a perpetual artistic individualism prevails through even the most collaborative efforts. It seems as there has never been a more exciting conglomerate of mixed stylistic, highly original and creative voices around.

Fung exclaims: “My work as a composer is so personal; I am always open for influences that inform my choices. Of course the Asian undercurrent is always going to be there, this is always going to be part of who I am. But ultimately it’s all about one’s personal journey. Of course I am aware who my colleagues and friends are, and we do have a community. I love also interacting with the audience, talking about my piece and experiencing a connection. It is important to me, that the audience is diversified. I do not believe in elitism. I am very involved in the Chicago Fulcrum Point New Music Project, a chamber ensemble found in 1998 by acclaimed musician, conductor and music educator Stephen Burns. They will present the world premiere of my “Yunnan Folk Songs” on March 22nd, 2011, as part of their concert “Speaking in Tongues. In the Chicago area, Fung was also composer –in- residence for the Music in the loft series in 2005/6.

True to Fung’s academic interest, the “Yunnan Folk Songs” is a project, based on vast research by Professor Zhang Xingrong of the Yunnan Art Institute, China. Since the early 80’s he has established an immense ethno-musicological collection of folksongs preserving cultural edifices of 25 minority nationalities in Southwest China, recording and transmitting their distinct languages and musical outputs.

Says Fung: “I can go in-between a lot of things, can be an observer of different traditions, without having to stick to any particular way. How you relate to the world and other people comes from an imagination from within. The same goes for musical composition. My musical reference to certain cultural influences is always characterized or filtered by my inspiration of certain aspects of it.”

With the Yunnan Folk song- cycle for example, Fung felt an immediate urge to explore the strong emotional impact of the raw and earthy voices, expressing an uninhibited emotional quality delivered by means of intense contrapuntal textures.

This seventeen-minute cycle of seven songs for mezzo-soprano, baritone and chamber ensemble is a still in process artisticinvestigation that she would like to explore even further and maybe develop, at some point, into an operatic work.

To find enough time for her increasing emergence as a composer, Fung made the decision to leave Julliard’s teaching position in 2009. “A leap of faith,” as she admits.

“I really enjoyed teaching as well, but I just could not be able to branch out, in the way I wanted to, having such limited time,” says the married Fung who is also considering time issues, concerning the debate of starting a family. For the time being, she relishes the highly personal involvement with the artists she creates her works for: “My relationship with performers is becoming more and more important to how I shape a new commission, as well as the potential longevity of my work.”

Fung tells about her friendship with pianist   Jenny Lin , a well recognized young performer, who is known for her fine musical skills in both classical repertoire as well as a new music pianist: “In 2005, Jenny approached me to write a new work for her on prepared piano, which became Glimpses, premiered by her at the ISCM Miami Festival in 2006. This work has been performed numerous times, by Jenny and has since been picked up by such pianists as Margaret Leng Tan, Vicky Chow, and Bryan Wagorn, who will perform it at the America Society, New York, April 26th. 2011, celebrating the composer as the rising star of Canadian music that she is. Part of this celebration will also be the Canadian Afiara String Quartet , currently the graduate resident string quartet at The Juilliard School in New York, where they serve as teaching assistants to the Juilliard String Quartet. 

“I think that it was thanks to the care, Jenny and I applied working on finding the right notation and nuances that helped get the work “out there,” says Fung. “Already then, Jenny recognized the potential in Glimpse’s first movement, “Kotekan” to be built up into a larger, more complex work. This idea led to my piano concerto “Dreamscapes” for Jenny that was commissioned by Andrew Cyr for the Metropolis Ensemble and was premiered at LePoisson Rouge in November of 2009. So…if you listen to the Piano Concerto, there is a quotation of “Kotekan” about 4 minutes into the concerto and that material is greatly expanded upon.”

Violinist Kristin Lee attended Fung’s class at Juilliard, and was fascinated from the get go. A mutual collaboration with the violinist, whom Fung describes as gutsy, virtuosic and lyrical at the same time, started when Fung got invited to one of her performances.

“I invited Andrew [Cyr] to join me and we both were blown away by her performance. Andrew invited Kristin to join the Metropolis Ensemble, where she also became the concertmaster for the performance of my Piano Concerto in 2009. She loved it, enough so, that she sent me an email after a rehearsal and asked me to write a violin concerto for her…The relationship I have fostered with Kristin resulted also in her accompanying me to Bali, this past summer of 2010, while I was touring with Gamelan Dharmaswana, in residence here at the New York Indonesian Consulate…the trip made our musical friendship grow deeper…The cadenza was a collaborative effort, it will be a tour de force,” says Fung, as she invites me to preview the performance of mentioned cadenza, at its inaugural benefit performance at Riverpark, with the Metropolis Ensemble on March 8th, 2011. The world premiere of the violin concerto in its entirety is planned for sometime in the fall of 2011. “I am also an active community member, fostering additional relationships with rising composers and performers through workshops and outreach programs. In my role of the New York Foundation for the Arts music fellow for 2010-11 I have been involved as a mentor in their Immigrant Artist Mentorship program, where I share my artistic experiences and resources, helping a  young composer in her early career to achieve her goals.”

And she has indeed already plenty of valid resources and experiences to share. Fung’s very next important date is the Canadian premiere of her String Quartet No 2. , taking place in Edmonton, her Canadian hometown.

Presented by the Edmonton Chamber Society and featuring the Shanghai String Quartet on March 5th. 2011, the work was a commission by the Shanghai String Quartet  in 2009 in celebration of their 25th Season. Another piece for String Quartet, Pizzicato, composed already in 2001 and recorded with the Ying Quartet and released by Telarc in 2008, will be featured by the Escher Quartet as part of Chamber Society of Lincoln Center’s Opening Night, FireworksConcert at Alice Tully Hall, on September 26th, 2011.

Expect nothing less than Fireworks!  For more Information about the composer Vivian Fung, see her website:



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