Interview with Jean Y. Foo

Jean Y. Foo is a Singaporean-born Chinese-American composer and we are happy to interview her in conjunction with the coming recital of her works.

This is the transcript of our interview with her.

Qn: What difference do you see composing contemporary Chinese music versus composing a piece of contemporary music for Western instruments? For instance, do you see the need to incorporate certain Chinese elements like aesthetics or folk-derived sources or certain Chinese structural concepts?

Ans: No, other than the instruments, technically there shouldn't be any difference writing Western or Chinese music because it's just a matter of how you want to express your musical form. So the only difference is only understanding how each instrument operates and you try to write to the best effect of that instrument. But musically, there is no need to be intentional in using any specific elements. You have a lot of Western pieces using Chinese elements and Chinese instrumental pieces using Western elements but there is no need to demarcate that. Because for music, there shouldn't be any limitations and to put yourself in a certain cultural frame, I feel that that is a limit.

Qn: I feel that there is a fundamental difference in the way people who play Chinese music and the way people who play Western music thinks. But you say there is no difference in the way you write for them?

Ans: Every musician, even if you have two Western musicians, they would play different from each other. So the difference comes from the cultural understanding, for example Western music, the way that people understand timing, rhythm, is going to be different from how Chinese instrumentalists understand traditional rhythms. So in that sense, the interpretation of rhythm for traditional expressions will be different. But for contemporary music, because there is so much space for you to just push the boundaries and go beyond the boundaries that you can just break all these boundaries. It becomes like a whole melting pot.

Qn: What would you say your style of writing is? What are the salient things you would like the audience to think of your music as having?

Ans: For me as a composer, I think it is important to be able to benchmark new performance techniques and expressions, meaning it's our job to set new standards that become mainstream. So that would include performance techniques, aesthetics, expression and form, and all these can come out from instrumental techniques itself or various kinds of compositional techniques. So for me, when I write something, there is always an intention, for me to think about how this piece is going to be able to influence or take us to the next level. So it's not just like a simple expression of happiness or sadness or anything. It really has to bring a lot of conceptual and philosophical ideas.

Qn: So would you say that every new piece that you write, you want to do something different? So that this is what is going to happen in every piece, something different, something that pushes the boundaries?

Ans: Well, different but not for the sake of being different. It has to be different for the musical intent. If for example, you are writing a hundred repeated notes, there has to be a soecific intent of why the composer is writing a hundred repeated notes and not two or five or a thousand.

Qn: Do you have any specific compositional philosophies or aesthetic views that you try to put in your compositions?

Ans: Yes, for me it feels like in the traditional sense, musicians understand music with certain traditional parameters, for example melody, rhythm, harmony. But in the way I understand music, there is just so much more dimensions to musical parameters, so for myself, that would include performance gestures, speed, distance, aesthetics and things like that. So it goes beyond. Taking other kinds of parameters into consideration in building up a musical form instead of just relying on melody or rhythm or harmony.

Qn: As you mentioned, you consider the theatrical part of the performance very important as well, so what happens when your music is recorded and people cannot see certain parts of the performance? So does it mean these pieces have to always be performed live or be a video recording? Can it be appreciated without the visual element?

Ans: It can be appreciated, but it is going to be appreciated in a different context. So you will miss out on the visual element but the audio element itself will also surface in a different interpretation. So whether or not there will be a missing element, that you can give it to the audience to decide, because it has to work both ways for me, like musicians with audience being seen, and then without the visual element. Because the performance gestures, sometimes they also affect the way the sound is being produced, or they affect the way a note is being expressed, and that can be heard instead of just being viewed.

Qn: This collection of compositions, can we call it a suite?

Ans: It's not exactly a suite. The entire concert itself, when I first programmed the concert, is based on a theme of "mei hua san nong" (梅花三弄).

Qn: Why do you choose "mei hua san nong" among other ancient pieces?

Ans: It's a long story but I'll try to make it short. I've been working with Professor Chen for some time, working on "mei hua san nong" and that piece fits really well in terms of borrowing other kinds of instrumental aesthetics and it just so happens that this time round, it's like a tribute to one of the greatest Chinese painters who paints primarily plum flowers and his painting of plum flowers is so different from other kinds of plum flower paintings is that there is always the impression of a dragon within it. So his paintings are all national treasures and there is no way you can take them out, so we will show some in the concert through powerpoint and it just fits perfectly with the material that we are working on. So basically the theme of "mei hua san nong" I've been using it for about three years. The first time was just a piece on the solo double bass and the second time was for a choir and so since it's like a third variation, in a way it just came in all very nicely.

Qn: So how do the pieces relate to one another? Is there a particular feature or theme that threads and strings everything together?

Ans: Yes, and no. I would say yes because it is based on the theme of "mei hua san nong". Not only the theme but the elements for example the note D and the fifth interval. You will be able to hear that in all the pieces. And when we conceptualised the programme, in terms of the order of the pieces, we had big pieces, small pieces, medium pieces, but they are all of different characteristics, so you have the percussive effect through "Long Mei" I, II and III. (龍梅 I, II, III) using different sets of cymbals matched with other kinds of ensemble things, you have specific smaller pieces intertwined, just so that there is contrast in the programme, but there is also continuity throughout the entire programme.

Qn: So the theme that strings everything together is the fifth interval, and the D...

Ans: Yes, it's all drawn from those, but on the other hand, for example "mei hua san nong" it's traditional or ancient guqin piece, and the element of noise. A sound is made up of the noise and the pitch so in guqin you would see that people have a lot of actions when they play and you can hear the rubbing of the string, the slapping of the fingerboard and things like that. So all these kinds of noise elements, I've used them in the piece, in all the pieces that we have this concert. So that is also something that unifies all the pieces. So noise is also a key parameter in my pieces.

Qn: Because you are writing contemporary music and a lot of things are different, how the audience understands it as compared to traditional music. So what are the things that you would do to let the audience understand you music better, are you concerned that they might understand the "wrong" things or think about the "wrong" things in your pieces?

Ans: The reason why performance gestures are so important in my pieces are also based on my research on ancient and traditional music. Where traditionally, performance gestures and noise form very critical aspects of Chinese music. But these two elements have been under-valued in traditional music - although it is still being expressed but it is not being amplified - so even though the pieces may sound contemporary, but the actual elements in those pieces and the ways of approaching the use of these elements are actually very very ancient. So the parameters of performance gestures and noise, they are all derived from Chinese music and used in a contemporary context. So it may sound or come across as contemporary but the elements used are very very old and they are actually used a lot in Chinese music and these elements have been under-valued and not being emphasised like rhythm and melody and things like that. So this is something I discovered in my research when I was still an undergraduate and in my graduate school and so I'm hoping to use these elements to provide the audience with new perspectives and understanding what Chinese music could be about.

Qn: So as a composer, are you worried that the audience might not get what you want them to get or you just leave it to the audience and similarly, for people who might analyse your music? Because they might think of something else from what you actually intended.

Ans: Yes, that is true. The reason why people might interpret it a different way again might be they didn't understand before how the parameters of noise and the other traditional elements have been used all along that's why they might feel like there is some kind of disconnect, but I wouldn't be overly concerned because I feel that as a composer, a very important thing would be to provide people with perspective, and the value of perspective comes when people understand it in different contexts and think about it in a different context. So even if somebody doesn't totally get the intent, but through being able to be exposed and receive that kind of perspective, they also kind of uncover some kind of hidden emotion or hidden spiritual sense within themselves. So myself, versus other composers, I know there are many composers who would like to focus on this music should express this specific feeling like happiness or sadness or anger, but for me it's more like I would like my music to help the audience uncover hidden kind of emotions that is within themselves.

Qn: Also because every piece has a programmatic title or descriptive title, do you have any background description to go with every piece?

Ans: Not every piece will have one, but ....

Qn: Like "Purple Plum" or "White Plum" how do they come about?

Ans: They are mostly abstract, I would say, in that sense, like "Mei Long" (梅龍) or "Long Mei" (龍梅) they are abstract programming but still again the theme of "mei" (plum) and "long" (dragon) is being reflected as they were being reflected in the paintings of this artist.

Qn: I'm quite interested how is "Golden Plum" being conceptualized?

Ans: So "Golden Plum" is a graphic score. It's using graphic notation. It's my first time writing graphic notation whether it's for Western music or Chinese music or a mix of both musics. I think it's conceptualized based again on performance gestures, and the players are required to interpret, because some of the graphic notation are taken based on fingerings or certain kinds of performance techniques in traditional or contemporary scores, so the performers just see how they want to relate to this gestures and come up with the music themselves.

Qn: So are performers required to draw on or relate to certain melodic gestures from your arrangement of "mei hua san nong" or the "mei long song" during improvisation so as to provide some aural allusion to these pieces and to connect to the plum suite?

Ans: Actually I would say no. The reason I would say no is because the pieces themselves are already very focused on the theme and if we have that even more focused by the performers, it's just going make the music very bland and uninteresting. So I think the beauty of it comes when then performers actually have no knowledge of or limited knowledge of what the compositional intent is, to give that kind of variety and perspective to the music. But it would help if they want to find out more...

Qn: So "Golden Plum" can actually be performed as a stand-alone piece without connection to "Mei Hua San Nong"? Is that right?

Ans: In a way, yes. But the connection would be gestural, the short answer is, yes.

Qn: On what basis is the choice of your twelve notes made, for this piece, because I realise there's repeated notes, in the same register and yet it's not linked to serial technique, right?

Ans: It's not.

Qn: So how do you conceive of the notes, how do you choose which notes?

Ans: So first of all, I actually choose my notes based on the construction of the instruments, so for example D is on a lot of instruments like especially Chinese instruments. It's on an open string, a string that does not need to be pressed in order to produce the pitch. So in the sense it has the quality of, the sound itself, it's rounder and it allows the musicians to be freer to express more in terms of their gestures or their expressions. But also because "Mei Hua San Nong" starts on a D, so that is how I found the match. But a lot of my pieces, you'll see that, whether it's a single note, like a D, it's usually not a straight D, meaning I use a lot of microtones, for example it may be quarter sharp or quarter flat, three quarter sharp, three quarter flat D, just so that there is a colour of D through the textures of the instruments but also the colour of D through pitch.

Qn: So how are the twelve notes (of Golden Plum) chosen?

Ans: There is no specific reason.

Qn: So it's random? Just a choice of random colours?

Ans: Yeah, you can say that. I can't even remember what the notes are.

Qn: Because I just find it very fascinating how come there are actually repeated notes but yet you can perform with any combinations any ordering and any choice of those notes. Then there is no need for repeated notes right?

Ans: I guess that is how the performers come up with their own concept, but in this case, pitch would take a second priority, versus sound colour, versus noise and versus other parameters. So for me, in a lot of my works, pitch is not a main priority. But it's still important enough that it gives the piece certain colour. It's not used in the traditional Western sense where like in serialism or based on specific scales or based on a specific progression and things like that.

Qn: So it's ok if we do not follow exactly? According to the pitches that you provide?

Ans: Well, even if you deviate, it's to provide as a guideline.

Qn: Are there any particular soundscapes that you are looking for, that you conceptualise in your mind, that you hope performers will create that kind of colours?

Ans: I would say not so much but the soundscape is going to be a result of the gestural and the chosen actions. For example if we have a curly line, it could mean many things. It could mean like the pipa is wavering on the fret, or it could be the sanxian just tuning, or it could be like a vibrato on the qudi. So I won't say there is a specific soundscape but I do have an idea of what it would relate to, for example the wavering thing, of how it would relate to the music for example pitch bending or things like that.

Qn: So the piece of music has a lot of chance elements in it?

Ans: There is a lot of chance elements but the performers are required to find the relationship between the transition of one element to another, so for example, they are taking the cue from the pipa player, the pipa player is giving the first hint and they would take it from there and so there is an aspect of relationship.

Qn: There is no doubt an eclectic collection of compositional styles reflected in this collection of pieces, like you have fugue-like arrangement of the "Mei Hua San Nong", and minimalistic approach in "Mei Long Song", "Bai Mei" and then aleatoric elements in "Jin Mei", there are composers who feel that actually the essence of minimalistic and aleatoric approach are actually deeply rooted in traditional Chinese music, like guqin scoring or variation techniques found in "Lao Liu Ban" (老六板). So are there any specific reasons why you picked these styles?

Ans: No, when I compose, I don't actually think like I have to write using this technique or I have to write using Chinese elements. It's just the way I write it. My music is more, actually it's not that aleatoric because you look at the other scores, they may seem like there is a lot of chance elements but it's actually very tightly knitted. We are supposed to perform this element within a specific time-frame and the dynamics are all written out. So I'm not concerned about what style it is or the techniques it is, but it's important for me, a good piece of music is something that the audience can take away with them a specific impression. Even though they might not remember the music, they might not remember the melody, they might not even get the rhythm, they might not know what the harmony is, but they can have an impression of the sonic landscape.

Qn: So the sonic landscape, the soundscape is the biggest thing that you want audience to take away from all your compositions.

Ans: Yes. The ultimate thing is to create the soundscape. They could take off one element, that is fine, but it's in Chinese they would say 一種音樂的精神, that they would remember, but not in the mental way of remembering, like I know that I heard this piece, and the kind of impression that I got from it. You know, you might not know the melody, even I don't know the notes I've written. But there is some kind of a, it's not spiritual but there is some kind of an element in there that you can still remember and you will get a good impression of it. An impression of the soundscape.

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