Du Yun won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera, Angel’s Bone. Born and raised in Shanghai, China, she is a composer, instrumentalist, performance artist and curator working at the leading edge of innovation in music, the visual arts and electronics and noise. In addition, she is on the faculty of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University where she teaches music composition. Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with her for this special Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: Is composing a solitary endeavor for you or do you gain energy from being around and engaged with other people?

DU YUN: I think both. I think composing itself is a very solitary endeavor. But I often collaborate with people, and it’s not just engaging with or getting energy, it’s really having ideas and being inspired by people. Also I gain a lot of awareness in society. I would say it’s very much a social endeavor. The composing – the act itself, when you write down the music – is a solitary act.


STAY THIRSTY: Do you hear the stories of your compositions in your mind in English or in Chinese? How does your heritage influence your views on the social issues that underpin your works?

DU YUN: I think both. In my mind, I don’t discern whether it’s in English or in Chinese. I remember when I first came here, in my early years, I realized that this word was in English or this word was in Chinese, but I no longer have those differences anymore. The heritage plays a huge influence on me, and I think it’s also changed as I grow older. Sometimes you get away from it and sometimes you get closer to it. For instance, I am doing a new initiative to engage regional opera troupes in China to examine how those disappearing dialects affect the narrative story and how that affects the musical structure. Because in China there are so many opera styles, there are said to be more than 300. Other than a few main ones, the regional ones are not at the center of people’s attention, even in China. I wanted to put them back into focus. They urgently need new stories and urgently need a new way of presentation. The ancient stories and emotions were always valid but the way of how you tell those stories has to be rethought, and the presentation of it has to be reworked. That is why, even in Western operas and in film and in TV, everyone is telling stories again and again. So that’s why there is some bridge work that needs to be done.

STAY THIRSTY: Why are you so motivated by injustices to women and to children? Do you believe that your compositions and your performance work are raising awareness about issues like human trafficking and gender equality? What changes in these areas are you advocating?

Du Yun
DU YUN: Well, because I am a woman myself, so it’s hard to not advocate for that. Not only am I a woman, I’m also non-white. The reason I say non-white, instead of saying minority, is that I don’t think I am a minority. Just as I don’t think women are a minority. Women are 50/50. If you were in China, I mean, there are a lot of Asian people. I just think the discourse is about authority. I don’t buy into that saying, and I think it’s because I wasn’t born and raised here that gives me the confidence in saying that. Around the corner of the world, we all talk a lot about diversities. The groups of people who are not in the mainstream, not just about women, not just about white or non-white. When you look at the country of Myanmar, Rohingyas are not having a lot of say. When you look at Israel, the Palestinians aren’t having any authority or say in anything. Those are the territories that I want to have a voice in. I believe that diversity means that everyone should have a voice in expressing and a voice to speak out. No, I don’t think about my composition or my works as being about issues of human trafficking and politics. I sometimes don’t think I’ve done enough work. I think that it’s naïve to think that art will really solve the problem of human trafficking. I think that I can hope to raise that awareness. I don’t think I’m solving a problem. What can I do to help gender equality? It’s a lot about role models and mentorship because sometimes when people see that people like me can do stuff then it becomes more feasible for people just like me or people not like me but who aspire to be different.

STAY THIRSTY: Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and focusing on the next step is something that you have discussed publicly. What fuels the fire in you to achieve?
Du Yun
DU YUN: I always try to think critically. I think that sometimes when you are so familiar with yourself and with the field in which you’re working, you’re becoming a commodity of yourself. And you, perhaps, are thinking less or you’re evaluating your motivation less, and that I don’t feel comfortable doing.

STAY THIRSTY: Your work has been performed from Carnegie Hall to the Guangzhou Opera House, from the Salle Pleyel Paris to the Escola de Música do Estado in São Paulo. How does having such a global impact affect your thinking about future projects?

DU YUN: I travel quite a bit, and those performances are only just the end product of a project. When I think about a project, I start with – not just New York, not just in the United States, not just in China – it’s really moving about. Also when I go around, I interact with people. I interact with what people are thinking and saying. I read about their literature, I read about their events. I learn about their art themes, film themes. I always make sure that I pick up the local magazines. Sometimes they have the translated ones. Even if it’s in a foreign language, I also scan through them to see what are they talking about. I think those are quite important. Even if it’s in a language that I don’t know, when I stay in hotels, I always make sure I have the TV on all the time and I flip through. I’m one of those people who absolutely believes in TV. You know, people say they don’t like TV. I never understood why people don’t. (Of course I understand.) When I travel, the TV is always on. That is a perfect time for me to find out what people are interested in watching. Voice of America has so many versions around the world, and it’s so crazy to see. When you’re in India they have all these amazing contests and the classic Bollywood, not the ones that we’re seeing on our films, the classics are very black and white, very beautiful, so I wouldn’t know those things had I not watched the TV. Those give me a lot of inspiration and makes me understand what people globally are interested in knowing, in hearing, in talking, and in discussing, When you read The New York Times, when you read The Washington Post, the homepage is still very much American centered, and then you have a global section. But then when you travel around all sections are all varied up from region to region. I find the stories that people are talking about are very interesting.

STAY THIRSTY: How has a classical education helped or hindered you in creating such original work? Do you have a favorite format or style that you prefer to work in?

DU YUN: I think classical education helps me in writing, in composing, in putting down the notes. I don’t have a favorite style for me to work in. Quite often I pin down the narrative first and then I work hard thinking about what makes sense, where, what style makes sense in what thread. If it were a different project, it would be the same as well. If I were doing a performance art work, I would certainly not do a style, it would be more fluid.

Holy Rollerblades

STAY THIRSTY: Can you teach someone to be a composer or is it a natural gift that can only be polished like a diamond?

DU YUN: You know, there’s a saying that talent cannot be taught. I think it’s a misunderstanding. I think composition can actually be taught. When I grew up I did hear about that. I think it’s very misogynist. I really think so. For a long time, I thought that, too, but people have this thing that talent cannot be taught. And then what do you have? You really disagree with people who you think might not have the talent as you do and then just block them out because you say that talent cannot be taught. There are so many people working hard. One of the initiatives that I’m trying to do is working with young people from South Africa, very young musicians. I go there, teach them, lead them, and inspire them how to have their own voice. Because composition does not just mean putting the notes onto the paper. I think it’s our misunderstanding that this is the only way to compose. Composing is about how to have a musical thought and that absolutely can be taught. I think that, for instance, if you only think that composition is about harmony, counterpoint, and Western instruments, then, sure, there will be people who are not good at harmony. They’re like, “I just don’t hear music that way.” If you think music doesn’t mean just that, then, I think that everyone can use music. I think everyone can be taught as a composer. I actually like that phrase, to say that something cannot be taught is saying that it cannot be thought. I was in this debate with someone talking about diversity and they were saying choosing quality over labels. The problem is sometimes when people say those things, their ideas of quality is very much monogamous. Because we don’t understand. We are not really investigating. When we talk about the quality of music, what do we really mean? Those are the things we need to examine ourselves. And then later it’s just how much time that person is willing to put into this. Do you really want to put in all this time to write a certain way or produce a certain way? Then it’s how much time you’re willing to do. But I do think that music can be taught and talent can be led and can be inspired. When I was younger, there were some teachers that told me I did not have talent. It took that one particular teacher to say to me that they are all bullshit maybe that student does have a talent. So the moral of that story is that it doesn’t matter who thinks a student has talent or not, it’s all about the right path for finding that, to build that confidence.

STAY THIRSTY: If you could rewrite one of your major works, which one would it be and what would you do to change it?

DU YUN: Why would I want to rewrite? I can edit, but why rewrite? Would I like to rework on the concept? Yes, absolutely. For instance, I am thinking about, even for Angel’s Bone, I’m thinking of different ways of reshowing and representing in many different ways. But I’m not going to rewrite it. I think that rewriting is a very different way of approaching it, if I was going to fix it or something. There are a lot of things, like an ongoing series, yes, but I don’t think of it so much as rewrite. I do think about it as a catalyst for thinking about something as an ongoing thinking process.

Peabody Institute

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