Q&A with Composer Dai Wei

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Photo by Lingyuan Zhao

Composer Dai Wei’s piece Saṃsāric Dance was selected for the 2020 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be rehearsed and performed by American Composers Orchestra under the direction of conductor George Manahan, with mentorship from composers Derek Bermel, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Melinda Wagner. Reading sessions are free and open to the public at City College on March 12, 2020 at 9:30am and March 13, 2020 at 7:30pm. Click here for more information.

Dai Wei is originally from China. Her musical journey navigates in the spaces between east and west, classical and pop, electronic and acoustic, innovation and tradition. She often draws from eastern philosophy and aesthetics to create works with contemporary resonance, and reflect an introspection on how these multidimensional conflict and tension can create and inhabit worlds of their own. Her artistry is nourished by the Asian and Chinese Ethnic culture in many different ways. Being an experimental vocalist, she performs herself as a Khoomei throat singer in her recent compositions, through which are filtered by different experiences and background as a calling that transcends genres, races, and labels. She recently served as Young Artist Composer-in-Residence at Music from Angel Fire and Composer Fellow at Intimacy of Creativity in Hong Kong. She has received commissions and collaborations with Utah Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Bang on a Can, Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, Merz Trio, and the Rock School of Ballet in Philadelphia.

We spoke with Wei about her piece and the upcoming readings.

American Composers Orchestra: Your work, Saṃsāric Dance, was inspired by The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Can you talk about how this work came to be, from the first inspiration to its acceptance into the Underwood New Music Readings?

Dai Wei: The piece was initially inspired during a trip to Tibet and Nepal in 2018. I began the process of writing four compositions that served the same spirit: each was separate yet each piece had its own musical ideas and instrumentation. Saṃsāric Dance is the closure composition of that amazing spiritual journey. Using the Sanskrit word for “the turning wheel of life” as its title, the structure of the piece narrates the birth, death, and rebirth cycles that occur life after life, in ways big and small, on our planet. While I was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, I was so amazed by the idea that reincarnations are like dice piled one on top of the other. There is conditionality, but no identity, in-between each dice. So I came up with three main music characters that represent the “reincarnation” — — they derive from each other, support each other, and yet grow into three different worlds.

I still remember the moment that I found out that my piece had been selected. It was such a gloomy afternoon at Princeton. I was on my way home after seminar, thinking that the language barrier that I have been experiencing will probably bother my life here in the States for a very long time. Then I received this email and saw the subject line. I opened it and read the first line “I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected…” I was in tears. In that moment, I was both in disbelief to have received such an honor, but also encouraged to have been chosen and included in this amazing program.

ACO: In your program notes for this piece, you state: “It’s like a musical hotpot filled with diverse ingredients, and diversity is something we have since day one in our history.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

DW: I always think Chinese cuisine has so much diversity and inclusivity. Hotpot is an example of this. The combination of a variety of soup and a variety of ingredients — — everyone finds a combination they like the most. Saṃsāric Dance spans and draws on a variety of elements, as well as my other compositions. Growing up and listening to Western pop music, Chinese folk music and later influenced by contemporary music, I intend to cultivate a musically hybrid environment where people coming from different backgrounds, either musical or cultural, could find and have resonance with them personally.

Moving from one country to another means that I have to deal with a set of new expectations from different people and different cultures all the time. As a newcomer, there was always a place where my being different was pointed out. But I feel very lucky to have experienced life in these different cultural settings. They gave me new ways of appreciation and perspectives when it comes to my own feelings of inclusion in the way I write my music and how I approach other people’s music, too.

From everyone I have encountered, I realize that even though their personal experiences can be drastically different from my own journey, we are not all that different. I realize that no matter what your background is, who you love or what you believe, the core yearning for everyone is the same — — we all want to be accepted for who we truly are.

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Photo by Cristina Cutt

ACO: You’re an experimental vocalist as well as a composer. How does your work as a performer inform your compositional process?

DW: Voice is the first instrument I had for getting close to music, to sound and to myself. At one point in my life, I almost “accidentally” became a Mando-pop singer and songwriter. I knew only that it was a departure for me to express something so personal in music, and also because I was curious to see if I could convey my emotional experiences adequately, both as composer and performer. The music world expands from writing for my own voice to writing for other instruments, as well as for other people. I realize my instrumental writing share the similar tone and accents with writing for my voice. Working closely with musicians while performing myself as a vocalist has shaped my writing greatly — as one of the performers, I think about where and how the composition will be brought to life.

ACO: Getting back to the Underwood Readings: what are you doing to prepare for the readings?

DW: I am so excited and grateful that Underwood accepted the piece to be read with electronic playback. The electronics emerge at the end of the piece, where I record my voices over and over again to layer the texture, and sing a Tibetan folk tune on top of it. The orchestra eventually comes to only one pitch that surrounded by my throat singing which creates the harmonics floating on top of the orchestra. I want to concentrate more on the reading without performing onstage, so at this point I am making sure that notation is clean and the electronic files are working well.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings? What do you hope to take away from the experience?

DW: This will be the first time that I can sit there listening to the piece without being worried and stressed out about I might hit a wrong button for the electronics. I am looking forward to working closely with different mentor composers, other musicians and getting perspectives from their feedback.

ACO: Back to your personal art: who are some of your collaborators that you’re especially excited to be working with this coming year?

DW: In October last year, my mother had her second kidney transplant surgery. I heard about this news without warning: the dialysis, waiting for the right kidney source, the preparation for the surgery and post-surgery. So the moment when I knew she had the surgery and it went really well, I felt grateful and heavy at the same time. I was grateful that someone I love continued to live, yet heavy that someone lost his life — — he might be someone’s son, husband, brother or father — — someone lost the one she/he loves. Since then I have been working on this piece which is dedicating to two deceased men who donated their kidneys to my mother in 2004 and 2019, and to many other deceased organ donors who extended other people’s life. It is called Partial Men, for Aizuri String Quartet, electronics and voice. I will be telling this story and sharing this part of my personal life for the first time through music.

Hear Dai Wei’s Saṃsāric Dance at the Underwood New Music Readings. Reading sessions are free and open to the public on March 12 and 13, 2020 at City College. Click here for more information.

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