Composer Spotlight: Dai Wei – Adventure & Paths to New Worlds

Composer 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 conflicts and tension can create and inhabit world of their own. In March 2020, she participated in ACO’s Underwood New Music Readings (known today as ACO’s EarShot in NYC).

She was selected for the Composing a New Orchestra Audience commission, funded by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting. With guest conductor Marin Alsop, ACO will perform the world premiere of that new work, Invisible Portals, on March 25, 2022 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

We recently spoke with Dai Wei about the upcoming premiere and her experience in the ACO readings.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): Tell me about Invisible Portals

Dai Wei (DW): I took a trip to Tibet. When I was there, I was told there was a legendary realm, Shambhala, of peace and prosperity that is governed by wisdom and passion. I was also reading Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by a Tibetan Monk named Chogyam Trungpa, which talks about the teaching of the Shambhala. It is said that at the bottom of Potala Palace, there is a secret tunnel to the Shambhala. This reminds me of the mandala thangka, where geometric patterns are constructed on a series of concentric squares or circles with numerous entrances.

I want my piece to open up adventurous places. A place where multicultural conversation can happen.

LW: How do you start writing a new piece?

DW: Most of my pieces start with me sitting in front of the piano. I improvise on the piano while singing, which is my first instrument. I was a Mandopop music songwriter for many years. My mom is a Chinese folk music singer. I grew up listening to her singing, which really opened up my musical language. I listened to folk music and Chinese opera when I was little.

When I went to U.S. for education, I started to dive into concert music. My approach still started with singing. Sometimes I use recorders to capture my improvising and remind myself of what I’ve discovered. From improvising, I will come out with a general direction, but not know how I’m going to get to the final destination. It’s like I’m driving a car at night. I’m not sure how I’m going to get there, but I just keep driving.

My hope for this piece is to offer a platform for audiences to choose what they are hearing. I don’t necessarily want it to have an East or West label. I want to create resonance for people of different musical backgrounds.

LW: Do you think your consideration of the audience is related to the pandemic and the isolation we’ve been experiencing?

DW: Maybe unconsciously. There are electronics for Invisible Portals. I recorded my voice over and over again to overlay it. I could have chosen to perform as a vocalist but I didn’t want to do that for this piece. I’m interested to see if this one voice used to create multiple layers has a different connection with the orchestra.

It makes me rethink the relationship of the performer and the relationship to the instrument. I didn’t want the voice to be a live soloist. I wanted to treat myself as an instrument or instruments and to be part of a bigger environment. I wanted to hear it as a whole, like an ecosystem, rather than a vocal concerto. When there is a soloist that main attention is on the vocalist. I didn’t want that effect for this work.

Dai Wei’s Samsaric Dance, recorded during ACO’s 2020 EarShot Readings in NYC

LW: You participated in ACO’s Underwood Readings in March 2020. What was that experience like?

DW: As I’ve been writing this commission, sometimes it would remind me of specific people whom I met in the ACO orchestra. We had the principals of each section come and talk to us. This was very precious to me; a really amazing feature of the ACO readings. Having a principal tell you about a challenge for their instrument or in the score notation is really helpful. There are specific people that I remember. As I was writing, there were moments I kept thinking about how the work is for this warm orchestra.

LW: How was writing a new work after the 2020 Readings compared to writing one before you went through EarShot?

DW: I remember towards the end of the Readings, Mindy or Derek asked me how I was feeling. I’d written Samsaric Dance a year or so before it was workshopped at ACO’s reading. I felt really uncomfortable.

As a composer I am always changing. Musically, I always want myself to be a sponge. While I was studying in the U.S., I was really driven to study as much as I can. I don’t want to limit myself to have a stage of comfort and satisfaction in what I’m doing and not be able to dive deeper anymore. Being a composer is like having a portal to different worlds. I can write about dialysis or the stars. It is about anything that you want to do. Music is such a broad language. I feel like I am tiny in front of it.

I was feeling uncomfortable to hear the piece as it had been written. It felt like what we were hearing didn’t reflect the current composer I was during the readings.

Video of Partial Men by Dai Wei, performed by Aizuri Quartet and Dai Wei

LW: Other than this commission, what have you been working on since then?

DW: I have been extremely lucky because I have been away from the U.S. for two years. The music world there could forget me but there still have been commissions and opportunities working with musicians in the States. I feel lucky to have time and space to write the music I want to write. I miss the connection with people in the U.S. I used to be able to ask colleagues to play a section of music after I’d written it, or grab a beer after a show.  

Sometime after the ACO Readings, my mom called me in Princeton. She had been waiting for her second kidney transplant. When she called, she had received an organ and the surgery had already happened. I had no idea any of it was happening. I was feeling shocked, happy and also sad. I was grateful that this person I love gets to keep living. But also really sad that the donor, who could be a son, a dad, was no longer here.

I wrote Partial Men for the Aizuri String Quartet as a piece of gratitude for the people who donated their organs. I was supposed to perform with them in Fall 2020 but there was an entry ban for me to come back to the U.S. from China.

LW: Do you have any rituals that you follow?

DW: Mine is a little wild. I ride motorcycle with my mom. It’s a very mild and cute motorcycle. I drive and she rides behind me. The place I’m living in has good sun and blue sky. In the winter, the skies in Princeton get dark very early in the afternoon. I’m enjoying the sky and sun here. This is very sweet family time for me. When I return to the U.S. in a few weeks, I know it is going to be hard to come back to visit my family in China.

Dai Wei riding pink motorcycle in her hometown in China.

1 comment

  1. Chelsea Komschlies
    April 1, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    This is such a pure and beautiful composer portrait! Thank you Wei and Lindsay!

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