Wang Lu wasn’t always aware of it, but she spent her formative years in China moving easily between two sonic universes. Her father was a professional actor in Beijing opera and her grandmother was a devoted follower of a Chinese operatic tradition spanning 2,000 years.
Her own musical training was decidedly Western: piano beginning when she was 5 years old, composition at 14 or 15, and formal studies at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music (pre-college) and a Bachelor of Music degree from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. There was Chopin, Liszt, 18th-century counterpoint, 19th-century orchestration.
“Even though my training was in Western music, I've always had traditional Chinese music in my ear,” she said. “I can sing and recite many of the dramas, but I don’t have a theoretical background in it. The Chinese music was kind of a parallel universe.”
That parallel universe remained with her when she graduated from the conservatory and came to the United States for doctoral studies at Columbia University. “The two sound worlds were a natural part of my upbringing, but I didn’t notice it until I came to this country about 10 years ago,” Wang said. “I was not aware of the influence early, but it certainly shows.”
Her approach to composition usually begins with an idea that is not necessarily musical. It could be a sound, a story, a conversation, something she has read, but not generally a musical motif. The titles of her compositions often reflect that origin: Wailing, Dialogue of Flowers, From the Distant Plains, Flowing Water. Recorded samples of her compositions are available on the Web at www.instantencore.com/wanglu
Wang chose composition for its nearly infinite creative possibilities. “Piccolo Trumpets, a Children’s Broadcast,” a movement in her larger work An Atlas of Time, takes its title and point of departure from a Chinese radio program for children. “As a kid in China, there was no TV, so every night before bed the radio told you a story. It was nostalgic, a very sweet thing.” It was much later that she came to understand the stories as propaganda, as heroes of the Revolution. The finished piece manipulates and distorts a musical motif from the program to produce a work that combines the innocent enjoyment of a child with an adult’s revisionist point of view — an ironic piece, she said, a kind of dark humor.
She is in conversation with colleague Paul Phillips, conductor of the Brown Orchestra, about programming an orchestral piece of hers for performance on campus this year.
Wang was attracted to Brown partly for its emphasis on ethnomusicology — the folk idiom remains a strong interest for her — and for its offerings in computer and electronic music, a way to expand her palette of sonorities. She had also heard about the open curriculum from Brown alumni who were with her at the American Academy in Rome. “The Chinese conservatory designs every course that you have to take. You don’t have a choice,” she said. “The Brown students [at Columbia] knew what they wanted to get out of every class. I really want to experience this, where a teacher can learn from students. Students are young, on top of what’s going on — and they’re not all music majors. Faculty may grow older, but students remain the same age. That’s a very valuable resource.”