As a second generation Canadian, JUNO award winning composer Vivian Fung says that composing has helped her realize that she doesn’t need to identify with just one culture. Her music displays a powerful compositional voice while merging Western forms with non-western influences, including Chinese, Balinese and Javanese styles. While studying music at Juilliard, Fung was exposed to Western musical concepts and composers, but it was only after a meeting with a composer from China that Fung began to explore her cross-cultural heritage and immerse herself in Chinese history.
“This composer invited me to his home, and after going through a few pleasantries, he spent the next three hours providing me with all the should-haves and cold-haves of my skewed musical education. The school I chose was wrong for an Asian composer, he said. What is absolutely necessary for an Asian composer, especially a Chinese composer, is knowledge of your own heritage in addition to the Western heritage. I had to start over, he declared…Did I know anything about Chinese history? No. Confucian doctrine? Umm, no. The list grew longer as the evening went by. I left his house with my head spinning and my tail between my legs.”
While daunted by thousands of years to cover, she immersed herself in the material and in 2012 travelled to Southwest China for an ethno-musicological research trip. It was there that she identified with the isolation and apartness of minority nationalities in the Yunnan province and began to study their musical cultures, which became the foundation for her piece Yunnan Folk Songs. She has also developed a knowledge of Southeast Asian cultures through her travels and developed a penchant for the music of Vietnam, where both her parents spent their childhoods in a Chinese neighbourhood of Saigon.
The title of her piece in the What Next Festival, Birdsong, references the sounds and quick movements of birds. “The idea of overarching bird calls and melodies lends itself to an exotic atmosphere,” says Fung. Her work showcases the virtuosity of the piano and violin in intense rhythmic sections and an exploration of improvisational styles. Vivian Fung’s Birdsong is performed by HPO Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski on May 17 during the concert From the Eastern Gate: New Works Inspired by Chinese Heritage at Centenary United Church.
Vivian Fung describes how travelling to Bali inspired her work Dreamscapes: