Contemporary classical music is everywhere – taught in schools all over the world, prevalent in movie and TV soundtracks. But while most people have heard of classical composers of the 1700s and 1800s, like Mozart, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, relatively few have heard the music of modernist composers of the last century like Schoenberg and Webern, or the many contemporary composers of our day.
Last time we spoke with composer/comedian/biotech engineer Kangyi Zhang, he told us of his inner urge to compose, and the trifecta of composer-performer-audience which helps him find new listeners for his amazing music. But as it is for many, modern classical music with the unlimited universe of acoustic and electronic sounds available to the modern composer first came as a shock for Kangyi.
Q: Welcome back to Musical U, Kangyi. We’ve been talking about your experiences as a composer, how you began. What was your own journey like coming from quite a traditional Chinese music background? Did you find that contemporary classical music strange and off-putting or was that a natural extension of all the music you’d been playing and studying?
It took me awhile to get used to modernists like Schoenberg and Webern. It was unnatural at first – especially for someone starting with Chinese music. Chinese music is very melodic, very tonal. For example, The Chinese flute itself is made for a tonal system. The G flute is best for the keys of G and D. These Chinese instruments are already tonality based. So, it was quite a journey. It was a shock.
When I was at college, I took theory classes, ear training classes which addressed modern music. I was in the environment – it was all around me. So I learned to appreciate and enjoy the more avant-garde music.
If you’re wanting to open your mind to modern classical music, I wouldn’t recommend jumping right into the deep end of the pool. For some who are more used to traditional, classical music, they may want to do a more gradual journey. Listen gradually. You may not like it at first, but gradually you may like it. You may learn to appreciate more beauties and complexities of modern and contemporary music.
Q: Okay, that’s good advice. You mentioned your ear training: we at Musical U tend to think of ear training as having two main types. One is active ear training where you’re studying intervals and doing repetitive exercises. The other is passive ear training where you’re just developing active listening skills and kind of conscious appreciation of music throughout your musical life.
How would you say those two have balanced as you’ve developed your own ear, both as a composer and as a performer and has it been mostly focused on the passive style where you are expanding your ear in a very natural way or have you also incorporated the kind of specific ear training exercises they teach at college?
Yeah so, it’s interesting you call it active and passive. I tell my students and I tell my friends who started learning an instrument, you do both. I call it “the easy way” and “the hard way”. The easy way is every day you are surrounded by music. When you go to a shopping mall. You walk down the street, someone is playing a musical instrument. You know, with the subconscious mind, if every day you surround yourself with good music, it is a very easy way to train your ear.
You do the hard way too. So, when you are playing your music. When you go to a concert, you judge. You need to judge yourself and you should judge other people. Always be judging. Always improve. I mean, the ear training is a lifelong journey. I’m still improving my ear. It probably never stops. So, you have to be very critical about your own performance, other people’s performance.
I would say with some of the instruments – the flute and the violin, for example – we are forced to always, constantly think about intonation, sharp, flat. Always thinking about intervals. The violinists, when they are tuning, the cellists, they have to think about intervals. So, they are always training their ear.
But maybe if you are doing the piano, you may not be required so many times in the natural course of your practice to train your ear. So, you will have to find other ways to do it. But, you know, flutists, violinists, always we are training our ear. Every time we practice. So, I would say do both the easy way and the hard way.
Q: Great advice. And it is really interesting to hear your perspective there because it’s clearly a composer’s perspective: developing your ear is about judgment and critique and evaluating the music you hear. It’s not just about knowing the answer in a music theory sense. That’s really fascinating to hear.
Kangyi, I’ve noticed you have some electronic music in your repertoire, blending acoustic and electronic music. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey in that direction and the kind of composition techniques you’ve developed there?
Yeah, so it started off as a course, I was taking Drew Schnurr’s course at UCLA. So, it started off as more of a necessity. A lot of my peers were doing electronic music, they knew how to use Pro Tools, Logic. So, I was like, “Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I should learn it.” Then I realized that electronic music can somehow overcome this challenge of getting musicians to play our music.
It’s really tough as a composer especially if you want to get your orchestral works performed. If you are good at sampling, you could actually have your music played by a digital orchestra and at least in some way you could publicize this music. So, to me that was a necessity. I would encourage people, composers, to learn how to use a Pro Tools, Logic, mixing, etc.
But beyond a practical tool for recording and promoting music written for acoustic instruments, electronic music has the advantage of its unlimited possibilities. This is how I created my composition “Crossing the Border”, which is about North Koreans trying to escape. First I recorded my own contemporary flute techniques like flutter tongue, key clicks – which may not be easily produced by the computer. I used them as samples inside Pro Tools and combined the best of acoustics and the best of electronic music.
Live performance has pros and cons. Electronic music has its pros and cons.
So, I would say composers should at least get their hands on electronic music.
What an amazing piece of music, Khangyi. Moving and cinematic. I look forward to talking with you more about how you are carving a career path as a composer and what your advice is for those who also want to blaze a trail for their original creations.
While the last hundred years of modern classical composition has continually produced new and unusual sounds beyond our tonal imaginations, with today’s electronic resources, we have the option to accustom our ears to these possibilities, and put them to work in our own creations.
You can here much more of Kangyi’s music on his website, Soundcloud, and YouTube. And And take Kangyi Zhang’s fantastic journey as an inspiration: with even a DAW as simple as Garageband on your phone, you too can start combining acoustic and electronic sounds to create your own musical landscape.
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