Kangyi Zhang began his musical career as a third choice school elective. But what began as studies in traditional Chinese orchestra has since morphed into a very active career as a prominent composer of contemporary Western classical music.
Last time we spoke with Kangyi (who also happens to be a biotech engineer and a comedian) he told us about his Flutist’s Journey as transitioned from the Chinese dizi to the Western classical flute. He has a wonderful web presence as a composer, and we were eager to learn more about the composing side of Kangyi:
Q: Welcome back to Musical U, Kangyi. Let’s talk about your composing. How did you start writing music?
I attend a lot of concerts. Every time I listen to music I’ll be like, “What was the composer thinking and how is the music going to change? How is the music going to end?” I’m always thinking about the flow of thoughts and inspiration in a composer’s mind. So, naturally, I wanted to write my own music.
Q: That’s terrific, Kangyi. A lot of western music students begin with a passion for their instrument and then end up getting forced into composition classes at university. Many of them find it a real struggle. It sounds like you had almost the opposite experience, where you had this passion inside for understanding the composition of what your were hearing. And that led you to choose this path of learning composition technique.
I suppose you had to learn some of the music theory and formal structures that make it all possible. Can you tell us about your pursuit of that instinctive urge to compose?
As a performer, my teachers always told us to think, “What’s the intention? What is the composer doing?” We read about composer’s background, what was happening in the composer’s life, when he or she was writing the music.
I started looking at music, just notes on a paper – but really, what is the intention, what is the image? What is the image for us to communicate to the audience? So, I started as a performer becoming more and more fascinated with the composers and their process, and I started writing.
The spark really comes from a very curious mind. Creativity to me, it starts from being curious and intrigued. Having an expansive mind, okay: “So this happens, what happens next?” You have to be intrigued and really curious about everything in general.
Q: One thing I found really interesting, as I listened to your music this week, is that you are often inspired by real world events as the inspiration for your compositions. If you have a particular event in mind, how do you go from there, to starting to put notes on a page or experiment with music ideas?
Sometimes it’s very academic. For example, I wrote a chamber orchestra piece for a high school about the tsunami in Japan. I looked up the date of the tsunami and other statistics – what was the height of the waves and so on. I came up with all these numbers and I created a certain melody equating notes with numbers. So that’s one way you could do it. That’s very academic.
Another way I like to compose is with folk tunes. A lot of people can relate to famous folk tunes. In my piece for solo piano, Syonanto, recalls the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War Two. In the third movement, I wove in a famous Japanese folk tune, Sakura (Cherry Blossom), and a famous Chinese folk tune, which just means flower. With these themes, and other melodic fragments and I try to create a new piece.In my composition journey, I had many teachers, but I always remember one lesson I had with Drew Schnurr at UCLA and he said that I should be doing more things with less. This doing more with less material has really influenced me a lot.
In my composition journey, I had many teachers, but I always remember one lesson I had with Drew Schnurr at UCLA and he said that I should be doing more things with less. This doing more with less material has really influenced me a lot.
Though I compose contemporary music with contemporary techniques, I still start with folk tunes, themes, thematic material, yeah. I would say I’m still very traditional. Motives, they are very important to me. Thematic materials are very important to me.
Q: Terrific, Kangyi. It’s so interesting how you blend traditional composition techniques with contemporary ideas – such as basing your music so closely on facts and figures. You have a very strong background in engineering also: do you bring your engineer’s mind to the table as a composer?
It’s just like the composer, Xenakis. He’s an architect and he’s a composer – he uses numbers a lot in his music.
Q: That brings us to another topic. I’ve been really keen to hear your perspective on the relationship between traditional classical music and modern contemporary classical music.
Let’s have a look at the philosophy of composition that has influenced much of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some people will say that in all compositions you should just write. If you do the Darmstadt school of thought, it’s like, “We don’t care about the audience, we just write.” In a way, that supports a composer’s personal expression, but it can become a dogma in itself.
Why is modern music esoteric? In our music schools, our composition classes influencing the students, there is the idea that the more complex music you write, the more Avante-Garde you do, the better composer you are. Students think, perhaps subconsciously, “I don’t want to lose out to my peers, so I see my peers writing complex music. I should write very, very complex music. Avant-Garde music.”
Q: Fascinating. As a performer, you’ve experienced both the traditional and contemporary worlds and you’ve had great success in both worlds. Your compositions blend the two, in that you’re somewhat traditional in your concepts, but you also experiment with extended instrumental techniques, electronics and other things that are really firmly rooted in the 21st century.
So, I’d like to hear your perspective as a performer of both, as a composer of both, and also what you think the state of contemporary classical music is from a listener’s perspective?
First of all, I would say you must stay true to yourself. What is your true voice? Like my true voice: I have traditional concepts blended with modern concepts. So, that is my voice. I try not to go into extremes, avant-garde. Melody is very important to me.
I think you have to ask yourself, “What is your true voice?” Then appreciate that beyond the composer, music has a performer and an audience.
As far as performers, are you writing something where they will be so shocked at your music that they just close your score? Do you have performers willing to play your music?
Do you have listeners? Do you have an audience? But without sacrificing your true voice. Don’t just think about pleasing 100% of the audience. It’s not a mutually exclusive situation.
This trifecta: composers, performers, and audience, they are all very important. In my case, I have both traditional and modern concepts. I hope that my music can appeal to an audience that is very used to strong modern music at the same time as an audience more used to very traditional or classical repertoire.
Q: Something we often come up against in Musical U is that the musician raised on rock and pop music feels the classical world is off limits to them and they feel very intimidated. And maybe contemporary classical music make that easier or maybe that makes it harder. I’d love to hear what you think.
It’s a question of taste. I enjoy modern music. I enjoy Schoënberg. But when somebody has just learned to swim, you wouldn’t ask them to go and swim in the ocean the next day. So, I hope that even pop listeners can somehow relate to my music, my voice. I find that it is not a compromise having to satisfy myself, my performers, and my audience – it does not actually compromise my taste.
Wonderful, Kangyi. A very whole picture of the life of a musical composition. When looked at through your “trifecta” model – the true voice of the composer, the compassion with the performer, and reaching out to the audience – the whole 20th-century debate about the audience seems a bit irrelevant. I myself find your music to be quite lovely, accessible, and unique all at once.
Thank you again for being with us here today, Kangyi! I look forward to diving a little deeper into your personal discovery of contemporary Western classical music, your use of electronics, and into more of your compositions.
The Composer’s True Voice
Kangyi Zhang’s music has an open, natural sound – unlike the “hard edge” that we frequently associate with contemporary classical musical compositions. His unique voice integrates melodic ideas and traditional motivic development with a variety of modern ideas in composition and instrumental technique.
We’ve had a wonderful time listening to Kangyi’s music and talking with him about his life in music. Try something truly new and fresh – while you’re waiting for our next visit with Kangyi Zhang, listen to his many audios and videos online.