UC San Diego's Department of Music

October 11, 2007

  Q: What attracted you to UCSD?

A: I always think of UCSD as a place where one can "dream seriously". It is where openness is matched with discipline, idealism with intellectual scrutiny. I can't imagine better ingredients for magical amalgams! It is great to work with the colleagues here, and it is especially inspiring to work with the students. When working with them, I feel blessed to be drawn into someone else's dream world, and they are such fascinating dreams!

Q: Is there a specific direction or goal that you have in your upcoming classes/projects here? What classes will you be teaching this year?

A: I was impressed by the undergraduate juries this past summer. The students in this year's composition seminar also demonstrate tremendous motivation. I hope to help ensure a better sense of continuity and direction between the composition seminar (Music 103) and its preparatory course (Music″). We can better prepare the students for graduate studies by enhancing their analytical ability, developing their craftsmanship as well as skills in technology. We can create more performance opportunities for the undergraduate composers, and to engage them in discussions with graduate composers, faculty and visiting musicians. I hope their wonderful energy will continue to inspire and energize our program.

During the winter quarter, I will offer a seminar "Chinese Musical Aesthetics and Practices" (Music 207, theoretical studies seminar). This course examines some of the theatrical, scholarly and folk traditions of China, while investigating how these traditions might be engaged in contemporary musical discourse. Personally, my own composition and research have benefited tremendously from an intense cross-cultural exchange, and I believe contemporary Western music and the millennia-old Asian musical heritage still have a lot to learn from each other. I hope these studies will open the window to a different frame of references that may contrast as well as complement our own. From my experience, such musical cross-reference not only enriches one's imagination, but also deepens one's understanding of oneself.

Q: Who were your mentors?

A: I had many mentors. My principal teacher at the New England Conservatory was Robert Cogan. His analysis classes cover an unusually wide range of repertoire, including Tibetan chanting, shakukachi music, blues, Medieval and contemporary Western music. I was very inspired by his use of modern technology (in particular, sonograms) to create new models for musical analysis. Another important mentor for me was Rulan Chao Pian, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard. When I was a student struggling to survive financially, she and her husband Theodore Pian took me under their wings. They housed me, fed me, and most importantly, they expanded my knowledge of Asian music and Chinese culture. During the past century, the Chinese built a "Great Wall" separating us from our own history and culture. The result of a series of violent and self-destructive events such as the Cultural Revolution is a cultural and spiritual "ground zero." The knowledge and experience I acquired while living with Rulan and Theodore Pian enabled me to reach across the "Great Wall", and to re-connect with my own cultural roots. This experience had an important impact on my life.

Q: How does a graduate degree help a student prepare for a career in music?

A: A graduate program provides a student the time and resources to sculpt his or her artistic vision, to crystallize one's unique voice. It offers the student important experience in teaching and writing about music. The student acquires a better understanding of the challenging reality of academia and music industry, and is prompted to think seriously about one's dreams and responsibilities. Above all, it is the best place to collaborate with like-minded musicians and scholars.

Q: Do many grad students who enter programs today consider their laptops to be their "instruments"?

A: A laptop functions in similar ways as a piano did for a Classical or Romantic period composer. It is a necessary tool and a useful platform to improvise, experiment, and realize musical thoughts. When a pianist composes, he/she has to be inventive to find his/her own technique and expression instead of recycling the same old routines. That's why each important keyboard composer in Western music history, Frescobaldi, Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, just to name a few, transformed and re-invented the instrument! Composers with laptops today have to do the same with our machines.

Q: How have your experiences with Classical and New Music complimented each other?

A: I try to blur the distinction. What separates or unites the two kinds of music is our ways of thinking. There are a wealth of "new" elements in the repertoire of the past. My wife Takae Ohnishi is a harpsichordist, and I often get new ideas listening to her playing early Baroque music. There are many parallels between the new and the old, even though our musical language is completely different. What is important is to integrate intimate knowledge of the classical repertoire with truly new understanding.

Q: Do you you incorporate Asian musical elements into your compositions? Will you integrate these into your teachings at UCSD?

A: I challenge myself not to think of Asian music as a style. Of course, there are certain stylistic features that are easily recognizable and imitated. However, there are aspects of Asian music that transcend stylistic boundaries such as the elasticity of time, propensity to complex colors, and the close connection between music and other forms of art. I will try to address some of these issues in my seminar. I think new technology can also offer us some insight into some of its ancient sonic mysteries.

Q: What is the role of music in contemporary society, and what is the artist's responsibility?

A: I think today there is some of the most exciting music being written. Some of the most inspiring and visionary people work in the field of composition. However, the artist's role in education is also urgent and pressing. In a way parallel to the retreating glaciers caused by global warming, many cultural heritages are rapidly disappearing in today's commercially oriented environment. Western classical music and East Asian musical traditions are only some examples. In contemporary music, there's a danger of severing the fragile connections we have with our cultural heritage. It is a precarious reality that we as musicians and educators must help to shape and change.

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