Born in the city of Xi’an six years after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Wang Lu grew up a time when interest in Western classical music was rapidly taking root in China. Following the fashion of the time, her family bought a piano and she started weekly piano lessons when she was 5. “It was almost like a cultural phenomenon for many of the one-child families in the city, spending all their savings to get a piano,” she said.
When she was 14 or 15, Wang began composing when one of her piano teachers suggested she could write her own music. “This had never even occurred to me as an option,” she said. That pursuit ultimately led to a steadily rising career as a composer. Her works have been performed by noted ensembles ranging from Sō Percussion and the Ensemble Intercontemporain to the Shanghai National Chinese Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra.
A seven-minute fanfare titled Code Switch will be premiered Oct. 7 as part of the opening concert of the 2019-20 season of MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series. This season’s four concerts, which feature CSO musicians and guest artists, are on Mondays in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph.
Wang was chosen to participate by Missy Mazzoli, the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, who serves as the curator and master of ceremonies for the MusicNOW concerts. The two met in March 2018 when violinist Jennifer Koh presented two concerts at National Sawdust, an arts venue in Brooklyn, N.Y., featuring new duos in which Koh performs with the composers. (A recording of the project, titled “Limitless,” will be released Sept. 18 on Cedille Records.) Among the eight composers showcased were Mazzoli and Wang.
Wang’s fanfare, one of four works commissioned by the CSO for the 2019-20 MusicNOW season, was written for French horn, two trumpets, trombone and percussion. “Code Switch explores potential musical translations among disparate cultures and genres,” the composer wrote in accompanying notes for the piece. “Sounds of traditional Western brass fanfares, Asian folk improvisations, 20th-century military marching bands, etc., are reinterpreted and interplayed to create a dynamic and exuberant yet out-of-place experience. With today’s swiftly globalized culture that often muddles and hybridizes with distorted understandings, this piece attempts to mimic a mistranslated world we live in.”
After completing her undergraduate studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Wang, now 37, moved to the United States in 2005 to pursue a doctorate at Columbia University in New York. After three years as a free-lance composer in Chicago, she joined the music faculty at Brown University in 2015. “Teaching at Brown, a liberal arts school, it’s really fascinating, because I’m really curious about American culture and the younger people’s lives and how they behave and what their interests are,” she said. “I really try to understand my students outside of the classroom, too.”
She still returns regularly to Chicago, where her husband is on the faculty at the University of Chicago.
Giving her career a big boost in 2018 was the first recording devoted entirely to her music: a release on New Focus Recordings titled “Urban Inventory.” “I call it a portrait album, because it is all my work with various ensembles and from different times,” she said. It features chamber and orchestral works from 2008 through 2016.
The title selection, written for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and electronics, was commissioned by Music at the Anthology and was premiered in 2015 by the Curious Chamber Players at the Kitchen in New York. Wang has lived nearly her entire life in large cities, and she describes this work as a kind of “musical, autobiographical journal” with “different windows into urban reminiscences.” The first movement, for example, includes processed tape recordings of a neighborhood park close to her family home in Xi’an with ambient sounds of children, music, dancing and dogs.
The recording earned an array of favorable reviews, none more significant than that of Alex Ross, the influential music critic for the New Yorker. “I’ve listened at least a dozen times to the composer Wang Lu’s new album, ‘Urban Inventory’ (New Focus Recordings), and remain happily lost in its riotous maze of ideas and images,” he wrote. “Every moment is vividly etched, drenched in instrumental color, steeped in influences that range from ancient Chinese folk music to the latest detonations of the European avant-garde.”
For each of her compositions, Wang is trying to create what she calls an “independent project” – something different than anything she has done previously. “I’m not the kind of composer who has an idea that keeps growing,” she said. But she acknowledged that there certain ingredients do reappear, such as her exploration of the “contours and intonations” of language, as well as what she called “heterophonic effects” — kind of simultaneous variations of a melodic line found in the gamelan music of Indonesia or Arabic classical music. She is also very interested in jazz, particularly the spontaneity and what she called the “loveliness of the interaction” that musicians have in this realm. She tries to incorporate those qualities into her works.
“Most of my pieces begin with an idea outside of music, either a story or some other tradition outside of concert music,” Wang said. “I start to think about the image or the message and then somehow I translate it into notes, but sometimes after a writer starts, you change your mind. I rarely start a piece with just notes on the piano even though I am a pianist.”