I’m a Polish of Vietnamese descent composer and pianist currently pursuing a Ph.D. in composition at the University of Pennsylvania. I will share some of my more recent works and trends that my compositions have tended to gravitate towards since 2018.
Only a few years ago I discovered that I could combine my two passions – music and languages – in my work. It began during the summer of 2018, when I was commissioned to write a song for mezzo soprano, piano and percussion. With an approaching deadline and not being able to find a literary piece that fit my needs and that was on public domain, I decided to try what I had always feared: writing the words myself. I then began playing with the Polish language and sounds by creating a list of homophonic words and similar sounding phonemes of the sound ż/rz [ʐ]. Next, I created a narrative using the words from the list using an unconventional structure. The structure heavily relies on the idea of addition and subtraction: addition is about building up from a single syllable to a whole sentence using homophones, and subtraction about removing the first syllable of every subsequent line. For the last word of the subtracted phrase, I made sure to choose words that would still make sense on their own, even after being deconstructed into fewer syllables. For example, umrzemy (we'll die)àrzemy, not a word, but sounds like że my (that we) àmy (we). Another example would be z tęsknoty (from yearning) àno Ty (well you) àTy (you).
I wrote the song a może...that summer and then two more songs later that year to complete the song cycle Gra dźwięków, gra słów(Soundplay, wordplay): Stół z powyłamywanymi nogami(a table with broken legs) which sets a Polish tongue twister and extensively plays with the syllabic nature of the words, and Płakała zapałka(a crying match) that sets another poem of mine and plays with the ł [w] sound. A year later, the poem a może... also ended up heavily influencing another piece, I yearn, therefore I am for string quartet. Specific pitches and techniques were assigned to specific words and syllables, lengths of sections were either directly or inversely proportional to the lengths of the verses, and the character of the music expressed the emotional meaning of the text. Since writing that first poem, I discovered that I was drawn to writing musicaltexts and exploring the interplay between linguistical sound properties and meanings. To me, the process of composing text and music is almost identical — from careful crafting of individual sounds to designing the large-scale structure of the work. Some like to say that music is a language, but I believe the opposite — that language is music.
Concurrently, another topic that became fascinating to me was time perception in music. This obsession was prompted a few years ago by a series of difficult life events that led me to experience time in a new way: time without motion. I realized that music could manipulate time perception so that the listener would experience time that moves either faster or slower than the time outside of music. My experience of slowing down of time or even losing time perception gave birth to Against Time for solo piano. This piece features a prominent note repetition, which symbolizes two paradoxical ideas of time: time suspension because repetition suggests stability, but also its flow, because on a percussive instrument like the piano, one has to keep pressing the key overtime to make sounds. Towards the end of the piece, with only finite energy that can go into stretching time, this energy eventually becomes depleted, leading to an eruption. Time suddenly runs faster than usual making up for the past.
I have also combined my musical interests in language and time, which resulted in my piece Tik-Tak commissioned by the TAK ensemble. Due to the name of the ensemble and the fact that in Polish, “tak” means yes, such as, as if, as much, etc., I wanted to use this percussive vocal sound and the various meanings of “tak” in my poem. Tik-Tak(or tick-tock) – the incessant sounds of the ticking clocks – is a commentary on time that moves on mercilessly and irrevocably. Any meaningful moment that one would like to hold on to a little longer... vanishes forever, as if nothing had happened. The song juxtaposes music that is clock-like and rhythmic with music that is timeless and arrhythmic. My next piece that continues the explorations of time and writing text is the chamber opera Through the Doors. Through this large-scale piece, I am writing a libretto in English and the topic of time manipulation is one of the main themes of the plot.
Besides working on this opera and other smaller projects, I am very much looking forward to Tanglewood, which was initially supposed to happen in the summer of 2020. Due to the pandemic, it was held virtually that summer, which is when I got to meet Angela. Although we met virtually, I am so grateful to her and the Illuminate Women’s Music for giving me the opportunity to present and perform a recital of my solo piano works, and for introducing me to Maggie Cox who did a recital of solo double bass music which included my piece Sept Vignettes. Although Tanglewood is now postponed to 2022 for composers, I can’t wait to meet all the composer fellows and hear music live. I’m sure that by the time this prolonging pandemic will be over, time will take on a new meaning for all of us.