Du Yun was chilling out in an Abu Dhabi bar after a long day of networking at Culture Summit 2017, when her phone suddenly went berserk. From one friend or colleague after another came the same message: The Chinese-born American composer had just been awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Angel’s Bone, the challenging, provocative, and stylistically groundbreaking opera she created with librettist Royce Vavrek. Originally commissioned by the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia, the opera was nurtured by Trinity Wall Street, Beth Morrison Projects, and HERE Arts Center, and had its premiere during the 2016 PROTOTYPE Festival in New York.
As the winner, Du Yun was in superb company; the two finalists cited alongside her were Ashley Fure and Kate Soper, marking the first time in Pulitzer history that all three cited composers were women, and all under the age of 40. Pleasantly besieged by media requests from around the world, including no few from China, Du Yun hardly can rest on her laurels: The MATA Festival, of which she is artistic director, runs April 24-29 in New York, and, newly announced, in fall she will join the Peabody Conservatory composition faculty. In a recent telephone interview from Shanghai, she spoke about the ramifications of her award and the goals she pursues at MATA and elsewhere.
STEVE SMITH: I hate to be clichéd, but could you describe what day-to-day life has been like since the Pulitzer announcement was made? DU YUN: I was amidst all those other people who I usually don’t come in contact with in day-to-day life. I’m not usually in contact with UNESCO people; I’m not usually in contact with foreign policy people. And a topic that they’re very concerned about is, what does art mean for societies, and how can societies integrate art to move forward? Especially when the United States is cutting funds for the arts, but more than that, artists feel the urgency more than ever to push art to have a voice on the world stage. And I think that’s fantastically important: the urgency of art as policies are shifting all over the world.
I think a lot of things are being recognized with this award, which I’m super happy about: me being a woman composer, the three finalists are women, the musical languages used in the opera, and the topic – it’s a social topic, but that’s not to say this is a political work. So to me that means quite a lot, but then after I got the news, as I’ve been talking to reporters and other people, I’ve realized that it means a lot to all the people around this, too. For example, when I was giving an interview for The National in the [United Arab] Emirates, they were asking when could I bring the work to the Emirates, because trafficking is hugely problematic in Dubai. So I feel like a lot of places around the world are very hungry for works that provide that platform.
After all of the U.S. media came in, then the Chinese media came in, and some European. Because I just happened to have a premiere of a piece here in Shanghai, I was trying to face all the media here in person. And it’s funny, as you move around, you realize that in each place it means a different thing for different locations. The Chinese media have been so proud that I got it, because there’s national pride. They’re happy that Shanghai got it, and that someone Chinese got it, and that a woman got it. I’ve realized that I’m becoming all these kinds of symbols. I actually am going to own it, because I want to leverage this, to really use this to say the things I want to say. Right now, it’s fantastic that I can have a voice to have a broader reach. That’s an amazing power to have.
I don’t want to overemphasize the point that you’re a woman composer, because it’s only part of the scope and implications of your win… But please do! Please do, because it’s so important. I do so much to talk about that here in China until they realize that it’s problematic. In China we don’t even talk about that. In the United States, it’s very problematic, but at least we’re beginning to talk about it.
That’s an important point, agreed. I just didn’t want to suggest that your being a woman is the only frame through which to view your victory. All of which to say, this brilliant trifecta of your Pulitzer arriving with two extraordinary women finalists, Ashley Fure and Kate Soper… Yes! Yes.
What’s amazing is that this all came hard on the heels of online grassroots activism by a variety of people from throughout the music world shedding fresh light on the way that institutions program, and calling for change – the #HearAllComposers hashtag campaign on Twitter and more. That wasn’t solely about women – it also addressed issues of race and LGBTQ identity – but it all seems to have built in momentum since Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin came to the Metropolitan Opera late last year. What do you make of this fantastic confluence of events? Well, first of all, I really don’t think this should be a finish; I think it should be only the start. I don’t want this to be categorized as a strange case; I want it to be only the beginning. To address the point of women composers and other minority composers not wanting to be labeled, and to just be considered by their work, I absolutely understand that. As individual artists, our work is broader than our identity, and our identity is going to be reflected in what we are thinking about. So as individual artists, I do hear that, and sometimes I do resonate with that.
However, to be honest, I think that being artistic director at MATA has shifted my thinking, because all of a sudden I’m on the other end of trying to champion work by women and work by other people. When you work as an individual composer, you’ve got to really be focused and just do things. But when you’re a curator, you’re trying to find people. You’re trying to be curious about art. We have this initiative called MATA Junior, where we really wanted to encourage young girls to create a work. Now, this is personal and doesn’t reflect MATA, but young girls, if you look at statistics, when they apply for something, if they get rejected they tend to not re-apply. That’s just statistically; obviously there are women and girls who always re-apply, and those are the people who stick out.
We also have a selection jury, and I wanted that jury to have an equal number of representations of gender, styles, and geography. And to be honest, I get denied more by women than men, because of family obligations; so many times it’s about their children. So when we’re talking about curating or programming, there are all these articles about statistics. But I really think to look at an Excel sheet is only the beginning. How we can really program equality needs so much more work. You can’t just say, “I’m going to program this woman,” and then that’s it. We have to have childcare policies. Like, say, artist residencies: if those residency programs refuse to have children there, then who will miss those opportunities? Women. In order to be able to be feminist, you have to have your partner be a feminist, too. You have to have an infrastructure in which all the people are feminist.
So when I hear now, “Oh, women are being programmed,” I’m like, come on, it’s not just about numbers. The same for minority people, as well. Look at American Muslims. Look at Asian Americans. We always hear the point that Asian American singers and actors are the most difficult to cast, because they’re cast only for a yellow face, their color of skin. The first sitcom now about Asian Americans is on, and it’s called Fresh Off the Boat! The creators are lacking. Do you know of the playwright David Henry Hwang?
Of course. His plays address Chinese relationships, works like M. Butterfly and Chinglish… and Kung Fu, which I’m working with him on. Those works all deal with Asian Americans or Chinese descent. So in his plays you see a lot of Asian American actors. We composers are creators, and if society does not allow creators to [present] creative voices, then the public will not hear those voices. When we create something, like Saariaho… I’m not saying that we all need to write women’s issue pieces, but it has to have room for that voice.
You mentioned that you’ve begun to look at things differently because of your capacity at MATA. From the beginning, one of the things that has stood out to me about MATA is its consistently international and diverse offerings, and I wonder whether that might something to do with the festival having been co-founded by two women composers, and that there have been other women executives prior to you. Was that persuasive in your agreeing to come aboard? Yes. MATA was co-founded by Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky. Both are composer-performers, so from day one they were not happy that they didn’t have a platform for all the pieces that were coming to them. So when they were in that position, it was like, O.K., composers can perform. Performers can be composers. That, I think, has always been a central impetus of what MATA was about. And then after that, Missy Mazzoli was executive director, with Chris McIntyre as the artistic director, and we saw a surge of alternative classical – she’ll hate me for saying that! [laughs] – and a move to different venues in the city, out from the Anthology theater.
And then David T. Little and Yotam Haber… I remember you wrote an article about that time. I remember seeing it. I’ve been going to MATA for many years, and I think you’re right: MATA is the place you go when you want to hear voices that you haven’t heard before. And all of those people are very established in their own regions. This year, what [executive director] Todd Tarantino and I have been developing is this idea that music can have different shapes. We’ve incorporated sound art; we’ve incorporated all these different ideas about not just style, but also presentation.
I think that sometimes, because I’m Chinese-born… China is very big, so this idea of Chinese composers being a minority is kind of foreign to me. But in New York, it is, it absolutely is. So when I’ve chosen artists… like this year one of our commissioned composers is Siraseth Pantura-umporn, from Bangkok, who is actually very active in the local scene and in the international scene. He’s gotten a lot of big awards, but he is doing so much for the local scene, as well.
Carlos Gutierrez Quiroga, who is from La Paz, Bolivia – we programmed his work [in 2015], and then the La Paz newspaper did a huge feature on him, because there is national pride. His work is so amazing, and they have this indigenous-instruments orchestra [Experimental Orchestra of Indigenous Instruments]. So he would actually invent new versions of indigenous instruments, and then go to those indigenous communities and teach them how to use these new instruments.
There are amazing initiatives that I’m seeing composers doing, around the corner and around the world, trying to have their own voices. It’s especially important and essential and vital for us in New York to have a taste of that, to have a window to see that, and I think that MATA is a platform for that. It’s such a powerful, important initiative, and I can tell you that next year we’re launching a three-year initiative to focus on the Islamic world, and also a series of solo concerts by female composers, called “A Room of One’s Own.”
The other thing that I’d like to talk about is the idea of gatekeeping. I’ve realized a lot of times if I were on a panel somewhere, sometimes you feel like you’re in sight, but you won’t be in the conversation. Sometimes you really need to be a specialist to understand what some music is about. I really am so grateful to the Pulitzer panel, and I notice there were two women on the panel. [Note: The panel that determined this year’s award included composer Jennifer Higdon and Harvard University professor Carol J. Oja.]
So when boards select juries, they’re also helping to change that dialogue. That applies to MATA, too; we want to make sure we have different voices, different styles. It’s a collective effort, from the composers to the boardroom to the government. I mean, the other conversation is, “I don’t care who wrote it; it’s whether I like it.” But I’m sorry, it’s all contextual; Your good is not my good. The good in New York is not necessarily the good in Teheran, and not really the good in Bangkok. What’s effective is important. And sometimes when you have a festival, you need to have the so-called “bad” pieces – I don’t want to say “weird,” but not “goody-goody” pieces. There is a threshold: We don’t want to seem like every curiosity and oddball is good or important. What matters is if the artist has a voice that’s important for us to hear – to see and to witness and to experience.
It is also dangerous: people could criticize, “Who do you think you are to pick?” I think that I would love to initiate a conversation. I don’t think it should only be me. That’s why I say that the Pulitzer should not be a finish; it should only be the start. And I really want to thank people like Beth Morrison and PROTOTYPE – and PROTOTYPE has three women running it, and look who they’re championing: female composers doing crazy work! [laughs] And Julian Wachner and Trinity Wall Street – you need to have those champions who support your vision, regardless.
In earlier times, I wasn’t criticized, but people who’d have that conversation would say, “Du Yun’s music is very hard to cast,” or “what are we going to do with Du Yun’s music?” And now, it’s more like, “oh, maybe we can find a solution to do it. Maybe it’s not as hard as we might think.” And maybe the opera house will open the doors to people like Jennifer Charles, who is just such an amazing powerhouse of a performer, but who might not be an opera singer. It’s not, “We should have classical music that has more pop-music influences.” No, no, no, no, no, no: I think we’ve already moved past that. I think we all understand it by now. But we should have the confidence now that we’ll be able to do so many things in so many styles, and if the content calls for that, then let’s just try it. Let’s experiment, and see what fits.