The next composer to be featured is Dr. GU Wei, a Singaporean composer and educator! GU Wei recently finished his Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD, USA, and currently lives in New York City.
Interviewer: Emily KOH
Introduce yourself to us! How did you get into music and composition, and what do you do now?
My first encounter with music, like most other kids in Singapore, was when I learned to play the recorder in primary school. I was really into it and figured out how to play songs by ear. Seeing my interest in music, my parents sent me for piano lessons, where I got my first formal musical training. I started composing soon after, as I liked to create tunes on the piano and tried to harmonize them. I also played the oboe in secondary school and later in the Singapore Armed Forces Band, and that was when my interest in composition grew. The variety of timbre in the ensemble fascinated me, and I began experimenting with writing some music for larger ensembles. Composition soon became something I wanted to do professionally, and so I went on to pursue music in university.
I recently finished my studies this year at Peabody Conservatory, and currently live in New York City. I have mostly been teaching and composing, as well as working on several upcoming projects. If the pandemic dies down soon and concerts resume, I hope to continue creating music and looking for opportunities in the city.
You have lived in many, many places. How has this international exposure influenced your music and process?
One of my biggest takeaways from the time living abroad is discovering myself as a composer. By immersing myself in a multicultural environment (from my experience living in international cities like London, New York, and Berlin), I became more aware of my identity and what it means for me to be a Singaporean composer. I also realized that there is no universal or ‘correct’ way of writing music since what might be relevant at a place could be rejected at somewhere else. Similarly, since people have vastly different tastes and it is impossible for everyone like your music, the most honest approach is probably to write in a way that we believe in.
Tell us more about your interest in the toy piano and an instrument, and the idea of using non-traditional instruments as equally real instruments in Play-Play Toy ensemble.
Just about five years ago, I had completely no idea what a toy piano is and how it sounds like, but when I first heard its sound, I was immediately drawn to it—a sound so percussive and striking. I wondered why so few people know about it, and I thought it has a massive potential to be a ‘standard’ instrument. While it has been brought to the concert stage in recent decades, most notably by Singaporean pianist Margaret Leng Tan, it is still a novelty to most people I have encountered.
In classical music, we have a ‘canon’ of standard repertoire and standard instruments—music of the ‘common practice’ that is written for traditional Western instruments. The toy piano, as a non-standard instrument with no music written for it before 1948 (John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano), defies this narrative. It is filled with surprises for both the audience and the performer—my toy piano is so wonky that depressing a key sometimes strikes the adjacent note instead! I like the idea that not every instrument has to be made ‘perfect’, and we can use ‘imperfect’ instruments to produce a much wider variety of sonic possibilities. This is the motivation for Play-Play Toy Ensemble, an ensemble of toy instruments I organized in New York. In addition to the toy piano, we play other toy instruments like melodicas and toy percussion to create a mix of different sounds that frequently surprise us as well.
Tell us about your new YouTube venture. What is your channel about, why did you decide to start a channel, and what are your hopes for this channel?
Honestly, I never thought I would do something like YouTube, but I guess the recent time of quarantine drove me to do things I would not have otherwise done. I figured that online presence is becoming increasingly important these days, and since I have been doing some photography, I have cameras and lighting equipment, so I thought I will give it a go at making some videos and posting them online.
My channel is mostly educational and covers various music-related topics. The current plan is to upload videos as often as I can, and I hope that viewers can learn something about music through these videos, whether they are musicians or not. I have no idea how long I will be doing this, but I do have a lot of ideas for upcoming videos. I am currently starting a series introducing female composers since I thought they are vastly underrepresented in the traditional ‘canon’ we know.
What can we look forward to from you in the near future? What are some future projects you are interested / excited about?
I am very excited about an upcoming project which I am doing with my US-based composers’ collective, CNSNC, in collaboration with Bergamot Quartet and Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). We will each write a new piece for string quartet, inspired by various stages in a star’s life cycle. These pieces will then be performed and recorded by Bergamot Quartet, and the recordings will be put together with images taken by Hubble Space Telescope provided by STScI. The ultimate goal of this project is to produce five music videos that would ignite curiosity in a new generation of scientists and musicians alike. We also hope to push forward a relatively new medium for the dissemination of music through videos, especially in the field of contemporary classical music. When concert venues are closed due to the pandemic, these videos would hopefully attract a new audience and provide people with an alternate listening experience. As it is my first time doing a project like this, I look forward to the collaboration and any challenges we might face when tackling this non-traditional mode of presenting music.
Interested in GU Wei's YouTube videos? Check them out now and remember to subscribe to his channel now via the link below!