Composer Du Yun Bridges Culture, Language and Time

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY DEC 25, 2020

To say that Du Yun works at the intersection of opera, orchestral music, theatre, cabaret, and any number of musical styles makes it seem as though she is a passive observer of these forms. In actuality, she is the intersection—a nexus of creativity that dives deep into traditional forms to deconstruct their rules, find the universality of their meaning, adapt them to modern audiences and reflect her profound social conscience. Her work has garnered her a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Grammy nomination and, more recently, a grant from The Hermitage Artist Retreat, which hosted a virtual program last Friday in which Du Yun introduced her work with her Future Tradition initiative.

Du Yun was born in Shanghai and began playing the piano at four years old. By eleven, she was learning to compose. By the time she moved to the U.S. at 20, she had been exposed to the music of Bach and Mozart in her formal training, but also brought to the states her experience with Chinese pop music and folk opera. Today, she continues to push the boundaries of musical forms by bringing the rigors of classical training to her various musical projects, of which Future Tradition represents the most emblematic of her propensity for socially conscious, cross-cultural creative work.

The initiative sees Du Yun travel the world in search of folk music and performance art traditions on the verge of extinction. “Many young musicians in China, for example, don’t even know that there are over 360 regional styles of opera,” she says during her Zoom presentation. Until 2017, Du Yun herself knew nothing about the Zinchang style of opera still being produced by the Diaoqiang Opera Troupe. “Chinese opera is very much based on dialects,” she says, “and as dialects disappear, so do their corresponding styles.” Many of these opera companies get financial support from the government, but that hardly ensures the forms will survive as anything more than a curiosity. “The real question is how do we help them make new works?”

As Du Yun works with these regional groups, which span the globe from Pakistan to Navajo Nation, she helps them produce new work at the same time that she studies their forms closely to respectfully adapt the style to her own new works. In lending her expertise and clout to these groups, Du Yun is able to leave a lasting legacy rather than simply appropriate the style and feed her own ego. “When I go to these places, I don’t just want to take something with me and not leave anything,” she says.

And 2020 has seen her produce work that has pushed even her own boundaries and in many ways represents the current culmination of her entire approach to music and performance art. In the absence of live performance in 2020, Du Yun made use of augmented reality to produce a virtual performance of an aria in the Kunqu style. The performance by 90-year-old Shen Shihua was superimposed over The Met’s Astor Chinese Garden Court. The production blended modern technology with an ancient art form and brought it to new audiences. “The whole idea for Future Tradition is to break down the barrier between ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional,’” she says, “and I think technology should not be the entire future of performance art, but definitely a big part.”

The Hermitage Artist Retreat, 6630 Manasota Key Road. Photo courtesy of Du Yun.

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