Composer Spotlight – Theresa Wong

theresa-wongJanuary 2012, Composer Spotlight: Theresa Wong

Theresa Wong brings sage advice to student composers and musicians: “Cultivate the teacher inside yourself.”

Theresa Wong pushes the boundaries of staid musical traditions. Her compositions unite the worlds of composition, improvisation, song forms, visual expression and movement.

Wong has coached many young students to help bridge the gap between technique and creativity. Wong finds it edifying to help a young musician along the path to discovering their capacity for boundary-breaking improvisation. While she recognizes the important role that teachers play in nurturing talent, she also encourages students to cultivate the teachers within themselves. “There are no rules in music,” she shares with young musicians, “Except for those you create and break yourself.”

Theresa Wong is a cellist, vocalist, composer and improviser whose work encompasses music, theater and the visual arts. Her training in classical music and design fused during a fellowship at FabricaCenter in Treviso, Italy where she recognized the possibility of creative performance through encounters with Lawrence Weiner, Koichi Makigami and Alexander Balanescu. Bridging areas of musical and visual expression, Wong seeks to find the opportunity for transformation in each work for both the artist and receiver alike. Theresa’s pieces are performed throughout the world including performances at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Festival Internacional de Puebla, Mexico, Unlimited 21 Festival in Wels, Austria, Other Minds Brink series in San Francisco, Radio France broadcast, A L’improviste and at The Stone in New York City. Wong currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

CSIC interviewed Theresa Wong in January of 2012.

CSIC:  How would you define your music? Do you compose for a particular genre or style of music? If yes, what style of music do you most often compose for?

Theresa: My music unites the worlds of composition, improvisation, song forms, visual expression and movement with the intention to create transformation somehow, for myself as well as for others on the receiving end. I am most interested in making experimental music because I find it exciting to be playing with new forms and ideas rather than creating music that fits into a mold, in terms of a style or genre that is out there already. With this said, I don’t necessarily believe that I’m doing something totally ‘new’, but rather searching for a personal vocabulary of sounds and a way of performing that is meaningful and honest to what I am thinking and feeling. By ‘transformation’, I mean any sort of ‘aha’ feeling – which can be an emotional release, an insightful moment, a feeling of pure bliss or simply opening up to new ways of hearing, seeing, thinking or feeling. That’s what I love about performing and attending live performances – when you have that happen somehow, it’s as if some internal boundaries have been transcended and life opens up into something fluid. Most of my work is centered around performing, so it often involves my instruments of cello and voice, but that is just a starting point. I have been exploring the use of these instruments in various ways, from pop songs to free improvisation to performance art, dance pieces, notated compositions and theater pieces, but I feel like I’ve really just begun; in other words, I’d like to take my work further out into more challenging, unusual and transformative concepts.

CSIC: How did you choose this style/genre?

Theresa: I have a background in classical music, but I stopped playing for about ten years because I just couldn’t see myself following the path of a classical musician- it seemed too narrow somehow. In college, I gravitated to studying design because it was creative and the other students were all kind of wacky and fun – I was building things, using my hands, drawing, machining, but also thinking critically and creatively; asking questions and seeing things from new perspectives. Eventually, I ended up working at a center in Italy called Fabrica doing design, but there was also a music department there so that’s where things began to click. I was exposed to other artists working with the process of design that I was excited about, but they were using sound and performance and visual art as their medium, which was really my first love and passion. So I began to see that experimental and creative music was a way for me to combine the process of design with the medium of performance and music – which made some puzzle pieces begin to fit!

Theresa selected a piece called Xenoglossia for inclusion with this article.

CSIC: Please describe the piece.

Theresa: This piece is originally for multi-tracked and live voice, which serves as a soundtrack to Strange Skies, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats’ travel documentary for plants. The piece is performed in front of an installation of live plants and a video of clouds moving in an Italian sky. The light from the projection is to be reflected onto the plants, since that is one of their primary modes of sensory perception. The graphic score consists of two sets of five arcs, which are flipped and overlaid on each other. The bottom set of arcs is for the foundation, or sort of accompaniment, and the top set of arcs are directions for a solo part. The size of the arcs are determined by the Fibonacci series (which occurs ubiquitously in plant growth) and indicates the length of time of specific musical textures. Even though I originally wrote this piece for the voice (which produces carbon dioxide for the plants while singing!), the composition would be an exciting challenge to tackle with a choir or a large instrumental group because it really deals with improvisation and creating sonic textures within a musical form.

CSIC: Tell us about your audio sample and how it’s a good fit for young performers.

Theresa: Since most of my work is written for specific people and performers, I chose Xenoglossia because I think it would be a really fun challenge to execute with a large group, even though I originally wrote it as a solo vocal piece for myself. As I describe above, there are sections which have specific time durations, but each section of sound is meant to be a texture, simply suggested by a piece of text such as “the birds”, “the manmade sounds”, or “the rhythms”. There are no notes written down, so it would be up to a group – say the woodwind section, or the baritone and soprano sections, to come up with a texture that is inspired from that text. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a literal translation, but that’s where an interesting process can unfold; that is, what kinds of sounds would an individual and group be moved to make with one simple idea in mind? I’m interested in how music can be a powerful mode of non-verbal communication. I chose this title because Xeno – means foreign, and glossia refers to tongues – so this word refers to the phenomenon of being able to suddenly speak in tongues, or languages you don’t understand by normal means of learning. I was thinking about communication with plants, since Jonathon’s video is a delightfully cheeky and poetic homage to the plant kingdom. Because plants are immobile, he saw a perfect audience in them for a travel documentary, so I wanted the soundtrack to be equally serving to this other species of life. Humans have ended up so self-serving in the larger picture of the environment, that there was something very relieving about writing music to serve an entirely different audience! Each section is meant to be an attempt to speak the language of plants with a specific intention in mind. Of course I’m not really thinking about what sounds plants would make on a scientific level, but rather on a poetic and intuitive level of communication. There’s a part of me just having fun setting up all my plants in the studio and singing to them as I record (I even brought a plant into KPFA when I performed this on the radio) – but another part of me is very curious about the idea of plant consciousness. After making this piece, I watched the movie “Secret Life of Plants”, which was a really mind blowing film about evidence that plants do indeed have consciousness, and I love that idea. I have a suspicion that everything around us has consciousness and is emitting and receiving vibrations all the time- and as a composer and musician, vibration is what it’s all about!! So getting back to the question, I think this would be a really fun piece to explore with an ensemble of young performers because it opens up a world of improvisation and co-composition as a group, and there could also be soloists performing the top set of arcs, which include suggestions for “sounding” out a plant, such as “speaking the roots” and “speaking the branches”, etc.


CSIC: Have you worked with young performers before? If yes, can you tell us about that experience?

Theresa: I have been teaching private students for many years, so I have worked with young performers for a long time. It’s a great joy and challenge to find the balance between technique and creativity, because I’m always trying to take apart the way I was taught to play classical music and rather incorporate more creative approaches with improvisation and composition. It’s very rewarding when I feel like I’ve helped a student tap into his or her own creative abilities.

CSIC:   How do you envision composers and high school music programs collaborating?

Theresa:  I think having active working composers collaborating with high school programs is a terrific process because it can open the mind of students to a lot of different creative practices, but it’s also valuable to composers because it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in a small bubble of like-minded artists. Having to share and communicate and work together with young people of diverse backgrounds can really put your ideas to the test.

CSIC:   Do you have any advice for young composers?

Theresa: Follow the ultimate wisdom of your heart – it’s good to have teachers and people who nurture you, but it’s also important to cultivate the teacher inside yourself.  Tune into your own personal mythology – that is, study what’s been/being done that interests you, but use that only as a starting point to develop your own voice. I don’t believe there are rules in music, except for the ones you create and break for yourself. If you embark on a career as a composer, times can be tough, but remember if you’re doing something you really love, it is worth the struggle and beautiful things will unfold on the journey. Build a network of friends and colleagues with whom you can share your ideas and work – you can give each other strength and inspiration. Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if they don’t work. 

Explore and enjoy all facets of life – they will only enrich the music you create. Stay open.

CSIC:   What projects are you currently working on?

Theresa: I am currently developing my solo performance. Playing alone is one of the hardest things to do for me, but it can also be so fulfilling. I’m working on compositions as well as strategies for improvising with voice and cello that can stand on their own. I’m also curious about how sound can promote healing and currently researching how vibrations, frequencies, rhythms, etc. have a physiological effect on people and the environment around us. I’m also editing and mixing a recording I recently made with Danish pianist Soren Kjaergaard, of layered improvisations for piano, cello and voice, which I’m very excited to share.