On a better filtering algorithm
Much of my work as a composer deals with the impact of emerging technologies. I’m usually thinking about how new technologies influence our experience of music, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and whether it’s a generally positive force. I always seem to come to the same conclusion: that any new technology can be used for good or bad, and that wise choices rely on a critical engagement with and understanding of the technology in question. Lately, I notice myself scanning my Facebook feed for bad news, which I can always find if I look long enough. A side effect of this (mis)use of social media is the tendency to focus on the worst in the world, but in terms of (very long term) trends, humankind is getting more peaceful, healthier, living longer lives, and starting fewer wars. Like much of my recent work, On a better filtering algorithm is a quest for stillness, a reminder to step back and observe things gradually unfolding, and a resistance to sensationalized fear.
Wendy Wan-Ki Lee
The Earthy and Ethereal Bond
This piece is my musical exploration of the philosophical struggle between reality and idealism that each of us has endured in our minds—from the mishaps and social injustices that we encounter each day, to what we aspire and hope for that seems far-fetched and unattainable. Although life is always full of wonderful surprises that play with our expectations, part of what determines our everyday experiences is how much we can look beyond our earthly encounters, which may not be the most desirable at times, and strive for our dreams to come true. The stronger the bonding between the two extremes—the earthly and the ethereal—the more perseverance we can have, and the closer we can get to our ideals.
This piece was commissioned by the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild for Musicarama 2010 and premiered on October 16, 2010 at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre by Next Mushroom Promotion, a professional new music ensemble from Japan.
Unicorn Dance is inspired by an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Item of Hong Kong—the Hang Hau Hakka Unicorn Dance which has been practiced for more than 200 years. The Hakka people believe the Chinese unicorn can ward off evil and bring good luck. At many celebratory occasions such as Chinese New Year, weddings, birthday parties, or the inauguration of an ancestral hall, there would invariably be a unicorn dance. This piece captures the gestures of a unicorn dance through transforming interesting instrumental timbre, modulation of keys, and abrupt change of articulations.
Nestled in the northern area of the famous Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, the Echo Caves are surrounded by breathtaking landscapes and spectacular hills. It is believed that the cave systems extend further than 40 kilometers, but their true length remains a mystery and the entire system has not been explored yet. The name Echo Caves was derived from the rock formations that are found in the caves, as when one is struck the noise resonates from the blow, echoing for kilometers down the system. It is believed that early inhabitants of the area would strike the rock to warn others of approaching danger and give them time to flee into the caves.
The Voice of the Rain
Words are the inspirational seeds for much of the music I compose. The Voice of the Rain takes its title and inspiration from Walt Whitman’s poem “The Voice of the Rain” from Leaves of Grass. Whitman beautifully describes the world as an everlasting cyclical process of giving birth to itself and giving back life to its own origin. I was especially drawn to the last line of this poem where Whitman reveals a deeper truth about the creative process. He equates the everlasting cyclical nature of life, with the creative process, where—like the rain—the creation changes form but is always the same at its core and eventually returns to the poet as love from those who read the words. It is my hope that the music captures the essence of Whitman’s powerful meditation on nature and humanity.
The Voice of the Rain was commissioned as part of a New Music USA Project Grant and written for Sarah Frisof - flute, Hannah Collins - cello and Michael Compitello - percussion.
The Voice of the Rain
And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely formed, altogether changed, and
yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Recked or unrecked, duly with love returns.)
Urban Sky Glow
The use of too much artificial light causes us to miss out on the many stars of our night sky. Urban Sky Glow explores how our celestial friends return to our lives as we reduce city lights. It acts as an interpretation of the levels of the starlight magnitude of one particular area of the night sky. The marimba musically represents the stars that are visible in the different magnitudes. After the first minute of the piece, four stars have been revealed: Sirius, Rigel, Betelgeuse, and Hyades. As we move through the levels of magnitude, city light is reduced, more stars are revealed, and previously visible stars become brighter. The fixed media creates both a contrasting artificial light as well as extensions of the marimba’s starlight. As we travel through the magnitudes we also engage in two Dreams which are variations on the starlight materials.
Crumbs, for amplified percussion and electronics, is an aphoristic composition that explores delicate grains, sounds, and textures. The work was designed to be portable. The instruments and found objects used in the live-percussion part can easily fit inside a small box.
The work is comprised of six short sections, each examining a unique set of small handheld percussion instruments and common household items. The work is centered around a five-to-one ratio, which controls the piece’s proportions and the distribution of the number of attacks per section. Each of the first five sections are composed of two gestures: one decelerating and one accelerating. Their weighted proportions gradually shift from a five-to-one to a one-to-five ratio. The sixth section is divided into five additional parts that mirror the large-scale proportions in the piece. The work begins with small, bright, effervescent grains and gradually incorporates larger, deeper, and more resonant textures.
And the Earth Sang to Me Through the Wind
And the Earth Sang to Me Through the Wind was inspired by my love of mountains–particularly Yosemite Falls and Cooper’s Rock. In places like that where you can see for miles, there is an almost spiritual connection to the Earth under your feet. This piece attempts to capture that feeling which can range from comforting to immense and terrifying. There is a musical line that passes between the two pianos and never stops, outlining a series of chords that come in and out of focus. In the two slower sections, these chords grow from 3 to 6 to (finally) all 12 chromatic pitches. While there isn’t exactly a tonal center, the end of the piece brings clarity (transcendence?) through a chord that has been hinted at (but never stated) since the beginning, and links all the other chordal material.
Medical Text p.57
Medical Text p. 57 is an aggressive, virtuosic, and remarkably vulnerable piece crafted around selections of text found in the educational tome Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine Vol. 1 published in 1845.
The chapter that this piece addresses is on the topic of age and its effects on the body through multiple stages of life, beginning with nascent burgeoning growth and advancing to the eventual unerring onset of decay. This piece manipulates the coherence of text and plays off humanity’s want to comprehend speech in voices, often crafting phonemes and consonants that are similar to speech but contorting them beyond understanding. When juxtaposed with recognizable text and married with a plethora of timbre driven gestures and extended vocal techniques, smooth transitions between nonsense and meaningful text help to drive the piece through continuums of obfuscation and clarity.
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