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Engage, Explore, and Play with Composer Wang Jie

November 7, 2023
Chamber Music Group by Joseph Wolins (American, Atlantic City, New Jersey 1915–1999 New York) courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nicky Swett spoke with Wang Jie about her philosophies of composition ahead of the premiere performances of Blame the Obituary. Their edited and condensed conversation follows.

Nicky Swett: You have a composerly mantra of “Engage, Explore, Play.” Can you tell me about each of those imperatives and how they find their way into your music?

Wang Jie: “Engage” is about the parts that the musicians and audience play in concert: 90% of music-making happens on stage. The other half comes from the audience. Now you know why my math teacher hated me! That’s my truth: when I’m being creative, I hold the audience and the musicians in my imagination at all times. No matter how creative I feel at my desk, it’s only effective when the musicians also feel engaged with my notation. No matter how beautifully the musicians perform on stage, it’s only beautiful when the listener perceives it as beautiful. They hear beauty, rapture, captivating characters. They experience intimacy as if merging their soul with the composer’s. The listener experiences music this way because these feelings already exist inside their body.

NS: How does that relationship with the listener connect to “Exploration” in your compositional process?

WJ: How do the genius composers understand me better than I understand myself? They write alone behind closed doors, and their music moves me and makes me want to be a better person. They seem to know how my ears (not eyes) draw out my deepest longings, without having met me.

I’ve devoted the last decade to allowing my listeners to feel known by me. I invite them to trust that my best work can take them to places that are meaningful to them. It’s less “check out what I know,” and more “check out what I know about you that you don’t even know about you.” Composing can be like engineering a ship, so that my listeners feel safe enough to explore the mystery of their inner ocean with me. My question is simple: can my ship move them?

NS: You have mentioned that Blame the Obituary is in some ways a funny piece. Could you tell me a little bit about the role of humor and “Play” in your life and in your music?

WJ: The pandemic delivered everything it promised: a lengthy, collective trauma that traverses everyone’s inner landscapes. It also delivered Blame the Obituary. The protagonist of the piece suffers losses, endures isolation, and transforms his pain into creative endeavors by writing his own obituary. I’m glad some listeners have found the words to be funny. The credit goes to my playmate in drama, American screenwriter Charlie Peters. Play isn’t just a thing for kids that stops when we reach adulthood. The artists I admire never let their sense of play, that pure kernel of life, become dormant. Charlie and I have our differences in the artistic domain, but the exchange of our creative energy, the playfulness of this collaboration against the pandemic doom, gave rise to the interplay of words against the musical feelings words cannot express. 


Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.