Originally from China, Dai Wei’s musical journey navigates the spaces between east and west, classical and pop, electronic and acoustic, innovation and tradition.
She often draws from eastern philosophy and aesthetics to create works with contemporary resonance, reflecting an introspection on how these multi-dimensional conflicts and tensions can create and inhabit worlds of their own. Here Wei divulges more information on a work getting its NY premiere at the CreArt music festival, as well as various thoughts on her own artistic journey and future.
Your piece, Mandalas In The Rubble, will see its NY premiere at the CreArt Music Festival. What is the background of this piece?
Last summer I went to Nepal and Tibet for half a month. Since then I have been working on a project which includes pieces with completely different instrumentations and ideas. Each piece reflects a specific scene and emotional impact I perceived along the trip. Mandalas in the Rubble is one of them and it is the first piece I wrote of the project.
What is the inspiration for the work?
While I was in Nepal, I witnessed that most of the temples are constructed on a series of concentric circles or squares with a broad base and numerous tops that gradually narrow. Unfortunately, the country was devastated by an earthquake in 2015. As a result, many of the Kathmandu Valley’s historic monuments, buildings and temples were collapsed into debris, yet the mandala-shaped bases of both structures remained intact.
Many Nepalis consider these temples to be the most special places on earth as their presence in these structures is what allows them to communicate with their guiding goddesses and gods. What really struck me and went far beyond my own understanding was witnessing Nepali people coming to sit on the collapsed debris every night——they came to the portals where Heaven touches the earth for worship, as they do every day, with genuine smiles and hope from the bottom of their hearts. Nepali deeply rooted in their being. The peace inside them passeth all understanding.
In Mandalas in the Rubble, I wanted to create a free-flowing soundscape that maintaining a sporadic texture throughout the piece, yet it gradually evolves into a peaceful non-violent cohesiveness. In Mandalas in the Rubble, the instruments are not being played as they are expected to or used to. For instance, the violin and cello are partly detuned in order to create a “ramshackle and dark” effect with the tension of the strings. It is meant to symbolize how shattered and fragmentized thing has a way of turning themselves into strength and beauty without losing their natural being. One could think of the mandalas as blooming in the rubble.
In your string quartet Lo-Re-Lei, you perform as a Khoomei throat singer. What creative possibilities did this unlock for you?
I did not know that I was able to perform khoomei until two years ago. At first, I explored the overtone singing, which creates a series of transparent and clear harmonics based on the fundamental. I started from here and continued to explore more possibilities that can produce harmonics in different ranges and create many other colors.
As writing the piece Lo-Re-Lei, I want to convey different life experiences through music that transcend genre, background and labels, altogether. I feel that at times labeling is something people need to do in order to feel that they have created reassuring order out of the chaos of existence. Thus, the legend of Lorelei, an aquatic creature with the ambiguous physical form of an upper body of a human and the tail of a fish, is meant to be a metaphor that explores the issue of identity. All of the five performers in the piece wear the black masks to negate their own specific identities, and to challenge the performers to come together in a rhythmically complex sound world. Meanwhile, the vocalist uses different types of throat singing which aims to deactivate the possible definitions rising from our aural perception.
How does collaborating with specific performers and ensembles shape your compositional process?
Composition and Performing are one to me. Working closely with musicians while performing myself as a vocalist has greatly shaped my voice and my writing. As one of the performers, I think about where and how it will be performed. In creating several of my most recent pieces, Lo-Re-Lei, The Lotus Told Me and Shiva She Says, I push myself to explore more possibilities within throat singing. These are great opportunities for me to work closely with other musicians and develop the music working from their feedback.
What are some recent and upcoming projects of yours?
The piece I have been working on is called Shiva She Says, which is commissioned by Bang on a Can Summer Festival. I will be performing this piece as a khoomei singer along with other terrific musicians at MASS MoCA on August. It is another piece that was inspired by the trip I took last summer.
While there I visited the Pashupatinath Temple, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Hindu culture (Pashupati is an incarnation of Shiva, a god that is believed to destroy the universe in order to re-create it). I had a chance to personally witness the traditional Hindu open cremation. I saw a dead person wrapped in orange from head to toe, with his face being the only visible part of his body. As the priest performed the rituals, the dead body was lit with ghee, oil, expensive clothing, and jewelry. Suddenly, I saw a woman in a white robe on the other side of the bank following her family at the end of the queue. The other members of her family were talking to each other normally, but she did not speak nor smile. My Nepali friend told me that the woman’s husband was the one who had just died, and that she was on her way to serve the mourning ritual.
Thus the piece is based on my imagination of that particular woman’s mourning ritual. While Shiva silently witnesses the loss, tears, and agony every day, this woman’s plea seems to be transformed into a dimensionless offering to all the other people who seek peace and painlessness. She accepts and embraces the agony. She talks to Shiva, and eventually, the two of them become one and the same.
As a Philadelphia based composer, what do you think about NYC performing arts activities?
Performing arts activities are an indispensable part of New York’s cultural life. There are numerous performances happening every day in New York. I really appreciate the fact that there is a sense of mobility—the freedom to roam across different musical languages and accents.