California-based composer Vivian Fung is known for weaving disparate influences into her music. But her latest project, Humanoid, represents her first major piece for electronics, bringing a cellist in dialogue with pre-recorded machine sounds for a 13-minute performance.
“I’m trying to stretch the boundary of what is possible with a single cello,” Fung said. “How many ways can you have an interaction between machine and cellist? That was my idea behind the piece.”
Last month, audiences heard the answer at the Kaleido Family Arts Festival for the Canadian premiere. Rafael Hoekman, principal cellist for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, performed the piece outside, on an Alberta Avenue rooftop.
Commissioned in part by Arts on the Ave, the performance is broken into three parts. First, the cellist takes on a machine-like sound by responding via the cello to electrical noise. Then, robotic effects, which include the recorded voices of Fung and her two-year-old son, are included. The performance closes with the cellist engaged in a fast-paced, virtuosic showdown against sound effects and a drum beat.
“Cello is close to my heart because I know the instrument very well,” explained Fung, who played the cello in high school. “The sound, the timbre of the instrument—it’s very dear to me.”
And the location is important too. The rooftop of her parents’ building on 91 Street and 118 Avenue served as the stage.
Fung grew up in Spruce Avenue. It was here, at the early age of seven, that she began composing to avoid piano practice.
“I was like any other kid, starting lessons and really hating practice, and my mom would be in the kitchen trying to make sure I practiced,” she recalled. “So I would start making up stuff and my mom thought, ‘Great, she’s practicing.’ ”
But Fung’s piano teacher was also a composer, one who recognized Fung’s potential and taught her how to write music.
With a new skill and passion, she spent much of her childhood (particularly Edmonton’s chilly winters) composing and crafting elaborate title pages and backstories for her music—artifacts she has kept.
“My imagination went wild with that,” Fung said. “It was my outlet. I was a pretty introverted kid.”
But that didn’t stop her from leaving home at 17 to attend The Juilliard School, a world-renowned conservatory in New York. Over the next 10 years, she went on to earn a doctorate in music composition, and then stayed to teach music theory and composition for another eight years.
Since then, an interest in diverse cultures and their music has taken Fung all over the world, from China’s Yunnan province, where she researched the folk songs of minority cultures, to Bali, where she toured with a gamelan ensemble. Her experience with the latter inspired a violin concerto that won the 2013 Juno Award for best classical composition of the year.
Today she lives in San Jose with her husband and their son Julian, composing and teaching composition to students at Santa Clara University.
“It’s great because then I can also explore the new things that younger people are thinking about,” Fung said. “I think that’s wonderful. You learn from both sides.”
It’s that openness to new experience Fung hopes to inspire in Humanoid’s audiences during the tour across North America this year.
“Just having an open ear and an open mind and just taking it in,” she said. “Whatever you take away from that is your own experience. Actually, I would love to hear about it.”
Featured Image: Edmonton-born composer Vivian Fung created Humanoid, a piece for cello and electronics, that cellist Rafael Hoekman played at the 2017 Kaleido Family Arts Festival. | Supplied by Vivian Fung