Composer Profile: Vivian Fung

Vivian Fung
Vivian Fung

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JUNO Award-winning Canadian composer Vivian Fung has distinguished herself as a composer with a powerful compositional voice, whose music often merges Western forms with non-Western influences such as Balinese and Javanese gamelan and folk songs from minority regions of China. In 2012, Naxos Canadian Classics released the world premiere recording of Ms. Fung’s Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto “Dreamscapes,” and Glimpses for prepared piano. The Violin Concerto earned Ms. Fung a 2013 JUNO Award for “Classical Composition of the Year.”  Several of Ms. Fung’s works have also been released commercially on the Telarc, Çedille, and Signpost labels.

Born in Edmonton, Canada, Ms. Fung began composition studies with composer Violet Archer and later studied with Narcis Bonet in Paris, France. She received her doctorate from The Juilliard School in New York, where her mentors included David Diamond and Robert Beaser.  She was a faculty member at Juilliard from 2002 to 2010, and currently divides her time between the San Francisco Bay Area and New York.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer? 

The seminal work that opened my ears in my youth has got to be Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”   I started composing when I was very young, around age 7 or 8, but it really started out as a distraction from practicing the piano.   I was very fortunate that my first piano teacher was also a composer, and she acknowledged my improvisatory forays as composition rather than frivolous daydreaming and showed me how to notate music.  This was a fun activity for me, but until I heard Sacre for the first time, I didn’t realize that composing would be so important in my life.  The first time I heard it, I had a piano reduction score, as I still did not know how to read orchestral scores, and it was mind blowing.   The sound world that opened up for me paved the way to me discovering other 20th Century music and led me to dare to experiment with different dissonances, chords, and textures.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time? 

Recently, I have come across many composers who have influenced my work, including Schnittke, Georg Frederich Haas, and then there is this work from Mauricio Kagel, performance art really for percussionists:

I am writing a percussion work right now for the 50th anniversary of the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine, so this made an impact.

Every time I start a new project, I always spend time listening to repertoire of the instruments I am writing for, as well as catching up with pieces I am unfamiliar with.  Listening is so important to my creative process, somehow by listening, the sounds act as a catalyst to forming new ideas.  I restart my sound engine and reimagine what is possible, perhaps revisiting ideas from previous works, perhaps coming up with sounds that I want to explore.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use? 

I write in spurts, almost every day for a few concentrated months, then nothing for the days and weeks I have to travel for rehearsals and performances.   As with a lot of things, deadlines often determine the cutoff points to compositions.  I start with sketchbooks, good old pencil and paper, often by the piano.  I start inputting notes into Sibelius (my preferred music notation software) towards the end of first or even second drafts, not before, and then fine tune and do final tweaking directly on Sibelius. 

I like to think architecturally, so I sketch the broader parameters of the work at the outset.  As things start to get more in focus, I start to think more locally.  I often compare my process to being in an airplane, where you start from 35,000 feet and you get a sense of the big picture but the details below are remote and far away, but as the plane starts to descend, things start to get more in focus, and then at the end stage, it is all about the details.

I’d like to explore Logic software more – I have used it in the past, but most of my recent and upcoming commissions are for orchestras or strictly acoustic instruments.  However, when the time is right, I will definitely do more experimenting with that. 


Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.

Harp Concerto (2013)

Duration: ca. 21 minutes

For solo harp, strings, and percussion

Introduction and Three Movements, played without pause

Co-Commissioned by Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Badisches Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, Metropolis Ensemble, The Phillips Collection, and San Jose Chamber Orchestra

This concerto draws on myriad influences to highlight the different colors and virtuosic possibilities for harp, including highly rhythmic sections involving intricate finger work, as well prepared sections in the third movement spotlighting the bass register of the instrument.  The work is written for harpist Bridget Kibbey, and includes references to a Thai zither melody, and also parodies stereotypical harp writing, with references to waltzes and tangos.  My overall wish was to create a work idiomatically written for the harp, but also expanding what was possible for the instrument and bringing the instrument into a present-day perspective.

A brief introduction starts the work, three long phrases cascading from the top of the harp and orchestra’s range to the bottom, introducing the main sonorities of the work. A brief harp solo signals the start of the first movement, which begins with a quotation from a Thai chakhe (plucked zither) melody. The movement features polytonal passages and ornate figurations and slides to give an earthier and more dissonant take to the melodic line. The middle section of the first movement, in constant mixed meters, includes a tight interplay between harp and orchestra that grows in intensity and climaxes with a return of the chakhe theme.

The second movement highlights the harp’s lyrical and ruminative side, with a long spun-out melody accompanied by muted strings. The melodic line grows into an orchestral interlude, in which the harpist presents brash dissonant attacks that interrupt the lyrical flow of the strings. A harp cadenza ensues, juxtaposing the contemplative sections with more aggressive outbreaks.

A percussion interlude allows for a transition to the third movement, in which the harpist inserts paper in between the lowest strings, muting them to create a “thump” that is reminiscent of a bass guitar. The opening passage transforms the harp into a percussive instrument, with knocks and scrapes interwoven into a jazzy bass harp line. The third movement alternately pays homage to and pokes fun at traditional harp music, with a waltz and a “dysfunctional tango” interwoven into the coolness of the low bass harp. The third movement also brings back fragments of previous movements, and throughout the dance sections, outbursts of those fragments turn the movement into a schizophrenic collision of the different personalities of the work. A long buildup brings the concerto to a fiery and intense close.


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