Sam Wu ’17
Sam Wu ’17 and I were having lunch in a crowded dining hall to talk about his new piece TEA that the River Charles Ensemble will premiere at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at Lowell Lecture Hall. Our table was populated with classmates who looked up from their meals to eavesdrop, if only momentarily. In my peripheral vision, I saw people staring.
There was, admittedly, a lot going on. “I live in a world of soundscapes,” Wu said spreading his hands with his palms facing upward. “And so many multiple universes of sound – I live in a multiverse, if you will.” As he continued, I couldn’t choose between listening to his words and watching his hands: Each thought was accompanied by a gesture that strangely helped the conversation flow.
The choreography, I assumed, is a byproduct of being an award-winning composer and conductor. Wu has conducted orchestras in Mongolia and at Harvard; he has worked under the guidance of famed composer and conductor Tan Dun; he has written music about the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, typhoons and the visual media of charcoal, oil paint and ink pen. He doesn’t have conversations. He conducts them. He doesn’t tell stories. He composes them.
His journey in the arts started in the visual realm, with a dream to be an architect. Taking up the violin at 7 and piano at 8 or 9, Wu didn’t enjoy music until he encountered Sibelius, not the composer, but the music composition software. “Because of my visual arts background, it made more sense to me that art should be about creation, not just interpretation,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with just being a performer and felt like I was missing out on a huge part of the creative process. So composing was actually a very natural extension of my visual arts experience.”
Wu (right) earlier this year in Shanghai, China.
The fire and energy with which he speaks almost made me forget the deliberateness with which he crafts answers. When asked about his composition process, Wu held his hands still for a moment, thinking. “The thing about these interviews is that I can tell you something dramatic, or I can tell you the truth,” he joked. “I can’t think of anything dramatic now, but I’ll tell you the truth.”
Here’s the truth. “I start with a huge piece of music paper” – he indicated exactly how huge – “and I draw pictures; I draw lines; I draw melodies, and I annotate everything. I start from a kind of …” He paused again, making a sort of downward flicking motion, half slinging, half sprinkling. “A splattering,” he settled on eventually. “I start from this splattering of ideas that looks like a Jackson Pollock, and then think about how to layer these raw ingredients. There’s a lot of blurriness, so I can’t tell you exactly how.”
“For TEA,” he continued, “I read magazines and books and articles, and even though 95 percent of them I didn’t actually need, it was all kind of a background static that kept me composing.”
The composition of the suite was more personal than simply an academic interest, however. “My mother passed away from breast cancer this summer, and this past year was rough for the whole family,” Wu explained. “She loved drinking tea so much that it replaced water for my family, and I wanted to write something she could relate to and enjoy.”
“It made me really thankful for music, you know?” he mused, his hands folded in front of him, a finger tapping. “I was thankful for the power of music, how you can heal through beauty, how if you can channel your emotions you can make yourself ache less.”
The suite has three movements, taking place in China, Japan and India, following the journey of the tea leaf from country to country. “Each one describes tea from a different time period, a different area,” he said. “The tea theme will be in every movement, but will have a slightly different flavor.” He paused, hands frozen midair, for me to notice the wordplay. I laughed, obligingly. He continued. “You can think of the three different movements as three different glasses of boiling water, with the same leaf from Yunnan dropped in each one.”
Wu’s appreciation of his environs is obvious not only in his music, but in everyday life: “Hmm,” he said, also noticing the stares in the dining hall. “That’s interesting.” And turning back to me, he continued the conversation.
He is concentrating in Music and East Asian Studies and noted during our interview that he felt lucky to be composing at Harvard, where he could draw inspiration not only from other musicians but from historians, humanists and professors. In addition to that, though, there’s a more visceral and fundamental type of “research” that Wu has done to convey his complex messages and images with music. “I’m informed by philosophy, analysis, training,” Wu said. “I draw inspiration from culture, history and music. But when I’m stringing things together, it’s a lot of intuition, and I try to follow this.” Here, he pointed to his heart.
The River Charles Ensemble will premiere Sam Wu’s TEA and other works 8 p.m. Nov. 21 in Lowell Lecture Hall. Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for nonstudents.