Interview with Composer Wang Jie

May 23, 2022

Recently, Music Director Peter Oundjian sat down with composer Wang Jie to discuss her Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains, a brand new piece of music which the Festival will premiere on August 4, 2022.

Watch the interview or read the full transcription below.

Peter Oundjian: Hi, everybody, welcome to this, and hi particularly to Wang Jie, wonderful to see you and to have you here. Thanks for taking the time.

Wang Jie: Hi, Peter.

Peter: I’m just fascinated always by what happened in China after the Cultural Revolution ended, because you are one of many people that I know personally, just fantastic musicians, that sort of came about after that period. And I’m sure we’d all like to know just a little bit about it, what it was like growing up in Shanghai, right? You grew up in Shanghai?

Jie: Yes, yes. Shanghai, which is like the New York of China.

Peter: The one city in China that I have not… Well, not the one, but one of the main cities I’ve never been to. So I would love to go one day. But it’s a fascinating thing. 

And I just want to say, first of all, that we’re all very, very excited about this premiere. I heard your music for the first time about three years ago, and I found it so compelling as does everybody else in any case. So I hope that everybody can make it to the final week program when we do this premiere. 

But tell us just a little bit about what was the atmosphere, how did you get involved in music coming out of this Cultural Revolution, where it was basically illegal to play a musical instrument that anybody could hear, right? So tell us a little bit about your beginnings.

Jie: So what a great way to rekindle some of those moments, which actually I would say that it’s always been alive in my consciousness. From the early 80s, because Shanghai just came out of the cultural revolution and my father, who came out of the winning class, had an opportunity for a college education. And of course his favorite composer was Claude Debussy and he had to go to the Shanghai Conservatory, he could just study with the best of the best of the nation at the time. 

So by early 80s, of course it was very, very expensive to buy a piano because it was just not available. So I began my music education and my father was already the music director of an arts institution the size of Lincoln Center. But he was the music director, conductor, and composer for this district that is literally bigger than the five boroughs of New York City together. 

And he was in charge of the music life of all the sectors—the military, the agriculture, the industry, import, export, education, farmers, you name it. So I spent my childhood just kind of shadowing my dad, who’s this conductor, a music director. And he started this youth orchestra, he gave an instrument to anybody who had the inkling to study music, but could not afford it. And I actually was one of these kids and I just grew up—since I was four years old…

Peter: So I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m wondering how did your father manage to be a conductor and a musician when most of his formative years were during the Cultural Revolution? Tell us about that.

Jie: Hmm. So there’s a lot of stuff that went unspoken and still remained unspoken up until he died. I am sure there was some music making training during the Cultural Revolution where being that he was the winning class, he had all the opportunities, which speaks to the importance of having opportunities. 

And he rose out of the most unexpected environment. There was no one in my father’s side of the family who were musicians. But he just had this love for Western classical music. But the more taboo it was maybe made it a lot more intriguing for him. 

So immediately after the revolution, he got the best training and he was very fast to study. And before you knew it, he was conducting choruses everywhere. Chorus was very readily available. And then he learned to conduct a youth orchestra, and because there was no other orchestra except you have to make your own orchestra from whoever’s in the community. 

So I think I took from him that it doesn’t matter where you come from, but it’s the ear, it’s the passion, it’s just following that and just keeping your eyes on the ball, and he was very much like that.

Peter: So you talk about “ear” and that brings me to something else. By the way, I’m assuming you don’t have any siblings, am I correct?

Jie: Nope! First year of single child policy.

Peter: Right, exactly. But you talk about “ear.” I have observed that pretty much every Chinese musician that I know has perfect pitch.

Jie: Yes.

Peter: You have perfect pitch?

Jie: I do.

Peter: Yeah, yeah. And my theory of this is that your language has perfect pitch already so that everybody actually has perfect pitch. And I don’t speak almost any Mandarin, but I have experimented with just a phrase or two and asked people to speak them to me independently. And the girls just speak them in the same pitches as the boys, but just an octave higher. So it seems to me that if you change the intonation of what you’re saying, you actually probably change the meaning.

Jie: Very true.

Peter: So tell me if there’s some truth to that.

Jie: Very true. My name has music to it, which is why it was a pretty difficult adjustment in terms of my oral world to come to the United States because of the unfortunate alphabetical translation of my name, which doesn’t really translate the music of my name. 

I was named in my local dialect, which is Shanghainese. Shanghainese is a very different music from Mandarin. And we have, for example, at least 2,500 years of a cultural history that is kind of steeped in this particular dialect. And I’m talking about culture because language and especially dialect affect our thinking quite a bit. So my name actually sounds better in Shanghainese than Mandarin. So here’s my–

Peter: So here we go. First, you’re going to say it in Shanghainese, okay?

Jie: Okay, ready?

Peter: And then give us Mandarin. Go ahead.

Jie: Yes. So in Shanghainese, my name is [pronouncing] Wang Jie, so it’s a tenuto and a staccato, right? And it’s a slur on top, Wang Jie.

Peter: Okay. Everybody after me, “Wang Jie.” Oh, I can’t hear you. It’s okay. [laughs] And then, okay, what about in Mandarin?

Jie: Oh, then it becomes [pronouncing] Wang Jie.

Peter: Oh my goodness. That’s incredible. So when you decided your American spelling, you kind of implied the Mandarin by putting J-I-E instead of just J-I, right?

Jie: Because this was the official spelling and that’s how it’s spelled on my passport and I didn’t want to change my name. So it came with it. In fact, the same characters in a different system, for example, the Taiwanese system would spell it differently. And in the pre-1949 system, it would also be spelled differently. But it just happened that post-1949, that’s the spelling.

Peter: Incredible. Okay. So now through your teenage years, did you always have the idea that coming to America would be exciting?

Jie: No, I did not. And actually, this is quite—I always knew I was going to be in music in one way or another. Actually my high school year is the subject of a documentary because I was actually kept away from music and it just kind of, I was so pent up. I was like, “I am going to just devote my life and now I know what it tastes like when life is without music.” And I’m not being sentimental here, Peter, this is truly what happened. 

I was in a high school boarding school and I was away from my piano and I had been playing the piano, practicing the piano as a professional musician for four to six hours a day since I was four years old and now all of a sudden it was taken away from me. It was something that I had to find my way back to, even if it means that I had to end every supportive network that was available to me at the time and I took that risk. 

And I think that mentality, and—not that taking risks are enjoyable or… I’m not addicted to excitement in that way—but it had to be done. It was not a choice that I don’t go for it and find out whether I can trust that whoever up there, the muses, liked me enough to keep me in music. So it was quite a journey and I made my way back to Shanghai Conservatory.

Peter: How long were you at this boarding school then?

Jie: Six years.

Peter: So for six years, you only practiced when you managed to go home in between semesters or whatever?

Jie: I had to exercise my flirting skills and I was able to access the music room in my boarding school. So I was always sneaking around and I had a reputation of always being absent for the “study time.” It was like a key middle school so the academics were very, very strong and you had to study really, really hard. But I was always like, “I don’t get any of this. I just want to go play piano, practicing Mussorgsky and listening to Tchaikovsky symphonies.” And so that was my lifeline. Being with music kept me alive in that almost semi-imprisoned life. I felt very imprisoned.

Peter: Well, I went to an English boarding school, so I can relate pretty well to that. I mean, that’s sort of like boarding school. I mean, the only thing that had stopped by the time I went to boarding schools that you didn’t get beaten as often as you had in previous times in English boarding schools. [laughs] So it was a little bit more civilized than in earlier times. 

But so here’s what I’d love to know, I think there’s sort of two kinds of people who play music, the type that just play an instrument or two or three and just love it and then the type that do that but think, “I’d actually like to write some music,” which has never in my life occurred to me that I would write any music. So what happened to you, what age were you when you realized that you had a gift for composition?

Jie: Oh, wow. It was probably five. I was five, my teacher, his name was Yang Liqing, so he was then one of the first musicians [who] ever came back to China but having had a substantial training in Germany. So he was sent away to be trained in Germany and come back to China to be the “leader” in composition. 

But while he was in Germany, he majored in both composition and piano performance. So my father, of course being my father, he was very charismatic and very well connected and he pulled enough strings to get me into the first studio of Yang Liquing

Composer Wang Jie in a concert hall, appearing at the Colorado Music Festival this summer in Boulder, CO

photo courtesy of Wang Jie

So we all knew that he was a composer, but we were there for piano lessons. But to study piano, to study piano performance from a composer meant something else. And I did not discover this until much, much later and that both sides of my musicianship, one is my love for performance and how I am a musician at heart, and then later he did his best to persuade me from not… [laughs] He used to say to me, I asked him so many times, “Dr. Yang, I want to grow up and be like you. I want to be the greatest composer that is.” “Don’t be a composer,” he’s like, “You will never make money, you’ll never get famous,” and anything else easier, nobody cares. Anything else is easier. And then he says, “You’re a good looking girl, you have other options, don’t be a composer. Don’t become like me.”

Peter: Sounds like my grandmother. My grandmother always used to say, “Unless you are going to be Yehudi Menuhi, go into business.” That’s what she used to say to me. [laughs] 

Jie: I heard many similar remarks, believe me. [laughs] 

Peter: So you started composing then at a very young age, right? And now you came to America, you came to Manhattan School. So tell us a little bit about how all of that happened. Then of course I’d want to get to the poetry of Dongpo and this particular piece. But first of all, let’s hear how the journey took place.

Jie: So, I auditioned. And so at the time I had like two pieces that I felt good enough to show the world for my audition pieces. So I met the dean at the time, David Noon, and he was kind of interviewing prospective students. 

I sat down with him and I played him my very first piece that I thought was my Opus One. And it was a piano suite titled Memories From That First Summer. And towards the end, there is a movement that’s actually a little bit Debussian. And I saw his face just turned into a different color. And he sat there and after the very last chord, which is this [plays], after the very last chord, he sat there, he didn’t say anything for a few minutes. And then he said to me, “You should apply.” 

So that was pretty much it. I kind of had an inkling that they liked me, they liked my music, they liked what I was doing. I was very intuitive at the time, still, coming from my teacher who just loved everything, the entire spectrum of the aesthetic approach. He gave me everything to listen to, and the love for Debussy.

Peter: So now, when you came to Manhattan School, so it’s an amazing trip to take. I don’t know if you’d been outside China yet at that stage in your life?

Jie: No.

Peter:  It was about just over 20 years ago, right? How was your English and how was it to make this incredible adjustment?

Jie: Oh, English was the easier part of my transition, because I’ve always watched Hollywood movies in Shanghai and I would watch them again, again, again, again, I would like, recite. So I basically learned English by watching movies. 

And so by the time I came here, I was able to make conversations, but reading was difficult because the academic program at Manhattan School was quite rigorous. So, Medieval Renaissance History really nailed me.  [laughs] And so yeah, speaking, oral communication was not a problem.

Peter: No problem? Yeah, yeah. Wow. Interesting. So let’s turn a little bit to this poet, Dongpo, because this is someone who I guess must be quite fascinating to you and certainly an inspiration in the case of this piece, is that correct?

Jie: To be precise, that idea has kind of developed a little more, if I can say more about it. 

So the poem is about looking at a mountain and the experience of changing perspectives of looking at a mountain. So I think of writing every piece of mine as a journey of climbing a mountain, metaphorically. I’m not thinking in my head, “Oh, I’m going to climb a mountain,” not exactly like that. 

Chinese is a language that mainly speaks through metaphors. So even if a poet is talking about a mountain, the poet is not talking about a mountain. The poet is talking about the mountains of life that all of us get to climb or not, you can choose not to climb, many people do.

And in this case, Dongpo was talking about the perspective where you cannot gain the silhouette of the mountain if you are inside the mountain, hiking it, inside the mountain, you won’t have that perspective.

Now I think of that as an important feature of the creative process, because what composers do is that we get the privilege to freeze time, we get to put time to a standstill and then we get to just take that slice of time and then make micro decisions. And the decisions, what those decisions mean for me is different from every other composer. And sometimes those decisions, those micro decisions, bear my signature, okay? 

A very quick example is, okay, you have an idea, right? So, okay, the idea is [plays opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony], everybody knows this idea, okay, you get this idea, but it’s for orchestra. So who plays what? Who plays what note? So it’s a good start to have an idea, but we get to freeze the moment. 

And then the challenge is that in every bit of these micro moments, when composers are making these micro decisions, it is like the mind Olympics, because we have to write for instruments we don’t play. So we’re talking about an orchestra, let’s say there’s 37, 8 different staffs and each staff represents a instrument that we don’t play and have their own idiosyncratic culture, vocabulary, there are notes on a certain instrument that will just sound too weak to balance some other instrument that is in a very comfortable position, but it’s the same note.

So we have to have all of that very, very nerdy information. This is coming from years and years of training. There’s very little, maybe some intuition, but this is the skill part, this is the technique part of a composer who writes for symphonic orchestras and other instruments that we don’t play, any combination of instruments we don’t play. 

Now, when I was younger, I’d get very much wrapped up in these details and I find it very difficult to gain the perspectives of the form, the big picture. And often I think the pieces that have failed in my attempts when I was younger, and in some ways in my future I will continue to fail in my future composition, I think almost every time, the place that I often get wrapped up and unable to gain the perspective or the bigger picture, I lose momentum of the form, I lose thread, important thread, things just I’m not sure how it’s going to go or how it’s going to flow better. Is there a better flow that is not there? It’s very difficult to be looking at the details of an orchestral page and then imagine this very moment which goes by in half a second. 

How is it related to a 10-minute piece… which you are about to hear in August?

Peter: Yeah. Well, I have a few questions on that. First of all, for everyone, this piece is called Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains, and it is essentially inspired by this poem of Dongpo but of course it’s not really about mountains, as you say. However, Wang Jie is actually quite a rock climber, I believe. Is that, is that true? You’ve done a lot of major hiking so I hear?

Jie: I’m a rock climber. Yes, yes.

Peter: You are, yes.

Jie: I’m a rock climber, yes.

Peter: Okay, good. So enough about that, that’s giving me vertigo just asking you the question. [laughs]

Jie: Oh, it’s time to try it, Peter. It’s the best thing.

Peter: Yeah, yeah, okay. In another life. [laughs] 

But I’m fascinated to go back to what you were saying because I guess somebody who’s a wonderful pianist as you are, I often imagine like Rachmaninoff as a good example that the composition happened, you played the beginning of Beethoven 5, then the next thing that a composer would do would be to continue and then to basically write the piece and take notes on the piano with the imagination. That’s one way. And the other way is pretty much nothing to do with the piano. 

But one thing I’m interested in is that I always had the sense that a composer would kind of write the big picture, think the big picture, and then start to fill in the details and the phrases and so on and then the last thing that they would do would be to think about the details of instrumentation. 

But you suggest a little bit that your approach is somewhat different, that it’s the details that end up informing the shape. So just tell us a little bit about your own personal approach.

Jie: Well, just in this piece that I have been working on for the Colorado Music Festival, it has gone through at least three or four different evolutions of the form because of the details. Because for me, it is not really a linear idea. 

When I think about an idea, it’s a very big, messy ball of information, but because my mind, eye, and ear can hear a very fine resolution in this ball of mess that just comes to me, it just kind of washes over me. I can’t control this. This is just the way I’m wired. 

And some people even believe that this is why I’m so compelled and so devoted to the life of a composer is because I do get these ideas out of nowhere and they come to me in this huge, detailed, fine resolution form. 

So as I am trying to capture, there’s no way I can write more than a page every sitting for… Well, some places, but most of the time that whole thing that comes to me, this piece, it has come to me at least a dozen times in different—that ball of a piece that just arrived in my head with complete beginning, ending. 

But as I’m sitting down to write, orchestrate, making these micro decisions, and then I discover that these details, they’re so alive. So they end up informing how I’m going to evolve, how I’m going to follow or not follow the form. So I don’t even know whether I can share screen, but I actually took some pictures of the three different stages of how the form has evolved. 

The piece is going to be, now it’s difficult to say it precisely, but the piece, is it about anything? Well, there is a title to it, but it’s an abstract piece of music, right? At the end of the day, words can only take one so far, can only take an audience so far. 

So what is this abstract piece of thing, right? That’s called a symphony or music? For me, because it’s so abstract… so it’s about a feeling, right? Really what it comes down to, it’s about the music. So that’s where the form, what is this so-called story that is inherent in these little details? And these little details will come back to inform how this story is going to go. 

So it is about, drum roll: the feeling of five.

Peter: Of five?

Jie: Five, yes. What does it feel like to hear music or to feel five in your body, in my body? 

I got this idea from many, many sources, including Indian classical dances, including my own fascination with rhythmic design, but it so just happened when I was rock climbing last time in the Eldorado Canyon, we had to take a detour because the ice sealed off a route that I was supposed to climb. So I had to go to a different part of the rock and try to figure out how to detour from this piece of ice that could potentially kill me. 

I went to the other side and the other side was just very unforgiving. I mean, it was like climbing glass. And there was one moment I thought to myself, “You know what? If I’m going to make it, I have to make five moves in very quick succession and it has to be super precise.” And then I see a good hold up there and I’m going to get there and then I’m going to just be stable on that last one. So 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, that is going to get me there. That is going to be lifeline.

Peter: And just so I’m clear, you saw these moves ahead of you that you had to do? Okay.

Jie: Yes, but that’s unusual because I’m not that good a rock climber, okay? I’m okay, but I don’t think I can think more than three moves ahead most of the time. I don’t need to. But in this kind of situation where it’s pretty nerve-wracking and I need to think ahead a lot and it’s unfamiliar because I’m reading the route for the first time and I’m figuring it out just like when you read my score for the first time, you’ll be figuring it out too. So yeah.

Peter: That’s fascinating. My goodness. So given everything you’re telling us about with this, there’s so many options, right? I mean a lot of composers say the hardest thing is to narrow down all the options. And I think it was DaVinci who says a piece of art is never completed, only abandoned, only abandoned. 

But how do you get to the point where you can narrow yourself down to a decision, number one? And secondly, when you go back and you see something which led to the next thing, do you ever say, “Actually I could change that to something I prefer,” or is it in stone because it led to the next thing? Do you see what I’m asking?

Jie: Yes. And Peter, I love the way you’re asking it because, well—as it stands right now, I could have just handed in the piece like a week and a half ago.

Peter: I don’t need it until the day before. It’ll be fine. [laughs] No, I’m teasing.

Jie: [laughs] Well, [Festival General Manager] Alberto was like, “Give us the music now.”

Peter: I’ll be very happy to see it, I assure you. [laughs] 

Jie: But the piece was pretty much done, but I was not happy with it. Something was missing. But I couldn’t really put my finger on what was missing. I didn’t know what was missing, but I knew something was missing. And I was like, “Ah,” I was having dream, sleep, one of those daydream things where I’m just like, “Something’s missing, I feel hungry—”

Peter: We call them conniptions, yeah.

Jie: Okay. So last week I figured out what was missing. Yeah. And you will hear the last touch of my modification of the form of this piece in the solo cello, principal cello. And then the beginning and ending and the middle, they all have to be modified because—

Peter: Because of that?

Jie: Yes, because how the piece begins and how the piece ends is now modified. It’s now developed into another thing, which I like very much, by the way. So I’m having sort of a Turner moment, Mr. Turner.

Peter: So you’ve got a piano there and this is, I’m only asking if it’s not a good idea you tell me, but is there anything that you can share with us? You talk about the number five, is there kind of a thematic aspect or character that you could give us a small hint on the piano or would you rather we wait until August to hear any notes?

Jie: Oh no, I can give you something! Yes, for sure.

Peter: I think it might be fun. And everybody please feel free to chime in with some questions at this point because I’m sure there’s all kinds of things on your mind that I’m not asking.

Jie: Yes. And Peter actually, the second part, actually the first part of your question, would sum this up very beautifully… is that if I’m honest with myself, there is an ideal form for this piece that we will all share in August, of my piece, my new piece. There is an ideal form, that’s sure, I’m sure about that. 

But as a mortal here, and I think music is sacred, I believe music is sacred, and the best I can do at this very moment, which the best I could do in 2020, the best I could do in 2021, and the best I can do now, is what caused the migration and the evolution of the form of the piece. They look nothing alike, but the piece is there. The piece is there, the feeling of five is in my body, is in my soul. 

And so I am doing the best I can in this moment of my mortal life to capture what it means in this moment of my life, to be able to deliver this magnificent piece of music that I hear in my head, trapped in my head. 

And I have such a strong urge to share this with the world, with the public, with musicians, with the audiences, because it’s so great. It’s much, much greater than anything I could ever imagine when these symphonies come to me like a flash, just like that, they’re just so much better than anything in the world.

So that’s where the struggle comes in, but that’s also where the tremendous reward of having then done it. I’ve been waiting for this moment to happen. 

What’s missing? What exactly is missing? How do I know what’s missing? Right? It’s missing, it’s not there. So how do I know what’s not there that needs to be there. So that’s the creative moment where it takes years for me to know that, to kind of have a hunch for it, something’s missing.

Peter: Okay. Let me just press you on a few details, because I think probably everyone’s thinking, wow, you have symphonies that just come to your head, could this happen at any time of day? Does it happen all day long? Does it happen in the middle of the night? 

And that’s the first part of the question, second part of the question, is it orchestrated already?

Jie: Yes.

Peter: Is it sounds of instruments? Okay. So how often does this feeling live in you?

Jie: There’s two ways that they come to me very predictably. First is when I eat noodles. I’m not kidding. When I have noodles, when I sit down and eat alone in silence, music just starts just like buzzing. My head is buzzing in music and often just entire pieces. I can’t explain it. 

Composer Wang Jie and musician

photo courtesy of Wang Jie

And the second is driving in silence. So I love driving, especially just getting on a highway and just have this kind of visual thing passing by very quietly. And once I did a driving session from Buffalo, New York after JoAnn played my symphony in Buffalo and I drove from Buffalo to New York, I was having such a great time with this new symphony. I was so inspired by the musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, I was just like—and the whole trip, five and a half hours, I did not stop. I was having such a great time just being with the symphony in my head.

Peter: But that was a symphony you’d already composed, right?

Jie: No, no. It’s a new symphony that I never got to write!

Peter: What did JoAnn, by the way everyone that’s JoAnn Falletta, the wonderful music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, but so what had they played of your piece?

Jie: Symphony Number One.

Peter: Okay. And so what was the piece that was in your head driving back?

Jie: It was just a new piece, a new symphony.

Peter: I see. Wow. Yeah, that’s really remarkable. It’s almost like a positive hallucination.

Jie: It is. It is. Yeah. And, and I’m just wired this way and I’m completely functional because I’m being safe on the road, I’m following my GPS, but all of this is going on in layers in my head and I was having little recipe sessions in my head, “Oh, if there’s this moment, then I will orchestrate it this way.” 

It comes from my love for the orchestra, because I love the orchestra. It’s among my favorite instruments to write for.

Peter: Well, it’s got every instrument. That’s the great thing, right? It’s got every color…

Jie: Limitless.

Peter: So I think we might have a couple of questions coming in. Erica, you want to help us with those?

Erica Reid (Marketing Manager, Colorado Music Festival): Yes. I wanted to just say we have about 10 minutes just to keep an eye on time. And I also know that Jie has prepared to play a little bit on the piano and I think everybody would love to hear that. I have a question about Jie, whether you’re going to be in person for the premiere in August.

Jie: I will be, yes.

Erica: And is there anything you’re looking forward to in Colorado when you’re coming out here? Will you be doing climbing?

Jie: Oh, absolutely. Cannot come to Colorado and not climb.

Erica: Wonderful. I think we’ve got some people offering to take you on a hike if you like. And Stephen Trainor asks if you ever get tunes by others stuck in your head, if you get earworms, which might be, he says, annoying for a composer.

Jie: Could be. Yes. And sometimes I get that just from reading a score, I open a score and sometimes I have to check instrumentation stuff, and then it’s just stuck in my ear, just like that. And so Peter, so I’m going to let you in on this. Do you like Boléro?

Peter: Of course.

Jie: Who doesn’t like Boléro, right?

Peter: Absolutely.

Jie: So here’s something that I’m willing to give away for now: this piece is like Boléro but on steroids.

Peter:  In what way is it like Boléro? Does it have like two phrases that repeat?

Jie: There are a few phrases, yes. And they do come back, they keep coming back and there is—

Peter: Is the tempo the same throughout?

Jie: No, it’s much faster because it’s got my youth in it.

Peter: No, no, no. I meant, but does whatever tempo it starts with, is that retained throughout the piece as it is in Boléro?

Jie: Yes. Oh yes, yes. Oh, and it escalates.

Peter: It escalates.

Jie: Yes, and it just explodes into this celebration of the five. And so actually I don’t know that a lot of people know this, is that Boléro in terms of the form is actually brilliant. It’s very Chinese. 

It’s wrong to say that, but you know what I mean? For a Chinese calligraphy master, for example, you do not really break your strokes if you know what I mean. Picasso did this too. Picasso can draw. In fact, I don’t know if you guys can see this, there is a penguin by Picasso, right there. It’s one stroke. It’s just one line. And the penguin is looking very kind of feisty, it’s alive just after one line. 

And same is true, this is the soul of the Chinese calligraphy practice, which my father practiced and made me practice, I was no good. But you have to be able to trace one line so you have to have the whole character in your heart, in your chest, and then you just know, you just follow that and your hand just knows how to do this one thing. 

So Boléro is like that, it’s a forever augmenting, augmenting, augmenting form. And it ends with everybody getting very excited. Oh no, of course, at first it was just very few musicians or plucking and the snare drum throughout, we also have a snare drum here, very important part. 

But my rhythmic cycle and I was actually rehearsing it earlier, just in case you were going to put me on the spot, “Jie, we want to hear the rhythmic cycle,” and my husband and I put on the metronome, because I roll 126 quarter note and this rhythmic thing is like, I’m a composer so I get to write virtuosic music for other composers. But so I roll the rhythmic cycle that is challenging even for me. So I was practicing it earlier.

Peter: By the way, are you saying that 126 is possibly too fast?

Jie: If you do 120, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Peter: Just the reason I ask, and by the way, there’s lots of requests for you to actually get to the piano so we’ll get you to the piano. But the reason I ask that is because I just find it so funny that people look at Beethoven’s metronome markings, which he put in when he was way later than he wrote most of his music, and with a probably pretty lousy metronome. But if you just take about 5 to 8% off Beethoven’s metronome markings, most of the time they’re fabulous. 

And even you today in 2022 are saying, “Yeah, my metronome marking is actually a bit too fast when I get into the actual idea of playing it in a hall.” Okay. Let’s hear some stuff, however you want to introduce it.

Jie: Okay. So here is something that kind of goes through the entire piece. You’ll hear it again, again, again, and sometimes it’s by soloist, it’s kind of the spinal cord of the piece and I’ll do my best. Okay. And because I’m not a percussionist per se. So Peter, this is 126. [vocalizes the rhythm] 

Peter: Impressive. My ear training teacher would’ve been very impressed.

Jie: Thank you. Thank you. And it is also true that the melodic design of Boléro is also brilliant because three is actually a magic number, three was important for Bach, three was important, trinity, the idea of three. For some reason, there is some nature’s coding in the number three. 

So there’s also three tunes that you hopefully, and I know so, because I repeat it enough so that you’ll walk away kind of humming the tune. And the tune, I’ll just give you a little taste of what they’re like and we have a clarinet coming very, very soft to tell us the first thing that this piece wants to say. [performs melody at the piano] 

And Peter, and as soon as you start conducting this, people will notice it’s all five. This is all five. [counts sets of 5 within the melody] And it goes on and on and it gets more and more lively, just like Boléro does.

So if anybody in the audience who loves Boléro the way I love Boléro, I think you’ll find resonance in this piece, just in terms of, I am just taking you, holding your hand and I am inviting you through this piece to hear some of the faintest sounds there is in nature, which an orchestra can do. 

An orchestra can do the most unbelievable whisper, and then it could also terrify you. But this time we’re not going to terrify you, we’re going to celebrate, because the love for the mountain. There’s a reason for the saying, “the mountain is calling,” right? Because the mountain makes a sound and makes many, many sounds if you were to hear it. 

And for me, because I’m a musician and I’m a composer, when I hear mountains speak to me, I hear them in music and in these very joyful… because when I think about going to the mountains, “Ah, yes, I look forward to go to the mountains. Yes, I can’t wait to go to the mountains.” That’s the feeling and the emotion that I do my best every day to put into this symphony.

Peter: So I just want to go back to one little thing and we’re probably out of time fairly soon, but you talked about this solo cello gesture, does that remain in the same rhythm, or it’s a moment of quiet in rhythm?

Jie: It’s the flying part. And this I actually cannot play on the piano.

Peter: Right, right.

Jie: We’re sliding some interesting notes there that implies, I hope, that the sound of the mountain is always tracing you. And when I fly on top of the mountain or looking at the mountain or flying right next to the mountain, it’s that, it’s like that. And it means so much to me that I don’t know finally, literally earlier this week what’s today? Wednesday? Monday, it was about like 7:15 in the morning. I was like, “Ah, that’s it. It’s the solo cello that’s missing.”

Peter: Right. Well, I can’t wait to get the score. And I have a feeling that there might be quite a lot of people who have witnessed this conversation who might love coming to a rehearsal if we could organize that so that they can see you, watch your face as you hear the music for the first time, and then hear you ask us to do things slightly differently to really reflect what it is that you had in your head when you first started out. 

I always find that process to be at least as interesting as coming to a concert, in a very different way, of course. But I know a lot of people love to come to rehearsals and with your energy and passion for what you do, I think it would be really exciting to be able to do that. So we’ll figure out whether we can to make that happen this summer.

Jie: I love that.

Peter: Before we say goodbye, I wonder if anybody else has any questions for a wonderful Wang Jie, Erica, any others coming our way?

Erica: No other questions. I had a lot of just gratitude for the time both of you have taken today to do this. I think everybody is really excited to hear the full work and love getting a look at the composer’s process. It’s not really a point of view we get to hear from that often. So thank you so much. 

Fred Child did write in with a translation of the poem, which I thought might be nice, it’s really short to share since you’ve been talking about the mountain. He asks, “Is this a reasonable translation of the poem?”

From the north, I see a ridge.
From the west, I see a high peak.
It appears different
yet in itself is the same.
I don’t know the true face of Mount Lu
only by being on the mountain. 

What do you think, Jie, is it very close?

Jie: Oh wow. It’s so untranslatable in some ways, because the poem actually asks a question because changing perspectives, I mean, I’ve been in this world for a little bit and I’ve already discovered it is nearly impossible to change people’s mind. And so I think the shifting of the perspectives, it’s the kind of work the mind gets to do, but it doesn’t happen very often. 

That’s why this poetic moment is so precious because how do you see the whole picture from the mountain? From what angle? There is no such an angle, only an eye. In Wallace Stevens, where it’s only an eye that sees 20 snowy mountains but the only thing moving that the eye can see is the one eye of a blackbird. 

It’s that kind of all-encompassing perspective that will give us the whole mountain. So the mountain, I mean, how do you discover a mountain? How do I discover that this is the piece? I can only take one route at a time. 

Same is true, the mountain in Colorado, there’s many, many different trails you can hike in a mountain, but how do you see the whole mountain though, right? If you’re above it, then you are only seeing it from above it but if you see it from the north, from the west, from the east, from the south, then what is this mind eye that only exists in the fictional world and in our imagination. I find that very empowering to just fly, fly in a way that will give me that perspective one day.

Composer Wang Jie with husband

photo courtesy of Wang Jie

Peter: Beautiful, beautiful. And thank you, Fred. Fred is from Performance Today of course, we love his voice and everything he says. And one day I should introduce you to Wang Jie. [laughs]

Jie: Yeah. [laughs] Don’t know much about this guy, is he nice, Peter?

Peter: They’re actually married. [laughs] Anyway, so Wang Jie, thank you so much. I’m very excited to get the score now. I feel like I’ve have already a little bit of entrance into the piece and what it’s about, but we’re so looking forward to having you out in beautiful Boulder, it’s really one of the most glorious places on the entire earth. So thank you very, very much. 

Thanks to all of you for listening in and thank you, Cindy, for organizing this and we’ll see you very soon.

Cindy Hohman (Marketing Director, Colorado Music Festival): Yes. Thank you. And everybody, this was recorded so keep an eye on our website, our email newsletter, social media. You can watch the replay. So thanks everyone. Thank you Jie. Thanks Peter.

Jie: Thank you everyone. It’s been fun.

Peter: Take care. Bye-bye.

Jie: Bye.

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