I compose as a way to theorize and liberate. Composing music, for me, is about "becoming."
When I was starting to learn to play the piano, I refused to learn how to read music and memorized everything. This was from age 4 until 6 -- my first rebellion against the schooling of music. In honor of my youthful protest, I wrote this all in my head.
As I composed the main theme, it kept blending in my head with the song, "You Are My Sunshine," probably because of C-D-E-F-A ("you ne-ver no-tice [how much I love you]"). So I put the song in my transition sections.
The Bach-like counterpoint isn't a real counterpoint. I just thought of the sound in my head and didn't carefully count intervals, chase fugues, or anything "formal." Everything in this piece is from sound memory. In the end, it seems like the materials will weave into some magical counterpoint, but shimmer away. It's a total sham! Or is it?
Ghosts of Denver
When I was in Denver for the Association of Asian American Studies conference in April 2022, I went on a "Chinatown Tour." I thought it was strange because I didn't know there was a Chinatown in Denver. I learned on the tour that the history of Chinese communities (yes, multiple) have been denied and erased. It was a mesmerizing experience to learn about the city's dark past.
As I walked to the baseball stadium, a man was playing bucket drums. I recorded the sound and layered the voices of Denver's ghosts. Despite the dark history, the mood of the city was celebratory. I took a track I was working on with Japanese festival sounds and weaved in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Then, I let the ghosts take over the party.
Good night and good morning
This is my first composition using GarageBand - yes, GarageBand. I took Chopin Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2, a perennial favorite recital piece for young aspiring pianists, especially in Japan. I also played this at my Yamaha recital when i was 10 years old.
Nocturne means nighttime. Here, it’s morning - a different sound world even though all the notes are coming from Chopin. Actually, I played a wrong note while recording. GarageBand gives you this little popup window keyboard to record and I pressed the wrong computer key. Anyway, I kept it.
Growing up learning the piano as an Asian kid, mistakes at your recital is the worst thing ever imaginable. But in this sound world, the “wrong note” gains life.
Tempest in Light
for the B0ardside zine
This piece is written in my "old" style, meaning non-counter hegemonic (if that is a term). It's about wandering the Outer Sunset neighborhood from dusk till dawn. The story is extremely simple. It’s nightfall. The protagonist walks and revels in the moonlight and music until the sun rises.
Compositionally, the piece is a pastiche of references from my own musical memory with emphasis on French music. I’m always curious about sounds in my head and the distortions the memory plays. I will go over these references to unfold my compositional process and, hopefully, to offer nuggets of music geekdom.
The piece opens with “Tempest’s theme.” The first four notes of the melody [A - F - E - D] come verbatimly from the main melody of Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 31 No. 2 Mvt. III. The sonata is nicknamed “The Tempest,” and, thus, determines the identity of the protagonist of my piece. So, here she is. Tempest wanders into the night in the Outer Sunset. Although the accompanying chords and the melody following are far from Beethoven’s original, this is a note-for-note musical reference.
Tempest’s theme shows fluidity in tonality and rhythm. The first two measures assert we are in D major/minor, then quickly pivot to G major/minor. We also get a glimpse of the rhythmic bend with the triplet sixteenth notes in m. 3 that foreshadow more rhythmic variations to come.
Tempest confronts the moonlight in the next section (m. 5-8). Ostinatos (repeated right hand chords) in groups of 7s, 8s and 9s pay homage to Debussy’s classic piano work, “Claire de Lune.” In this French composer’s celebrated work, the section that starts on m. 15 is one of the most breathtaking; sustained low Eb octaves are followed by shimmering chords that outline [F - Eb- Eb- Eb- Db- Db - Db - C - C- C- Db - Bb] while defying rhythmic restriction. As for our Tempest in the Outer Sunset lit by the Lune, the octaves that outline the right hand chords loosely trace the chorus of Daft Punk’s song “Get Lucky.” Though unsung, the lyrics here, “She’s up all night ‘til the sun/ I’m up all night to get some/ She’s up all night for good fun/ I’m up all night to get lucky,” overlay with the light of Debussy’s moon. Tempest may have encountered a group of dancers at Ocean Beach.
The arpeggios in m. 9-11 harken to the bridge in the same song by Daft Punk, “We’ve come too far to give up who we are/ So let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars,” and feature diminished 7ths, already familiar to us as they made an appearance in Tempest’s theme (m. 3, beats 3 & 4).
Returning to our protagonist’s theme from m. 12, we see that she has now gained rhythmic freedom after her experience with Debussy & Daft Punk. We slow down to Calando and anticipate the sun to rise at any moment. This sunrise was hinted at by Daft Punk earlier and is implied in Tempest’s joyful tiredness shown in rests and fermatas. Finally, her theme [A - F - E - D] turns into [D - F - E - D], ending the piece with [A - G - F# - D], not an exact quote, but a liberal citation of Soul II Soul’s “Keep on Movin,” concluding Tempest’s night out in the Outer Sunset with, “Yellow is the color of sun rays.”