Wang A Mao's music is mysterious, exhilarating, and heavily influenced by her life in Kansas City and the sounds of the natural world in general. A native of Beijing who's currently a music composition doctoral student at UMKC, Wang has written works for string quartets, solo piano, chamber ensembles and orchestras. We are excited to present an interview with Wang in which she discusses, among other things, balancing life between the U.S. and China and how living in Kansas City has influenced her productivity, in addition to her picks from the Johnson County Library catalog.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
My name is Wang A Mao. Wang is my last name, A Mao is my first name. I prefer to go by the Chinese way, putting my last name at the beginning. Currently, I am a doctoral student (ABD) in music composition at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and I divide my professional and personal life between the US and China while pursuing my studies.
I like to schedule my day in three main slots, to be able to better arrange my agenda. In the morning, I usually work on the paper works, or other things related, but definitely not composing. I am not a morning person, and I start to give the best of me only later in the day. That is why it is in the afternoon that I begin focusing on composition: writing music, playing music, doing researches, checking music online, etc. After dinner, ideally just relaxing and chilling if there is no deadline approaching. Otherwise, just finish my work before going to bed.
You're originally from Beijing. How did you come to study music composition at UMKC?
I studied at Central Conservatory of Music (CCoM) in Beijing where I met Dr. Chen Yi in 2007. I only took a few master classes with her, but I was already truly impressed by her personality and her music, and also by her approach to teaching. Upon graduating, I felt that I wanted to experience a different setting, deepen my studies in a distant environment. My parents were really supportive, because they strongly believe the way to help children to grow better and faster is to let them out of the familiar nest. I spent then a year working really hard to study English in order to pass the required language exams, and finally I applied for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It was not easy, but it was certainly worth the effort.
Delve a little into your own process of composing. What may surprise a listener of your music about how you create it? What tools do you use?
I start picking a theme I want to write about. It can come from the most various sources: a poem, a painting, a stage work, or a landscape. Then, I delve into music. I listen to a lot of various works before starting writing my own piece. Learning things from the masters and contemporaries is crucial for personal growth.
When a little motif comes up, I will explore the possibilities of the potential thousand different metamorphoses of this single cell: sitting in front of the piano, I will play around with this small particle, writing down all the possible transfigurations and ideas.
My mentors always suggested to think more about the concept of the structure of the work, so I spend hours and hours to develop all these ideas to shape the piece. The interesting part is that from time to time these ideas will be the inspiration to take back previous works to improve them. Composition is a never-ending work in progress.
The tools for my composing process are actually very simple, I would say almost “vintage”: staff paper, pencil and a piano, and of course, a computer.
I'm fascinated by your incredibly diverse list of music 'likes' on Facebook. Everyone from Bach to Marilyn Manson to Cocteau Twins to Scout Niblett. What music are you currently passionate about?
When I have to choose what to listen, I just follow my mood and my feelings. Every tiny little thing could affect the next playlist, which has one real main theme: to be as diverse as possible. Some times is surprising to see from where your inspiration could come from.
Lately, I have been listening to Gin Wigmore, a singer and songwriter from New Zealand, who has triggered my interest. Iron by Woodkid is also an impressive song, both in its original version and quintet version. In terms of Contemporary Classical music, I could mention some concertos by Akira Nishimura; Giya Kancheli's Symphony No.5 "To the Memory of My Parents"; John Adams' Son of Chamber Symphony. Those are truly masterpieces.
Since I will be collaborating with some Chinese instrument performers, I am currently listening to some classic repertoire from the Chinese tradition music.
What's something you struggle with creatively? How do you break through that struggle?
Sometimes I am worried that I could have been repeating myself too much in my music. I want to establish my own voice, but also want to do something new to challenge myself. Now I am trying to find inspirations in other artistic forms, not restraining my mind, creating collaborations with the most diverse artists, consulting with professionals, and, above all, trying each time to apply at least one thing I have never utilized before in my previous works.
How has living in Kansas City (or America for that matter) influenced your work?
Enormously. First of all, living in the United States has helped me to compose more. Five years ago, I usually just completed one work per year. Ever since I came to the States, various activities, workshops, and projects have stimulated my compositional motivation. In terms of music itself, living in the States has freed my mind significantly. Anything could influence my music, regardless the genre: classical, avant-garde, contemporary, pop, jazz, or rock'n roll. Sky is the limit, as people say.
Moreover, there are more collaborating projects in America: everyone can apply or, even better, be actually a founder of an event. Plus, we are not limited to collaborate only with other musicians. I can write music and perform together with dancers or painters, giving me the chance to absorb different artistic concepts from the most disparate genres.
Amao's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
Conjurer by John Corigliano
All time favorite. The first time I heard this piece was at Kauffman Center in Kansas City, performed by Martin Grubinger and Kansas City Symphony. One of the best percussion concertos in the world I would say.
The Grand Budapest Hotel directed by Wes Anderson
Beautiful shooting, good story, signature Wes Anderson work.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
I have read it many times since I was a kid. An amazing work of literature.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo
One of the greatest literatures in China. A Chinese historical novel based on events in the turbulent years during the end of the Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era.
Shutter Island directed by Martin Scorsese
Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor is the truly haunting in the movie.