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Xiaole Zhan CICA interview

Here is our interview with Xiaole Zhan from New Zealand, who won the 2019 Commonwealth International Composition Award.

The awards were set up to promote composition around the world and to give young composers the skills they need to further their careers. They target different commonwealth regions each time and this year focus on The Soloman Islands, Belize, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name’s Xiaole Zhan. I’m 18 years old and from Auckland, New Zealand.

What instruments do you play?

I play the piano (which I’m now studying at university). I’ve also played the cello in my school orchestras and sung in my school choirs.

When did you start composing? Have you had a composition teacher?

I’ve always been playing around and making sounds, liking some sounds more than others, so I suppose I’ve been ‘composing’ all my life. I think that’s true for most kids, with sound being so naturally and immediately absorbed (I think it was Murray Schafer who pointed out that we have eyelids but no ‘earlids’). When you think about what it essentially means to ‘compose’, to listen deeply to both the internal and external worlds and to arrange these listenings in an order you more or less like, everyone becomes a bit of a composer.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to advance this interest in composition in the last three years of my high school music class with weekly 15-30 minute tutorials with NZ composer David Hamilton. During this time, I started opening my sound palette beyond the notes upon a keyboard to anything that can be heard in this world. Now, I’m studying with Dr Miriama Young from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music as part of winning the CICA.

How did you find out about the Commonwealth Composition Award? What did you win as part of the award?

My teacher David Hamilton suggested the competition to me during a tutorial last year. It felt like quite a long shot back then, but I decided to enter something anyway!

I won a cash prize and fully-funded composition lessons with a tutor of my choice, as well as a new commission for pianist, 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year, Martin James Bartlett.

Tell us about the piece(s) you submitted for the Commonwealth Composition award

Childhood Impressions was the first composition I submitted, a through-composed suite of five movements for soprano, violin, and piano. I wrote small captions of specific childhood memories and tried to capture the colours and evocations of each one through sound. Examples of captions for the first three movements include: (for movement 1, Lantern Homes) “... there, in the black night, was the familiar street of red-bricked homes with square windows lit yellow like a row of pale lanterns…”, (movement 2, Sunshowers) “... startling little pinpricks of light, those strange half-things, caught in a brilliant suspension between what-is and what-could-be…”, etc.

My second composition, ...speech having its way again, I gave a cry…, takes its title from a short poem by Seamus Heaney titled In a Loaning:

Spoken for in autumn,
recovered speech
Having its way again,
I gave a cry:
'Not beechen green,
but these shin-deep coffers
Of copper-fired leaves,
these beech boles grey.'

I was inspired by the strikingly similar 'breath' timbres which can be achieved through string harmonics, aeolian sounds of the flute, and bowed vibraphone (such that it is often difficult to tell where one instrument ends and another begins). The idea of 'a cry' emerging from speechlessness in response to the beauty of a loaning (a path between two fields) in autumn is explored through the gradual transition from the 'breath' timbres to the physicality of a 'full' sound. Whispered and spoken text is also interspersed throughout the composition.

How did you find out about winning the award, how did you feel when you heard the news?

The concert in which all the finalist compositions were performed and the winners announced was live-streamed, so I got to experience everything in real time. I have a friend who lives in London who was able to be my representative at the concert, and seeing her there made everything feel so much more real!

It was really amazing to hear all the compositions performed live and seeing the commitment of the performers to each composer’s intent. Listening to your work being performed is usually the first time you’re able to see your ideas in full technicolour, so this was a really incredible experience for me.

Needless to say, I was pretty thrilled when they announced that I had won the overall prize! I think it’s pretty awesome that the prize involved resources to help further my composition practice.

How has your life changed since receiving the award, has it opened up any opportunities? · What have you been up to since the award? Has composition played a part in your life since you won the award? · Have you been composing during lockdown?

I think something quite wonderful about the CICA is the way it allows finalists to develop throughout the award. I learnt a lot about my composition practice even just through participating in the finals in which I was paired with a mentor and forced to compose under constraints of time and a limited choice of instrumentation. Of course, the opportunity to have my own composition tutor this year and a commission for a solo piano work as the winner of the CICA has also allowed me to grow in my composition and begin experiencing what it’s like to have my ideas translated into real world performance.

Since the award, I’ve started studying a Bachelor of Music at Melbourne University under a scholarship. I plan on specialising in Composition next year.

The opportunity the award provided me to experience the full process of composition through to performance for the first time was part of what made me realise how deeply I loved making music. I was tossing up various university study options, but in the end it became a simple matter of admitting to myself that being creative is essential to who I am as a person and allowing everything else to become a consequence of that. Moments like hearing the recording of ...speech having its way again, I gave a cry... for the first time helped me understand that I didn’t need much beyond being surrounded by music and books and the arts to be happy.

I’ve been working on my composition for solo piano during lockdown. Recently, I’ve been inspired by the illusory nature of sound that is singular to the piano; the attack, sustain, and decay of each tone. Every note upon a piano begins to fade the moment after it is struck as opposed to most other instruments where there is direct physical contact with the sound for its entire duration. The pianist is essentially forced to thread together the ghosts of sounds.

What was the experience like for you?

The competition consisted of two main stages. I entered my composition, Childhood Impressions, in the first stage which was selected as one of the ten international finalists to progress to the second stage.

In the second stage of the competition, we were assigned composition mentors to assist us in composing a three-minute work for a set instrumentation. During this time I wrote ...speech having its way again, I gave a cry... for flute, violin, cello, and vibraphone.

The compositions were then recorded to allow people to vote for the audience choice award (won by Aliyah Ramatally for her work Mundo Nuevo which can be heard along with all finalist compositions in the link at the end of this article).

The recording of ...speech having its way again, I gave a cry… really blew me away! Because of the use of some extended techniques and a fluid treatment of time in my composition, I wasn’t able to hear what my composition sounded like until listening to this recording. Hearing my ideas come together for the first time was unforgettable.

What advice would you give this years’ applicants?

I find advice pretty difficult to give on these kinds of things. I suppose my philosophy at this point in time more or less echoes what Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet — to not be too concerned at this stage with external affirmation and to “go into yourself”, to listen to your own imaginings and to the imaginings in the world around you, to listen and to really hear everything that’s going on (Rilke while advising the young poet wrote, perhaps, rather wryly: “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody.”)

I guess a key thing that will emerge from this kind of internal and solitary development is an awareness of your own personal and specific vision of the world. I think the strength in the work of an artist lies in the lock-and-key specificity of their vision. As Annie Dillard writes, find what it is that you, alone, love: “Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum…” Similarly, Virginia Woolf writes: “My only interest as a writer lies, I begin to see, in some queer individuality; not in strength, or passion, or anything startling.”

There are things in this world that you, alone, are able to see, a “queer individuality.” Bring these things to the light so that others may see them too.

Would you like to add a link of the composition to this article? Perhaps a SoundCloud link or an mp3?

All finalist compositions can be found on this page (finalists are listed alphabetically so my composition is the last on the page): https://cicompositionaward.com/cica-2019-finalist-compositions/

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