From Burying Bach to Who YU Are.
The Music of Julian Yu.
Brenton Broadstock 1994
Published in APRAP (the magazine of the Australian Performing Rights Association)
When Julian Yu arrived in Australia for the first time he was filled with wonder and awe; the large expanses of parklands, the wide open spaces, the sense of freedom — of being able to drive, alone, along deserted country roads. These are experiences he will never forget. Australia was a place where he was able to live, think and practice his art of composition with freedom — very different from his native China where the private performance of Beethoven or the writing of atonal music could lead to public humiliation. In spite of the restrictions and relative harshness of China in the late 1970s Yu has not forgotten or neglected his roots, cultural or musical — “in my opinion there cannot possibly be a music that is completely separate from the tradition which preceded it...” — but, as with all immigrants, he has had to come to terms with his Chinese heritage in the context of a new and alien society.
This heritage has emerged in a variety of ways; some works have Chinese titles: Wu-Yu, Hsiang-Chi and Hsiang Wen;, and some have been written for Chinese instruments, such as Ballad, for zheng (a Chinese koto) and string orchestra. Others have been influenced by Chinese (and Japanese) literature such as Reclaimed Prefu II, but the majority are not overtly Chinese in nature. Yu recounts the advice of one his teachers, the esteemed Japanese composer, Joji Yuasa, who told him that it was not necessary to imitate one's culture directly by using folk tunes and folk instruments, but rather, that one's heritage will surface naturally in one's thought processes and working methods; simply put, don't try to be Chinese, be yourself; think and act in a Chinese way, even though the context in which that takes place changes.
Joji Yuasa's advice is evident in many of Yu's works. Yu has utilised an approach to composition that reflects traditional Chinese teaching practices and welded these with western techniques. Yu explains that traditional Chinese folk music has simple notation and a student composer develops compositional craft by embellishing and ornamenting this music through improvisation. The ornamented version then becomes the basis for further ornamentation, a kind of ancient recycling process. As the student becomes more proficient and skilled at embellishment and improvising so an individual personality begins to emerge — a student ‘phoenix’ rises from the ashes of the master!
Several of Yu’s works use the great western ‘master’, Bach, as a model for embellishment: Great Ornamented Fuga Canonica for orchestra, Medium Ornamented Fuga Canonica for wind quintet, Reclaimed Prefu for two pianos, and In The Sunshine of Bach for choir, to name a few. These works use a process whereby the original Bach harmony and structure are transformed through the addition of ‘original’ melodic and harmonic materials; Yu also draws on traditional Chinese idioms and applies principles of orchestration that impose limits on the instruments similar to the limitations of Chinese instruments.
It is difficult to define a common ‘style’ in Yu’s music, other than its obvious eclecticism — western ‘avant-garde’ techniques mixing comfortably with traditional Chinese influences and with Bach. But it is not difficult to define the compositional characteristics that have brought Yu to international prominence — colourful and sparkling orchestration; a powerful sense of unfolding logic - structurally and harmonically; highly idiosyncratic instrumental and vocal writing; and musical scores which reflect his life-long enthusiasm for visual perfection — each score looks like a work of art.
Yu takes the art of composition with the utmost seriousness, even though he says that one of the reasons he composes is because it’s “fun”. This seriousness is reflected in the way he became a composer.
Yu was born in Beijing in 1957, the son of a textile factory marketing manager. He learned to play traditional Chinese instruments and at the age of twelve he wrote a complete Peking Opera. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution he received a ‘proletarian’ scholarship to study 'western' composition and piano at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and upon graduation was invited to join the teaching staff. The most radical score available in the conservatory library at this time was Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. In 1979 English composer Alexander Goehr gave a series of lectures in Beijing and introduced the young Yu to a diverse range of contemporary European composers. He was overwhelmed and eager to learn more; in 1980 he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Tokyo College of Music, where he studied composition with Schin-ichiro Ikebe and Joji Yuasa. In Tokyo Yu was shocked by what Japanese composers were doing, playing inside the piano and using graphic scores; he felt that he had been thrust “suddenly and unceremoniously into the completely unfamiliar world of contemporary composition, where all my familiar crutches were withdrawn.” He returned to Beijing and was in great demand to write music for theatre, film and television. But, his sojourn with the ‘decadent and bourgeois’ composers of Japan obviously unsettled him and the artistic restrictions of life in China became intolerable.
Yu’s marriage to Australian Marion Gray, whom he met several years earlier when she was studying Chinese music in Beijing, brought him to Australia in 1985; first to Adelaide, then to Brisbane where he completed a Graduate Diploma in Music, and eventually to Melbourne in 1988, where he completed a Masters degree studying composition with Keith Humble at La Trobe University.
Since making Melbourne his home Yu has received numerous international awards, prizes and performances that most composers can only dream about. He has had performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and by orchestras in the USA, Japan, China and Australia; his puppet music theatre work, The White Snake, was premiered at the 2nd Munich Biennale, and his chamber music has been performed in the USA, England, Switzerland, Japan, Korea, China and Australia. His prizes include: the 56th Japan Concours in 1987; the Koussevitsky Tanglewood Prize, the Albert Maggs Award and the 35th Trieste Prize in 1988; the 10th Irino Prize in 1989; prizes at the International New Music Composers’ Competitions in 1987, 1988 and 1989/90; the Vienna Modern Masters Award in 1992; the Adolf Spivakovsky and the Jean Bogan Prizes in 1993; the Japan Song Competition in 1994; and his music has been featured at ISCM World Music Days Festivals in Zurich and Mexico. In July 1994 he received Australia’s richest composition prize, worth $45,000, the Paul Lowin Orchestral Prize, for the second time in a row! Yu, in his typical self-effacing manner, was “embarrassed” by his good fortune.
Yu no longer needs to ‘bury Bach’, as one critic described it. He is fast becoming a master in his own right and only occasionally feels the need to utilise this technique. “I do not consciously try to follow either (Chinese or Western styles) in my compositions, as I do not want to write ‘Chinese music’ or ‘Western music’, but music of my own.” Yu thinks that Australia, perhaps more than any other country could, has allowed him the opportunity to write his own music, free of stylistic, aesthetic, cultural or political impositions. His success in international awards and performances is a much-deserved recognition that he is finally composing his ‘own’ music. His most recent works, Hsiang-Wen and Three Symphonic Poems are a brilliant synthesis of contemporary and traditional techniques that exhibit all the musical fingerprints of a uniquely individual voice. His success is also Australia’s success, and Australia is very fortunate indeed to have such a talented and humble composer living here.
JULIAN YU - PRINCIPAL WORKS 1978 - 1994
1978 Song of the Tajiks (8') for trombone and piano
1981 Four Pieces for Wind Quintet (7')
Quintet (12') for flute, clarinet, harp, violin, cello
1982 Classical Allusion (10') for string quartet
1987 Wu-Yu (10') for orchestra
Scintillation (6') for flute and piano
Scintillation I (7') for piano
Scintillation II (8') for piano, 2 vibraphones, glockenspiel
Scintillation III (6') for flute and piano
Three Haiku (5') for soprano and piano
1988 Great Ornamented Fuga Canonica (10') for orchestra Medium Ornamented Fuga Canonica (9') for wind quintet
1989 Reclaimed Prefu (12') for 2 pianos
The White Snake (Puppet Opera) (45') clarinets, trumpet, percussion, piano, celesta, violin, viola, bass
1990 First Australian Suite (14') for chamber orchestra
In The Sunshine of Bach (12') for SATB a cappella choir
Reclaimed Prefu II (13') for SATB choir and 2 pianos
1991 Hsiang-Wen (Filigree Clouds) (21') for orchestra
Ballad (13') for zheng and string orchestra
Let Me Sing Sonya's Lullaby (12') for flute, guitar, viola, bass
1992 Quartet (10') 2 marimbas, xylophone, 4 timpani
Piano Quartet (15') for piano, violin, viola, cello
Four Haiku (5') for soprano and piano
1993 The Magic Bamboo Flute (10') for piano
Dovetailing (6’) for solo cello
1994 Three Symphonic Poems (25') for orchestra
Current information on Julian Yu can be found at julianyucomposer.com
©1994 Brenton Broadstock