““My musical inspiration always comes from the essential principle of Eastern philosophy, that is: everything is flowing, interconnected, dependent on each other.” -Sun Keting
Sun Keting (b. 1993) is a London-based Chinese composer and artist whose recent works focus on performance arts and instrumental sound exploration combining Eastern cultural, spiritual and philosophical elements. Sun has composed music for ensembles such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Silk Road Ensemble, Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, and The National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan, and she is also a resident artist of London-based transnational music collective Tangram. Sun spoke to PRXLUDES about her influences from Eastern philosophy, ikebana, and negative space, and her perspectives on collaboration and performance.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey! Hope you’re doing well. I discovered your work through your incredible piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, ‘that which is unseen…’ — tell me a bit about what inspired the piece and its compositional process?
Sun Keting: It was the Japanese art of flower arrangement [that] inspired me. I saw a programme about traditional Japanese gardens on the BBC while on a trip to Cornwall. By then, I had composed a piece for guitar that was inspired by the gap in between — a central philosophy in Japanese culture, which is called mā. I collaborated with guitarist Fabricio Mattos; he was really interested in empty space — not only the physical space, but the acoustic space, and mind space, as well. When I watched that programme, looking at those flowers in the Japanese garden, it was something [that was] really resonant with me.
Then I got interested, I bought some books, and I went online to do some research about ikebana — Japanese flower arrangement. There’s a book that actually gives instructions on how to make them; I haven’t made them myself, but sometimes, when I get flowers, I will do a bit of arrangement, but not in that manner.
How did you connect the idea of ikebana with the LPO commission?
That inspiration came [about] because our mentor and conductor Brett Dean asked us to have this theme of ‘Bunker Music’. We were so surrounded [by] negative news and negative feelings, but what I found really fascinating was something we used to take for granted before covid — that we actually have this distance between people, [and] this distance nowadays within that quarantine situation became enlarged. You never noticed the distance between yourself and others before that. I think to notice these things — distance, empty space, quietness — is to appreciate them, in that moment, and to notice something around them. All [those] mixed feelings, and this art, the beautiful presentation of the flowers, and the required theme all came together [to] inspire this piece. the flowers, and the required theme all came together [to] inspire this piece.
Tell me about your compositional background and upbringing — how have you found the Shanghai school of composition different to your experiences in the UK?
I have been studying the piano since I was 4, and then I went to study composition at age of 14 at the Middle School of Xi’an Conservatory of Music, then to Shanghai Conservatory of Music [to] study my Bachelor, and five years later I came to the UK to do my postgrad, and non-stop after my postgrad I went to do my PhD.
So you’ve been in the thick of it for a long time. -laughs-
I really started composing intensively when I came to the UK. Before that, five years of [undergraduate] involved every basic course like harmony, music theory, counterpoint, conducting. I had a maximum of two pieces a year produced, compared to [the] first year when I came to the Academy, [when] I did like ten pieces. I really started composing properly when I came to the Academy to do my postgrad.
When I came here, everything that I learned was somewhere that I wouldn’t really be able to see, or lay them out. Back then, my compositions were very much based on these theories. It was almost mathematic, completely calculated out; like the beginning of learning how to compose, creating simple melodies, twelve-tone, contemporary music theories… It’s almost as if I had to go through composing music based on those theories to understand them, which was painful — and the music turned out to be something I felt detached [from] — but when I look back, I think it was useful to go through some of the struggles during the course of time when [my] music developed.
Exactly — you need to learn the rules in order to break them, right?
I suppose the difference is that I was forced to learn that; it was something out of my interest. There was a lack of passion and desire to obtain that knowledge within myself. When you really study music, play music, there’s a lot of things to learn — and that would apply to any subject. There’s always pain.
I’m really interested in your use of negative space — especially as you talk about seeing the beauty within distance, within the spaces in between. Has that philosophy seeped into other aspects of your work?
Absolutely. For me, it’s not something I pay attention to — it’s something that’s in my way of seeking for beauty, or my aesthetic of objects. There’s a lot of connections and similarities between that philosophy [and] Taoism and Buddhism; subjects that I engage myself with a lot in the last few years. I don’t know if my music conveys [it] in that way, but it always inspires me as a person. They’re all fluid in a way that if you understand one word, or term, or philosophy from [one], there’s something similar in the others. There’s no boundaries.
How do you channel your interest in Eastern philosophy into your compositional process?
These philosophies are not something that I can say I fully understand, but [in that] they inspire me — they resonate with me. When it comes to music, I simply use these notions as a tool to go into my compositional process, and details. It varies every time; they’re all very different. I sometimes have a small notion, or one simple word, that inspires a piece. At the beginning of creating a piece, it’s something I borrow to lay out what will happen in a piece. These notions and philosophies give me a flowmap, where [I] progress and end.
I think the essential principle of Eastern philosophy is that everything is flowing, interconnected, dependent on each other. Nothing [is] one thing, on its own, on one dimension or one time zone. This flowing gives me a sense of the physicality within these philosophies; they are notions and philosophies, but they’re also motions, movements, the relationships between all particles. That’s why these philosophies for me are not just words, or phrases, or a thought. It always has its life, it always has its moving trials. For each work, it’s always very different — but at the beginning, it’s one simple notion, philosophy, or object that inspires me, and then I can draw a structure.
Is structure something you place a lot of emphasis on when it comes to your compositional process?
Absolutely. That’s very important; when I write a piece, I need to have the wholescale structure first. I’m always aware [of] when is enough for one chunk of material; when to end, basically. So I really have to know “okay, what am I gonna do [in] seven minutes” — first minute to three, three to five, five to seven. But also, I don’t really write in different times. I write from the first note to the last note. I never write a middle part [before] the first part, or something in between.
I’d be interested to hear about your relationship with nature and the natural world…
For me, Eastern philosophy came out from nature; I think Eastern philosophy is basically nature philosophy. It’s about the elements on the Earth, it’s everything about what we see out in nature; it’s also the moon, it’s the sun, it’s the spirituality of all things. I never really separate nature and philosophy; it’s the same to me. The land, [the] ocean, they existed before we exist, they are the element that feeds us, and nurtures us.
I used to be such an outdoor person. When I was young, I used to go out on hiking trails with my mum and dad pretty much every weekend, because we lived in a city right next to one of the biggest mountains [in China]. I used to do a lot of outdoor activities — surfing, diving — to really find that primal self. That’s always been part of my life, so these elements of Eastern philosophies, and nature, [are] constantly feeding me; they feed back on each other, and then come back to me. It’s an ongoing relationship; it’s within me, and it’s within everything I see. I always find myself very grounded — because when we’re living in a metropolitan city, it’s very easy to get lost, and only nature, and the element of nature, can bring you back. This nature grew all of these philosophies that I find really profound.
It’s so interesting you mention that — I find it’s so easy to get (mentally) lost in a big city. How do you manage to keep yourself grounded?
That’s a really good point — I think you have to go through a lot of pain and rebirth, in many aspects, to realise what you [are] and what you believe. In Buddhism, there’s a philosophy known as Four Noble Truths — suffering, arising, letting go, and finally rebirth. There’s always difficulties, and you have to go through all [of] that to realise. For me, [on] my spiritual journey, I’ve had to go to some really dark place to realise, and then to heal, and to come back fresh.
My answer would be [that] living in a city, everyone deals with a lot of troubles. I think that self-healing, self-knowledge, and awareness [are] really important; and also to really go out and connect with nature. If I’m not home — [and] if it’s not covid — I’m always on a trip. It’s important for me to go on a trip, to connect, to find that primal state of mind. What’s important is the balance, and that’s what really keeps me grounded. The awareness of when you’re going down a route unconsciously — too deep — that awareness has to ring a bell: “okay, this balance is now not right, we have to bring this balance back”.
So tell me about some of the pieces you’ve written for movement — how do your philosophies influence your collaborative process?
There are two aspects that these philosophies inspire — one of them musical, one of them practical. The music aspect [is] something I use as tools to lead my strcuture, harmonies, the visualisations of the notes and acoustic sounds. But [in] the process for these collaborations, these philosophies help me to acknowledge that the trust between me and the collaborators is so important — even more important than what comes out as a result. I value what’s happening in that process than what comes out in the performance. It’s very much a human connection; what happens naturally in between two people, over what happens with the work that we do.
In general, what Eastern philosophy inspired [in] me in these processes is to give space, to give trust, to let others have that most natural self. When two minds, or multiple minds, [are] clashing, there’s inevitably egos coming out; and what Eastern philosophy taught me is to try to be egoless. In a way, that really helps the creator themselves, and the collaborators together… I think that applies in any friendship and relationship.
On a practical level, how has the process of collaboration influenced the way in which you write?
I learned a lot throughout these years, because when I first collaborated with people [on] pieces, I used to have this control — “I want the music to sound like that, that does not sound like what I expect” — but then I gradually learned to really not write music in such detail. In a way, it’s rude. -laughs- Working with different individuals, [you] have such different backgrounds, and understanding of music, and understanding of each other… It’s a bit rude to have it all coming out from the composer themself, to just say “this is what I want”. Whatever we write on paper, if we present that to a collaborator, it has to be something that’s brought to life by them, something coming out from their unique personality and the way they perform.
So that each performer has their own agency to play the piece in the way that best represents them.
I always find really interesting that some people are disappointed with [a] performance. I think I’m never fully happy with my composition, but I’m never disappointed by a performance; whatever comes out, that’s it, that’s your music given life by people. I find that’s the most natural state. I guess that’s why I’m [not] into producing music electronically so much, because I am so fascinated by these human aspects, the beauty of things “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”.
Sun Keting’s work can be found below:
Learn more about Sun Keting’s organisation Tangram, including their upcoming concert in London with Angela Wai Nok Hui and Neil Luck, at the links below: