“My intention is not to make people laugh — but if people laugh, I’m also okay with it. I wanted to see the possibilities that humour can bring to an audience.”Zhenyan Li
Zhenyan Li (b.1998) is a Chinese composer based in London. Li’s recent works are inspired by theatrical elements, particularly the performing style of traditional Eastern theatre; she has recently been commissioned by the Manson Ensemble, International Guitar Foundation, and Barcelona Modern, and has collaborated on projects with SOAS University of London, Leeds Lieder Festival, Architectural Association, and most recently Tête à Tête Festival, who premiered her opera ‘Cummings & Goerings’ in September 2022. Li has also written music for Trio Estatico, Lucerne Festival, Psappha, and Central School of Ballet, and she is also a member of the London Chinese Opera Studio; she is currently pursuing a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music under Philip Cashian and David Sawer. Li spoke to PRXLUDES about her infusion of traditional Eastern theatre practices into her work, her inspiration from Japanese architecture, the role of humour in her work, writing “sarcastic” music, and more….
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Li! Hope all’s well with you. I recently gave a listen to your premiere of ‘Hashigakari’ at Lucerne Festival, and it’s such a fantastic piece!
Zhenyan Li: Thank you! It will be performed again in Germany next month, [in] Frankfurt. Ensemble Modern are gonna do it. It’s part of Lucerne Festival; they select a few pieces from the festival to perform in the new year as part of Oper Frankfurt. It’s the first year that they had the connection.
Congratulations on being selected! Tell me about the concept of ‘Hashigakari’ — I understand it’s inspired by Japanese architecture?
I used this piece as part of my PhD research project. The reason why I choose Japanese noh 能 theatre design is because the plays [are] very connected with the design of the theatre. It’s very unique. In noh theatre, the space is divided into three parts. The first part is the green room, basically; the audience can’t really see the green room. And then, the [second part] is the “bridge” section, which is very unique. The audience can already see the bridge; the players walk out from the green room, and [across] the bridge section — they have to pass the bridge section — to walk to the main stage.
I see — so as the audience can see the bridge, it functions as a transition between the “offstage” and “onstage”, as it were?
Yes! Hashigakari is the name of the bridge. The performing styles change, because [the actors] normally do improvise a lot on the bridge, less structured performance — for example, self-dialogue — and what’s happening on the main stage is a more formed, structured section of the story. In noh theatre, the musical players are [also] sitting on the main stage. I really like the contrast, and that gives me an idea of the specifics. In ‘Hashigakari’, the structure is inspired by [the transition] a lot.
Aesthetically and structurally, how does your piece take influence from this transition from the hashigakari to the main stage?
For example, [in] the first section of this piece, I use a bass flute solo — I imagine the bass flute solo as the bridge section — and it was constantly interrupted with the tutti section. I imagined the tutti section as the main stage. So the formed story tries to interrupt the improvised, “solo thinking”, in a way. This is the first part. But the whole piece is like a Russian doll, I would say. The bass flute solo (with the tutti interruption) is the core — the smallest Russian doll — and for the second section, the character changes. So the improvised section — the bridge — becomes a polyphony, like a really blurred compound melody. And the main stage was represented by [the] piano and vibraphone; very short elements, and a very strong dynamic contrast to the polyphony section.
So this is the structural idea. I’d say that the [concept] influenced the structural idea the most. But at least for all of my previous pieces, I always think the selection of instruments goes with [the] structure. The instruments [are] changing with the structural thinking. But in the future, I don’t want to limit myself — more harmonic contrast, [and] contrapuntal contrast, than just structural contrast.
It’s interesting how you mention your instrumentation informs the structure; how do you approach structure and contrast with something more intimate, like a solo performer?
I think in theatre works — no matter what kind of theatre — contrast is the biggest influence that I received. When I was writing ‘Joker’ for Benjamin Powell, it was my first time to try gestural writing for piano. Because it’s not a “regular” ensemble, the timbre [from] the gestures of the piano itself [became] the main contrast. The very sudden changes in that piece [was] something that I hadn’t really done before. And also, because it was involved with performance.
Tell me more about ‘Joker’ — what inspired the piece?
The original inspiration of ‘Joker’ was from Beijing opera. Beijing opera always had a standard “joker” (or comic) role, and they always work a lot with percussion — because percussion is the “leader” of Beijing opera’s musical part. I really wanted to bring that effect to my music. But my intention is not to make people laugh — but if people laugh, I’m also okay with it. I wanted to see the possibilities that humour can bring to an audience. Normally, when we mention humour, people want to laugh — and when we laugh at classical music, it’s always like “someone made a mistake”, or a very sudden awkward situation. But humour can be more than that. It’s also an experience for me to observe how audiences perceive my music.
And also, that piece was premiered on YouTube, and it was a nice, edited version of the video… I wanted to get involved with the camera, because the video will be online all the time. I wanted the camera to bring the “humour effect” to the piece. When Ben was staring at the camera, I wanted people to feel that sudden connection with the piece.
It works so well — it feels like you’ve created a piece of theatre alongside Ben. I don’t know if it would be as effective without the camera.
Yeah. For a bigger context: I’ve been thinking [about], and trying to, figure out how to bring the external inspiration to my musical ideas in different ways. [As] composers, we all love to get to know other art industries, or architecture… anything could inspire us. I want to explore how to combine an external idea with a musical idea in a different way, and I think from this kind of approach [in] ‘Joker’ — the camera, the performing style of the pianist — can also help the interpretation of the piece.
“When we laugh at classical music, it’s always like “someone made a mistake”, or a very sudden awkward situation. But humour can be more than that.” Zhenyan Li, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
It also comes down to how you perceive a performer, in a sense. How do you view the relationship between the performer and your work — particularly in ‘Joker’?
Well, ‘Joker’ is very unique, I would say… -laughs-
This is the thing about theatre [in my work]: you can understand it as a pure musical work, but I also want people to enjoy watching it, not just the aural side. So the way, for example, I wrote the score… I put a lot of direct, emotionally charged words — peacefully, innocently, angrily — to guide [the performer]. I also told Ben that it would be great to show the emotion in a more straightforward way. It’s an exploration for both of us, I would say. I don’t want to control how he understands my piece — or be very controlling — I just wanted to see how players understand my work. If it changes to another pianist, I wouldn’t [expect] them to have exactly the same performance — well, the notes are on the score, but how they interpret it. I’m really curious as how different performers understand my work.
Recently, [I wrote] a guitar piece that was performed at King’s Place last month. That piece was for solo guitar, and the piece was performed and premiered by two different guitarists in one weekend! -laughs- It’s not like ‘Joker’ — it’s not a very exaggerated performance style — [but] there was already a lot of difference between the two guitarists. They also had different guitars; the guitars sounded completely different. It helped me to understand my music more, I would say.
Tell me more about this solo guitar piece…
That piece is called ‘The Mist’. It was influenced by the Stephen King film. I watched that film when I was really young — when I was 15 — but I really liked the sudden transitions, and the way that the film breaks up peoples’ hope… -laughs- And the vibe of the film is great. I really like it. In the film, you can see the exact changing point of the story — the piece is all [in] one movement, but it’s in sections. The middle section was really quiet, and I tried to bring out the nervousness to it; but the beginning and end of the piece used very percussive effects in the guitar. The transitions [are] kind of like a shock to everyone. I always have theatrical ideas as a “script” for myself, to guide myself to write a piece; so I used The Mist as the script to write this piece.
Do you consider your work to be narrativic?
No. Because [of] the reason why I choose oriental theatre1 as my PhD research project. It’s not like, for example, Mauricio Kagel; that I want people to understand immediately what I want. I think the biggest difference between traditional oriental theatre and traditional occidental theatre — Shakespeare — is the text. There’s loads of things in occidental theatre, like Shakespeare, where they want people to understand; there are lots of descriptions put in the text. But for traditional oriental theatre, if you look at the text of the script — even the translated version — you still don’t know what they are talking about, because there are so many metaphors used. They try to give audiences’ imaginations lots of space to understand what the story is going to be like. So, I don’t always expect people to “understand” my music in a very narrative way; I just want to give people imagination, as in oriental theatre. How to transpose the thinking [of] oriental theatre to music.
I completely understand that. You can’t pretend there’s an exact one-to-one between Eastern and Western cultural traditions, right?
It’s just so hard. For example, lots of people promote “East meets West”… it’s just very hard, because they’re two things from two different worlds — not just music, but also theatre, other arts industries. That’s because the fundamental idea is just different. How to bring the fundamental thinking of Eastern theatre — like the metaphor — how to bring that to music is something I try to work on. But I haven’t finished my PhD yet… -laughs-
Let’s talk about your curatorial work — I understand you’ve also explored how to recreate elements of Eastern theatre in the concert environment?
Oh! That was the end of my Master of Music degree project; that concert also guided me towards my PhD research project. [In] the last year of my postgrad, we all had to do [either] a written thesis or a project, and I chose the project. I wanted to explore in what ways my music is deeply influenced by theatre. [In] the presentation of the music, when we perform the music, is there anything that can help me to highlight the theatrical elements?
In what ways did the concert environment channel these theatrical elements?
I wanted to make the whole concert as a play, instead of as an unrelated [series]. It was an experiment for me, as I tried to combine live poem reading with musical programming. I was collaborating with Emma Harding — who’s the producer of BBC Radio 4 — and she wrote a kind of text based on some of my existing pieces. I also wrote a piece based on [her] text, which is for two percussionists. And also, I programmed a piece [by] Toshio Hosokawa, and George Crumb’s ‘Mundus Canis’, for guitar and percussion.
Luckily, Emma can also read music, and she can also see the score. I sent her all the recordings of [the pieces], and we adjusted the words in between. Before the concert, I talked to everyone and [said] “please don’t clap between the pieces, wait until the end of it” — and the percussionist [Beibei Wang] improvised along with the poem reading, so her musical effect is non-stop during the whole concert. It was effective, but it is hard, because poetry and music are still two individual things. How to combine music in a more profound way is something I think I will continue to explore. Because [in] this concert, I chose poetry; maybe [for] the next concert, I could commission composers to write pieces inspired from the same thing, and the same thing could be a link for the concert… There’s loads of possibilities. I wanted to have the general feeling, general vibe, [and] make everything connected. That’s the experiment of this concert.
Was there anything about the reception of this concert model that surprised you?
Kind of like a surprise result [was] that for people who know nothing about music, and on some level, absolutely hate contemporary music — like my friend from university — it became more accessible to them. It wasn’t my [main] intention — to make my music more accessible — but from their feedback, it was quite interesting.
Considering your influence from theatre — how have you approached writing for more “traditional” Western music theatre forms? I’m reminded of your opera ‘Cummings & Goerings’ that was premiered at Tête à Tête Festival in September…
I think that’s very different. Because the thing is, [I] have the libretto first, before I wrote the music. So the libretto and story had albready set up the basic “vibe” of the theatrical effect. And they had very understandable text. So it’s very different. But it’s helped me to write the opera, I would say; I would try to categorise the sound for certain characters, and how effective the contrasts can be.
How did you find the process of collaborating with the librettist for this opera?
Sam Redway (the librettist) is really good at writing dialogue; he was a trained actor — he knows how to act — and he also knows traditional literature, and is really knowledgeable on theatre. So the way he writes text is extremely effective. We had a previous collaboration before the opera. I was [initially] like “just write anything you want”… and he was trying to ask me “what’s your interest?” — and I was like “baking”. -laughs- And so he chose the queen’s biscuits — which is the theme of the opera, something baking-related. And then when I received the libretto, it was actually really clear what he wanted to express. I asked him to record himself reading the libretto; it’s very important for me to understand how Sam interprets his own work, how these sentences should be said — in what kind of vibe, how polite it should sound. -laughs- These are all very important.
It was a very effective collaboration; we didn’t really change that much in the process. It’s a very concise story — a very short and direct story — so it wasn’t something we had to adjust, [or] something that was too long. I learned a lot.
What really stood out to me in this opera was how you utilised humour, particularly political and absurdist humour — the music was funny without being slapstick.
Yeah. I did choose lots of very effective timbres — like for example, a very sudden major chord, or a sudden growl or fluttertongue in the musical text. The story has a lot of sarcasm, so I tried to use sudden timbre changes to work with the individual words in the singers’ parts. That’s something I tried to do when I was orchestrating; it’s a very meaningful word, it’s a very sarcastic word, so I tried to find a sound to stand out from the background of the music.
I feel like it’s really hard to make sarcastic music — you need to have a grasp of all the intricacies of both music and language…
That’s why I asked Sam to send me a recording of the text! I’m not an English native speaker, and sometimes there’s a lot of background to [a] joke — for example, a politically related joke — that I tried to learn after I received the libretto. For English people, it’s just something that you know — because it’s in the news, you grew up with it — but for me, there’s still some process to learn about why [people] laugh at certain political jokes.
For the sound, it’s about the contrast. If it’s a very chaotic section, with very dissonant instrumentation — [and] then there’s suddenly a very pure chord and an innocent sound — the contrast can bring the sarcasm out. Sam also wrote in the libretto that he thought it would be great to have a “national anthem”-like melody in the later section; so I tried to have a disorganised version of a national anthem play underneath. Kind of like a hidden, disrupted melody, [that] gradually appears — and at the end, finishing with the [full] national anthem.
Back to the beginning… there’s a lot of things that have already been set up, musically. When I’m trying to write a purely instrumental piece, how I try to bring in theatrical elements [is] quite a different approach. Because in opera, the story gives the music so much definition already.
Especially one with a story so politically relevant as this one!
Oh my god… We need to change the queen’s biscuits to the king’s biscuits. -laughs-
But we wrote this opera in 2019! We wrote everything back in 2019. That’s why it has very strong characters implying Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. But because of covid, it was postponed. And Boris resigned, and everyone left and changed… But at least people still know who they are. It’s still the same generation… -laughs-
What projects are you working on at the moment — what’s next for you?
There’s so many works that I had to write [to] a deadline in the past four months — like, non-stop writing, and I have to change my ideas completely between one piece and another — so now I want to slow down, and explore. I really want to write a piece for woodwinds with electronics; that’s what I’m working on at the moment. Something small… just three players maximum. I’d like to explore writing [with] electronics a little bit more. I’ve used electronics before, but it’s mainly been a pure instrumental sound — like a tape. I want to explore how to get live electronics more involved. This is something I want to work on for my next projects.
Zhenyan Li’s work can be found at:
- Noh Theater, japan-guide.com
- Peking opera, UNESCO
- The Mist (2007), dir. Frank Darabont
- Mauricio Kagel – Repertoire aus Staatstheater (1967-1970)
- Toshio Hosokawa – Vertical Song (1995)
- George Crumb – Mundus Canis (A Dog’s World) (1998)
- Zhenyan Li prefers to use the term oriental theatre to refer to traditional theatre practices from East and South East Asian (ESEA) cultures.