Meet Composer Wenxin Li

Wenxin Li is a native of Chongqing, China, and is currently pursuing her PhD degree in composition at the University of Iowa, studying with Jean-Francois Charles and Sivan Cohen Elias. Li’s music has been featured in a variety of festivals, including Aspen Music Festival and School, Composers Conference, TURN UP Multimedia Festival, National Student Electronic Music Event, Midwest Graduate Music Consortium, SCI Student National Conference, FSC New Music Festival, Midwest Composers Symposium and Caroga Lake Music Festival. Her music has also been performed by the JACK Quartet, Accroche Note, Western Percussion Ensemble and Sound Out Loud Ensemble. Li received her master’s degree in composition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a bachelor’s degree from Sichuan Conservatory of Music.


Did you always know you wanted to be a composer? Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

I remember being interested in composition from my childhood. I used to watch a TV show about a famous Chinese composer and I remember thinking that this career is so interesting.

At that time, I was studying Chinese flute, and I improvised some melodies on my flute. I wanted to compose music, but I didn’t know that I will continue for this long, so it’s been great.

I saw that you won a number of national composition prizes in China from as early as 2009; Did you always take music as seriously as you are now?

Yes, I did. I studied the Chinese flute, then I went to a music middle school to study composition as my major. I had a professional teacher and I took classes like sight-singing, ear training, music theory, and harmony and counterpoint. I would say I entered the composition field as my major from when I was in middle school.

What was it like to shift from playing the Chinese flute to composing music in the Western classical music world?

It’s very different. When I improvised on the Chinese flute, I just played melodies which I didn’t think were very serious. I used to think that composition was basically playing a melody, or humming a sound and writing it down. When I really entered the composition field, I realized it’s more than that, it actually requires thought, lots of techniques and lots of studying. It’s not just about the melody, especially now that I’m composing new music, it’s so much’s texture, it’s sound, it’s exploring new sounds and how to put them together logically.

Composing takes a lot of thinking, it’s not just improvising or humming, it’s very different from what I thought it would be.

How would you describe your compositional style?

For now, I’m trying to have a more diverse and exploratory style.

I feel that a lot of people from my country are very focused on promoting Chinese or traditional music, but I don’t want to be limited to just one style or one area.

So I’m trying a lot of new things, for now most of my inspiration comes from nature and from my culture. I’m exploring new sounds, new styles, and new techniques on a lot of different instruments in my writing. Like if you listen to Unfold, you will hear a variety of effects on the piano, and a number of different techniques.

Who or what would you say are some of the most significant influences on you as a composer?

There are two people who influenced me a lot. One is my teacher in China Huwei Huang, who is actually not my major teacher but I studied with him for half a semester. Huang is a well-known and respected teacher in our school even though he’s already retired.

At that time, I was struggling between new music and traditional music, most of my classmates were composing new music and I was very tonal then. I didn’t want to get involved in the new music world and I couldn’t achieve a good grade in my class.

This shook my confidence in my abilities, I felt like I couldn’t compose and that I should maybe change my major to music theory or sight-singing.

But Prof. Huang was really encouraging, he told me that I had a talent in composition and I should continue my path, that I should compose whatever I like to. His encouragement was really important to me.

The second teacher is Sivan Cohen Elias here in Iowa. She has so many brilliant and new ideas, she helped me to enter the new music field, she has so many brilliant and new ideas, she asks me to listen to today’s music and every time we discuss my compositions she offers me a lot of things to think about.

What are some of the most rewarding experiences for you as a composer?

It’s always rewarding to finish composing a piece and hear the music being played by the performers. Like when I go to the rehearsals and talk to the performers. I think rehearsals are the most wonderful experience, they are even better than a real concert I would say because the performers can offer more knowledge about their instrument and what they think about the piece.

And you worked with some pretty amazing ensembles, like the JACK quartet, can you talk a little about that?

Yes! Actually in the beginning I was a little scared because they are so famous that I didn’t know if I should say anything and I thought “What if they don’t like my piece?”, but they were very nice, and my teacher Sivan Cohen Elias was there to help me share my thoughts. I communicated with them and they were very nice, they were open and tried to achieve the sound I wanted, it was just great to work with them.

What are some challenging experiences for you as a composer?

Starting a piece is not that hard, but continuing a piece is hard for me. It takes a lot of work for me to organize my thoughts in a piece.

What was your inspiration behind writing Unfold?

I actually wrote that piece for the Composers Conference; we had a collaboration and I was paired with Humay Gasimzadewho was a great pianist. I talked with Humay about some techniques or sound effects to put to this piece. She actually introduced me to a new technique, one of which was using a coin on the piano strings. When I was in Iowa last year I would practice the piano and try some extended techniques. I especially liked the fishing line sound bowing a piano string, and particularly on the lower register.

I really like that sound and I decided to use that effect in the piece. I spoke to Humay about it and how we can logically put different sounds together. The whole idea of the piece was to unfold this fishing line sound into other dimensions. The fishing line sound may sound simple, like just one note that continues, but it actually has many dimensions, and it has different harmonics if you’re bowing at a different dynamic level or speed. So I’m sort of unfolding the sound of the fishing line into different layers, different techniques, pitches, rhythms, and then the piece goes back at the end to the fishing line sound.

Why did you choose the prepared piano?

As a pianist, I’ve never really written for a piano solo.

The piano is so capable, it can do anything, and I feel afraid of writing a piece for an instrument I know so well. I also want to write new music, and I’m sure I could try some new harmony on the keyboard of the piano. But no matter what I do on the keyboard, the sound I create would have been created so many times before. So I thought I would try something new. In the strings. Inside the piano.

Can you tell us about the preparation of the piano and why it is prepared this way?

I just tried some sounds that I really love, we used a coin to get a bell effect, the fishing line sound uses the piano like a string instrument. And the e-bow is usually used on the guitar which is another string instrument.

What would you say are the biggest challenges for the performer in Unfold?

That there are so many techniques, and the performer needs to have a lot of physical focus in preparing all the materials needed for the piece.

Humay did this so well, she’s such an experienced performer, I actually needed to revise the piece because, in the beginning, my writing was quite compressed, which didn’t allow Humay much time to change between techniques. A fellow composer told me to give more time to the performer and leave some gaps in between sections to allow the performer some time so that they don’t feel rushed and are able to do things more smoothly.

What are your expectations from a performer when they’re playing your music?

My first expectation is to play everything accurately, but also I appreciate it when performers give feedback and have their own thoughts. I expect the performer to have confidence and freedom in what they’re playing. I’d like it if they follow their feelings, and I’m lucky I had the pleasure of working with great performers in my career.

What qualities are important to you in the musicians you are working with?

I think the most important thing is if they are willing to try something new. I would say being open-minded and cooperative.

What advice would you give me as a pianist trying to learn Unfold?

The first advice is to collect the material you need for the piece. There’s also one part of improvisation Unfold, where my main advice would be to follow your feelings and don’t think too much.

I’d love to hear each performer play the improvisation part differently, it should be like your showtime and your idea.

Could you tell us about your process of writing a piece?

A lot of my compositions are about what I’m feeling, or what my emotions are when I write.

With my writing process, I usually start with getting to know the instrument I’m writing for. I would communicate with the performer to get to know the instrument’s techniques better.

The next step is to construct my own piece, I take inspiration from many things, maybe the weather or some places I visited recently. I always think of the big structure first, I think of what techniques I want in which part and what sound effect in the other. I start writing the piece by creating a draft which is basically a drawing of shapes. The composition usually looks like a picture on staff line paper, then I somehow start to zoom in on this picture and I work on smaller sections in detail. I keep adjusting my drafts and continue like that.

How did the pandemic influence your life and career as a composer? What challenges and opportunities did it present?

I’ll start talking about opportunities first. Since all concerts are online now, everything is recorded!

Before, we would have a one-time live performance of our music, but now composers have very good quality recordings of our music.

I guess a challenge is that there aren’t as many performances with large ensembles, which is sad.

I wrote a piece for an ensemble that I was hoping would be performed, but I couldn’t find opportunities to have my piece performed due to the pandemic.

In general, I feel like the pandemic didn’t really have an impact on my goals, I’m still pretty determined to be a composer, I just do it while I’m staying at home now.

What are some of your other hobbies and interests?

Before the pandemic, I liked to be outside, now there aren’t many opportunities to do that.

I like dancing, to keep my body relaxed and free.

I do play video games sometimes, especially during the pandemic. I like tycoon games where I can control and organize things. I especially this game called Stardew Valley. It's about living a rural life as a farmer, very pleasant and relaxing.

I enjoy writing fiction and poems, but I mostly put all my writing in my composition now.

I also like cooking, especially Chinese food which is one of the main things I miss about being back home.

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