East Meets West in Flutist and Composer Su Lian Tan

East Meets West in Flutist and Composer Su Lian Tan | October 2010

    Composer and flutist Su Lian Tan was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1964 and grew up in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. She is presently a professor of music at Middlebury College, where she teaches composition and coaches ensembles. She recently released a CD of her works, including Jamaica’s Songs, U-Don Rock, and River of the Trunk. In production are two CDs featuring Tan as a flutist featuring contemporary works dedicated to her.

What was the musical environment like in your family? Were there parents or relatives who played musical instruments?

    After I showed some talent, my mother told people who asked that question, ‘No, I play the tape recorder’. My immediate family environment was extremely supportive – both parents really loved the arts and music, and all the children took lessons, but neither parent performed to any great extent.

Where were your parents from?
    Both sets of grandparents were Chinese – from southern China. We speak an interesting hybrid of the dialect known as Fuchienese. My parents suspected that their children would probably spend their lives in the Western world, so we spoke English at home, although the educational system was in Bahasa Malaysia. And the Chinese language was our mother tongue. You can imagine what our conversations sounded like!

Where had your parents learned English?
    They were both educated in English. In fact, my mother was an English teacher. They made sure we could speak English from birth.

Fuchienese is a dialect that is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin, if I am not mistaken.
    Yes, completely. It doesn’t even have a relationship with Mandarin, such as the similarities between High German and Low German. Fuchienese is not even that close to Mandarin. It’s a completely different language with different intonations and a different way of saying certain words, although the written language is the same.

You went to school in Kuala Lumpur?

   I went to elementary and high school in Kuala Lumpur, and that’s where I started playing and studying music, first the piano, then the violin, and finally the flute.

At what age did you start on the piano?
    Rather later than most prodigies – I was all of six years old. I took it up because my sisters played it, and there was a piano at home. I started with English pedagogical pieces for little kids – there was a whole set of them. There were and are still vestiges in Malaysia of the days when it was an English colony. The educational and music-pedagogical systems are shaped after the British model – the Royal College of Music system of graded study.

How old were you when you started violin?

    At the almost senile age of eight. I remember playing violin with the older kids – it was so cool. They all studied with my first violin teacher, who was quite elderly by that time. We referred to him as Grandfather when he wasn’t present. He was so nurturing. Within a couple of years I got to play quintets with the big kids, and I liked the violin because of that.

How did you come to begin flute studies?
    I had always wanted to play flute. The British Council had a nice recital space, and I heard a concert there performed by a glamorous American flutist. I wish I could remember her name. She played a gold flute. I was just enchanted. But with wind instruments you have to wait for your lungs to grow a little bit before you start. I started it last, and ended up with the flute as my main instrument. I could have played on Malaysian and Chinese flutes, but the sound of the Western flute was what I was always after.
    Much later, when I began playing concertos and more advanced repertoire, I had my flute overhauled by flute maker Jonathan Landell. He just happened to have finished making a gorgeous gold flute, and of course he let me try it. How do you put it? Is it love at first toot? Or first long-tone? The gold shimmer in the sound was irresistible, just like that first flute sound I had heard.

Tell me about the music you heard growing up.
    You could go marketing with your nanny and hear Chinese opera, both the Mandarin high-art opera, as well as Cantonese opera. There were traveling troupes that would present a show in the middle of an open court, in the middle of a market, very much like the commedia dell’arte. I heard that a lot. I remember that sound, the sound of the gong that inflects upwards, the singing style, and the incredible costumes. In fact, those memories have found their way into my chamber opera that will be performed in May.
    There was also a lot of Chinese music, including Chinese classical orchestra music, which is very beautiful, and also a wide array of gamelan-inspired music. I danced with a gamelan for a while. I think I was probably the only music doctoral candidate at Princeton who danced at their oral exams. The examiners asked us to be prepared to discuss three different bodies of music – our own, late-Beethoven quartets, and a body of music that we had some history with. I remember that I wanted to show the sensuality attached to the gamelan, and how together the dance and music made a single whole. So I did some of the dancing at the exams. It’s a different thing entirely when you actually see the dance alongside the bell music.

That style of music has been influential for so many composers in the West from Debussy on.
    I was the only Chinese member of the dance troupe for the Ministry of Culture, so I knew gamelan music as dance music, not as something austere or abstract, but as something to go along with the motions and the gestures that we were making in the dance. There were many concerts sponsored by the Ministry in which I played with the Western part of the orchestra, and there were many concerts that fused the Western orchestra with gamelan instruments. The group traveled to a variety of courts, to the sultans’ palaces, and other very formal venues. Gamelan music was something I lived with, not something that I heard and thought was cool. I was dancing it and playing it.

In the West readers have heard, perhaps, of the famously wealthy Sultan of Brunei, which is an independent state. There are also sultans within the state of Malaysia?
    Absolutely. We have a king, and if I am not mistaken, two different royal families. They alternate in providing the current monarch.

The sultans are equivalent then to dukes and earls.
    And there are princes and princesses – everything from the cast of characters that go to form a monarchy. My sister used to go and hang out in the palace with the princesses.

Was she a musician also?

    My sister studied piano and violin with the same teacher that I did, and became quite a good clarinetist. I think she was principal clarinet when she played in the Bryn Mawr orchestra. Of course now she is an incredibly gifted vascular surgeon and is too busy to keep it up.

Was there other traditional music that you heard?
    Malaysia is a very cosmopolitan country. There were Indians – I remember especially Indian food from going home with my friends for lunch. So there was also a great deal of classical Indian music, and somewhat pop-ish music. In various parts of Kuala Lumpur and out in the countryside, you would hear Moslems chant from the minarets. My musical voice very much reflects this kind of environment.

The sheer variety of music makes it sound like an entrancing paradise. The Indian music was Hindustani, north-Indian?
    I believe so. Just before he died, the sarod master Ali Akbar Khan came to Middlebury College, and everything he played sounded very familiar – not at all foreign.

What influence did western pop music have?
    My father traveled quite a bit, and he brought back the Beatles’ music during the huge craze, so even in my first few years I heard the Beatles. Everything that you could pirate was pirated and readily available – all manner of American pop. I remember Saturday Night Fever very clearly from my teenage years, and my friends and I went crazy over it. I wasn’t allowed to go see the movie, but my friends did. I still consider the BeeGees some of the most awesome pop musicians. There was a lot of Jackson Five and Michael Jackson, too. All of this ended up influencing me. In some of my pieces, especially U-Don Rock and Moo Shu Wrap Rap, I have composed pop-inspired music and also included improvisatory sections where the musicians can rock out in their own way.

Why did you go to the United States for college?

    Trinity College in London has programs abroad in which they prescribe a syllabus or set of pieces and studies from which to choose. Then, once or twice a year, they send professors to the locations where they have foreign students, and they conduct the exams in person. I took some time off from high school to prepare for diplomas from Trinity College through this program. To this date I don’t have a high school diploma, but I was a Fellow of Trinity College, London, at age sixteen. I worked on these with my teachers in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The fellowship exam was to perform a whole recital, chosen from a suggested set of pieces. While my fellow students were going to regular school, I stayed at home to practice and to put together programs for the examinations. To this day, I admire my parents, for not only allowing this, but also encouraging it.
    Both my sisters had gone to Bryn Mawr, and my second sister was staying on to go to MIT. My father would only have been comfortable sending me to an English-speaking country for college, as I was a little bit under-age. We chose Bennington for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it was such a highly artistic school. We knew I would get to perform there, and that the teachers would be fantastic.
    Also, very few colleges would accept someone without a high-school diploma. Bennington gave me a full scholarship, and then some. I am very glad I went. I go back to teach there whenever I can. I still find it amazing to walk into that beautiful music building in the morning and feel so inspired.

What kind of flute literature did you play before going to Bennington?
    I learned very standard European fare – a lot of German music – because my teacher from age 14 on was German Swiss. I played all of the Bach sonatas, Poulenc and other French composers, a lovely impressionistic piece by Koechlin, Martinu, Hindemith, and the Mozart concertos, of course.
    There was a lovely conductor in Kuala Lumpur by the name of Johari Salleh, who was a composer as well. He conducted the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra and the Radio and TV Orchestra (equivalent to the BBC). There was a moment when we were playing the L’Arlesienne Suite with the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra, and there was some dispute as to who should play the big, beautiful flute solo. My mother recounts that Salleh was asked about this, and said “The little girl can play.”
    The principal flutist was a middle-aged American, who simply stormed out of the hall. I don’t remember this at all, but my mother does. Salleh is a lovely musician, and I was very good friends with his daughter. I remember the moment of being given the responsibility for that solo. I played a lot of orchestral music at summer camps, as well as in the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra. As it turns out, this was all great preparation for playing in orchestras at Bennington and Juilliard.

Tell me about your beginnings as a composer. You were already composing at Bennington.
    I composed at Bennington because I had to. Everyone in music there had to compose and know what all of that was about. This is so valuable, and that’s why we have implemented the same concept here at Middlebury. My first class was with the great Vivian Fine. It could not have been more inspiring for me to hear and see the music of a female composer. At the same time she was so full of gravitas and fun. What a character! Exactly as her music is.

What was her pedagogical approach?
    She provided freedom, and information when you needed it, which was perfect for me. The class was much the way that I run my composition
classes today; everyone wrote a piece for a specific
    instrument, and then a faculty member came to the class and played it. Then we talked about the music, and the faculty member would fill in gaps and make suggestions. Classes were very lively. At Bennington you heard everything that you wrote.

What sort of musical language did you bring to your lessons with Vivian Fine?
    I wrote what you might characterize as modal pieces at that point. They were a hybrid of the Eastern and Western modalities that I had in my inner ear. At that point Bennington was, and I think it still is, a very avant-garde school. After the first semester my ears had been opened up much more, and that changed my writing. Most of the teachers were involved in 20th-century music, including Jack Glick, who was a violist and also played the mandolin. He was very active – one of the top free-lancers in New York. He was my violin teacher there and chose contemporary music for me to play, both in chamber music class and in violin lessons. Playing contemporary music was so important – it was immediate immersion. In short order I was approaching music very differently.

With whom did you study flute?
    It was just the most marvelous and comical occurrence. I studied flute with Sue Anne Kahn, and my name is Su Lian Tan. I was already quite advanced when I entered Bennington, so people would occasionally call the department and say something garbled which could be either name. The assistant would have to ask whether the person wanted Sue Anne Kahn, or Su Lian Tan.”
    Sue Anne was marvelous in the way she helped me with technique and to equalize tone production from the bottom to the top. She too brought new music into my life, since she was, and I think still is, a member of the Jubal Trio. She recommended marvelous pieces to work on, including the Dutilleux Sonatine and the Jolivet Chant de Linos. She has such breadth as a musician that there wasn’t any style or form of music that she couldn’t talk about or help me with.
    I remember very clearly a conversation we had about articulation in Baroque music. She was very specific, right down to where my tonguing should be placed to bring out the style and how this attitude might shift from genre to genre. This kind of attention to detail motivated me to seek a larger palette for tone production as well. Voice lessons really helped too.
    I was a bit anxious the semester she went on sabbatical, but I shouldn’t have worried. The interim teacher was Patricia Spencer, who not only continued this kind of pedagogy, but has been a friend ever since. These days we meet up as composer and ensemble member. The Da Capo Chamber Players, with whom she performs, have been our guests at Middlebury College numerous times.

What made you decide to study composition rather than performance in graduate school?
    I was in a quandary about which program to follow, largely because of a masterclass I played with Tom Nyfenger. He sat me down afterwards and invited me to come study at Yale with him. It was very hard to turn down an invitation like that. However, it was equally hard to turn down an invitation to study with Vincent Persichetti. At that point Juilliard did not encourage students to major in two disciplines simultaneously, but they said they could accommodate me. I could play in the orchestra, and there would be many other opportunities to play as well. I visited both schools, and in the end I couldn’t really see myself at Yale. New York was beckoning, and I decided to go to Juilliard.

Did you study composition with others at Juilliard in addition to Persichetti?
    Unfortunately, Vincent had a lifelong cigar-smoking habit, which caught up with him the second year that I was there. They brought in Bernard Rands during the time in which they were hoping that Vincent would recover. I studied with Bernard for a semester. It was a lively time for him – he had just won the Pulitzer Prize for the Canti trilogy. After Bernard left, I had to decide between studying with David Diamond or Milton Babbitt. I asked Milton if he would include me in his studio, and he squeezed me in, one of the more delightful occurrences in my life.

What piece would you consider your Opus 1?
    My mother would say that my actual opus one is a piece called Little Pig Snort Snort. I illustrated the manuscript, and my sister helped me with the musical notation.
I think you are asking when I took myself a little more seriously, and I have to admit that I still don’t. But somewhere between By Leaps and Bounds and Autumn Lute Song I started writing in what would become my voice. I didn’t know it was my voice yet. It was Milton Babbitt at Juilliard who encouraged me to be all that I am.
    When you are young, you try to learn the theory and philosophy behind Western music. But that wasn’t all that I was. By Leaps and Bounds is the first piece in which I unmistakably let the Asiatic roots show, in the form of gamelan influence. Autumn Lute Song also has that voice in which the Western philosophies fuse with Chinese idioms and gestures.

How else would you describe the style of Autumn Lute Song?
    Imagine an old Chinese brush painting of a philosopher singing his verses. Ancient Chinese poetry is profound, and its message is often made through landscape imagery. Autumn Lute Song (Theodore Presser) is a big song for flute and string orchestra based on that image. I made it in such a way that the principal flute of any orchestra could play the solo part. The instruments imitate the plucking of pipa (a Chinese four-stringed lute-like instrument) and the strumming of the chin (one of the oldest Chinese instruments, similar to a zither).
    So its veneer is Asian, but its philosophy and text are understood from a French standpoint. That marrying of the classical Chinese ideology with my knowledge of French style, mostly of the Belle Époque, is what grounds that piece – the mélodie includes the comprehensive text of what is being told. Asian music is all linear, with very little sense of verticality as Westerners would analyze it. Harmonies in Chinese music occur by accident. What is important is what is said horizontally.

Is your string quartet also based on Asian ideas?
    Life in Wayang is a large piece. The title refers to shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit). Shadow puppet theater is based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata – the Asian equivalents of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I decided to write my own Wayang Kulit story and base the piece on that. There are warring gods, very much like the Lord of the Rings and the Ring cycle, and the gods tell my Romeo and Juliet that if they were to marry, a century of bad luck would befall them and their villages. That’s the first movement.
    The second movement is the love story, which is where you hear hints of Mahler, who I adore – the young couple tell of their love and think about what to do. The third movement is about the idea of a community celebration. So there is a program that runs through the whole piece.

Was Life in Wayang a commission?
    Yes, the Takacs String Quartet had played on the Middlebury concert series, and we were lucky enough to have them for mini-residencies, in which they read through my students’ music. We decided to do a piece together. They toured Life in Wayang in numerous places after the premiere. I will write a second quartet for them.

Is it available yet on a commercial recording?
    No, but it will be soon. I am recording two CDs of my music, and then two CDs of other people’s music, playing flute. The next recording of my compositions will be of my chamber opera. Two years ago, when I had completed the music, we were booked at a number of places, but when the economy went south things changed. The premiere of the concert version was at the Manhattan School of Music in May 2010, performed by the Meridian Arts Ensemble, Brenda Patterson, mezzo-soprano, Miriam Gordon-Stewart soprano, and conducted by my husband Evan Bennett. I’m very happy to tell you that people really loved it! The Meridians are at the top of their game, and the singers involved are remarkable. 

What about your flute repertoire?

    I have been playing everything from standard repertoire to music by Mario Davidovsky and Elliot Carter, as well as music of friends and colleagues who have dedicated pieces to me. A few years ago, I became so enamored of Cyrus Chestnut’s music that I wanted to try to play music his way. Together with guitarist Mark Christensen, we three met in the concert hall one day at Middlebury and just started playing. What an incredible experience that was. We liked it so much that we decided to do just that again and in public. After so many years of being a notation-based musician, I found it incredible to play with such musicians without even one chart for an entire evening.
Then two years ago a number of pieces written for me came in all at the same time. Some were by former students, now emerging professional composers, and others were from colleagues and more established composers. I grouped them into a recital and presented it four times.
    The program included Peter Hamlin’s Grand Theft Flauto, which is performed with video game controller and stole the show, as well as  John McDonald’s two miniatures Flute at the Bottom and Brief Lyric, Martin Amlin’s Sonata No. 2, Horizons, a shakuhachi-inspired piece written by Mary Koppel, a former student of mine, and Down at the Crossroads by another former student, Matt LaRocca. It is a bluesy piece with great use of extended techniques. We are currently planning to record this program as well as my Autumn Lute-Song and Igor Golubev’s Turning Up Again and Again. We will also record this program at the WGBH studios and the engineer Antonio Oliart is also a flutist. The disc will be on Arsis Audio.
    Plans for the recording are well underway, and already we are looking forward to the next recital, which will feature works for two flutes and accompaniment. I have invited Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin to join me. Anthony DeRitis will compose a piece for two flutes and electronics, and John McDonald will write a trio. I am also looking for a composer to write a piece that would be hard-rock or jazz inspired.
Finally, I am planning to ask Milton Babbitt if he might compose us a short something. Whether he can or not, asking him brings together those happy, long arcs of flute and composition that have so fascinated and absorbed me, and that have been the source of so much sweat, elation, and so many epiphanies. I can’t wait to see what happens!             

Editor’s Note: Tan’s music is published by ECS Publishing in Boston, and she is open to commissions. “I love to write pieces for all different instrumentations and instrumentalists.”