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Inside the Music

Meet the Composer: A Q&A with Vivian Fung

Vivian Fung and Aqua Tower
Composer Vivian Fung and Chicago's Aqua Tower, the inspiration for her orchestral work Aqua

In concerts from April 28 to 30, Minnesota Orchestra audiences will hear the music of Canadian-born composer Vivian Fung for the first time ever at Orchestra Hall—her 2013 work Aqua, which was inspired by one of Chicago’s most eye-catching skyscrapers, Aqua Tower.

At 876 feet high, Aqua Tower would loom over downtown Minneapolis’ 796-foot-tall IDS Center, but it boasts a design as artistic as a piece from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, with ebbing and flowing tiered balconies, as well as dipping and swelling vertical pools, that make it an intriguing subject for an orchestral work. (Learn more in the program notes for the April 28-30 concerts.)

In a new Q&A with the Minnesota Orchestra, Fung answered our questions about Aqua, her first composition (a suite called Insectsssssssongs), her creative process, the architects and composers who inspire her and more.

How did you first get interested in composing and what was your first piece?

I started composing when I was about 7 years old because I did not like practicing my assigned piano exercises. My mom, the wonderful tiger mom that she was, closely monitored my daily piano practice, but little did she know that instead of practicing I was improvising and daydreaming instead. My first piano teacher, also a composer, recognized this and, instead of reprimanding me, taught me how to notate my creative inspirations. My first written composition was a suite of pieces called “Insectsssssssongs.” Here is a picture of the cover, which is much more elaborate than the pieces themselves.

Score cover artwork for Vivian Fung’s first composition
Score cover artwork for Vivian Fung’s first composition

How does your creative process start when you get a commission or concept for a piece?

I always want to find out more about the circumstances of the commission, who I am writing for, where the premiere will be, and if there is a special occasion to mark the premiere. All that info shapes the piece itself, sometimes directly and more often indirectly. Then, I often let the project stew in my mind for some time, even when working on other projects, since there may be multiple projects happening in any given year. When I finally get to writing, I always want to get a sense of what the piece will be architecturally, and then writing the notes will be guided by these blueprints, so to speak.

How did you settle on the Aqua Tower as the subject of your composition Aqua?

The project was a commission from the Chicago Sinfonietta. The Chicago Architecture Foundation selected a pool of 20 iconic Chicago buildings that define the city’s landscape and heritage. The Chicago Sinfonietta then chose me and three other composers and commissioned each of us to write a new work inspired by a building of our choice from the pool. I fell in love with the Aqua Tower the minute I saw the building on the list, and it led to a general admiration for Jeanne Gang’s work. I bought her book Renderings, which includes reproductions of Gang’s blueprints and ideas behind Aqua Tower, and from there I crafted my piece based on what I saw.

An excerpt from the conductor’s score for Aqua by Vivian Fung
An excerpt from the conductor’s score for Aqua by Vivian Fung

How have your style and artistic interests evolved since 2013 when you wrote Aqua?

My most recent projects deal with issues that are close to my heart. First, I have written several pieces around the subject of my son, including “Earworms,” “Bounce” and “A Child’s Dream of Toys.” I am also telling the stories of my extended family’s survival of the Cambodian genocide through my piece “(Un)Wandering Souls,” and my opera scenes “Grover and Friends” and “Alarm” that I will be developing into a full opera in the near future.

If you had the opportunity to write another piece like Aqua about a different building anywhere in the world, which one would you choose?

I have been admiring the work of Zaha Hadid, who passed away a few years ago. The undulating and curving lines she created with her buildings are a breath of fresh air that I find so beautiful.

Which other contemporary composers and pieces do you find inspiring, and would recommend that audience members listen to?

There are so many wonderful composers living today, and I will mention only some that I have been following.

The Minnesota Orchestra performs Vivian Fung’s Aqua, along with Samuel Barber’s First Symphony and Johannes Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, on April 28, 29 and 30 at Orchestra Hall, with Gemma New conducting and Sunwook Kim as soloist in the Brahms concerto. Tickets are available for online purchase.