Kui Dong

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Kui Dong (董葵, born 1966, Beijing, China) is a Chinese-American composer, musician, and teacher. She is known for her music which has often incorporated traditional Chinese music into contemporary contexts, and is currently Professor of Music at Dartmouth College.[1] She has released two albums on the Other Minds record label: "Hands Like Waves Unfold" (2008) and "Since When Has the Bright Moon Existed?" (2011).

Background in China[edit]

Kui Dong claims she was forced into studying music, and if given the choice, she may not have pursued it as a career. When taking the national standardized test in China, it was recommended that Dong pursue the sciences in high school and college. However, her mother, who was a classical opera singer, had unsuccessfully urged her two older daughters to pursue music and saw Dong as her last hope for a child who would become a musician. Dong says that if she had had a younger sibling, she might be doing something completely different in life. She sometimes thinks that she might want to become a filmmaker or architect rather than a composer. Dong says that without some kind of creative outlet, she becomes restless very easily.

After being told at the age of 15 by a teacher that she would never become a successful pianist or conductor because of her physical stature, Dong applied to the composers program at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She was too young to be accepted and was sent to the high school program affiliated with the conservatory to study composition and theory rather than performance. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the Central Conservatory. Here, the main focus of her studies was Western art music, from Mozart through Ravel and Debussy. Students were also required to play a traditional Chinese instrument, as well as take classes on Chinese folk music and opera. Every summer, the school also gave composition students a small amount of money to collect folk songs in remote villages. Dong says that hearing and collecting these songs would form a lasting impression in her and her music.

After four years at the Conservatory, Dong continued with the master's degree program. During these years that Dong composed (with co-author Duo Huang) music for the 3-act ballet Imperial Concubine Young, commissioned by the Central Ballet Group of Beijing. The music and choreography was completed for the piece in 1989, it was premiered with full production and continued for the following two year-season. The reactions to the music of this ballet were a mix, ranging from rave reviews to being criticized as "too symphonic and complicated to function as traditional ballet music","not Chinese enough" and "Violent". Dong and many of her classmates were encouraged to continue their studies abroad, and she chose Stanford University.

Compositional Periods while in the US (1991–present)[edit]

During her years studying at Stanford from 1991–1994,[2] Dong did not compose much. Her idea of modernity, which was Stravinsky, Bartók, and Prokofiev, was being bombarded with new forms of music she was being newly exposed to. One of these forms was computer music. The first computer piece that Dong composes, Flying Apples (1994), experiments with algorithms. There is one main timbre in the piece, which sounds something like a metallic piano. Dong says she was attracted to the visual, abstract, patterns of sound that the algorithms created. Moments in her later computer music would mirror this aesthetic.

When Dong began to compose more regularly again, she deems the pieces during this time as her "Chinese music" period. Being exposed to so many new types of music, Dong held on to the musical language she knew well to keep from becoming disoriented. Most of her pieces of this time use heterophonic imitation rather than western counterpoint, are inspired by folk songs or tales, or are written for traditional Chinese instruments. One example of this is Pangu's Song (1998) written for alto flute/flute and percussion. Pangu is the giant in Chinese mythology that separates heaven and earth with a great swing of his axe. He held them separate for eighteen thousand years, then was laid to rest, his breath becoming the wind, his eyes the moon and the sun, his body the mountains, his veins the rivers, his sweat the rain, and the creatures carried by the wind over his body became human beings. The piece is not a narrative of the myth, but evokes an earthy sound with use of the alto flute and frequent fluttertounge, which has a breathy timbre closer to a bamboo flute. The percussion also evokes the natural world with use of woodblock, Chinese bass drum, and Tibetan singing bowl. Other pieces during this period include Blue Melody (1993),[3] written for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano and was inspired by a folk song collected in a remote village, and Three voices (1998) written for zheng, erhu, and xiao. In these pieces, there is a conscious effort to sound Chinese, even within the framework or orchestration of Western art music.

In 1998 Dong met the composer György Ligeti. Their first encounter is an interesting anecdote. Stanford was hosting a reception for Ligeti's visit to campus, which Dong attended. She remembers Ligeti walking up to her and asking directly and immediately, "How many students died during the student movement in China?" Dong answered, "Isn’t one enough?", and walked away from him. Ligeti must have been moved or at least interested in her reply, because later in the day he found her and said that they should have lunch together. Although Dong admits that it is difficult to pin-point the direct influence of Ligeti on her musical compositions, she says that Ligeti affected her life in a more philosophical way on a deeper level. At the time, Dong's English was poor, however she never felt that the two had trouble communicating with one another. Although 40 years her senior, Ligeti's experiences in Romania/Hungary during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were similar to Kui's in China during the student movements, and when sharing their experiences, they often felt that "history was repeating itself."

Dong does admit one conversation with Ligeti that did directly affect her identity as a composer. When Ligeti asked her what kind of composer she wanted to be known as, she replied "a Chinese composer". He then asked her why she wanted to be a Chinese composer. Dong could not provide a clear reason or justify herself. After that conversation, Dong began to questioning her identity as a composer and why she felt the need to make her music recognizably Chinese. This marked the beginning of Dong's compositions that began testing the boundaries of what was Chinese and what was Western in her music. In these pieces, she creates a clash between sounds of each culture rather than limit herself to writing "Chinese" music within a Western art music context. Dong's computer piece Crossing is representative of this period. In this piece, the jarring juxtaposition between rock ‘n roll slap bass guitar and a well-known Beijing opera character is in no way subtle. The timbres in Crossing are varied, unpredictable, and dissonantly opposed with one another; very different from her earlier computer piece Flying Apples, which is largely a single timbre.

In 1999 Dong also began to improvise with Christian Wolff and Larry Polansky, and they formed an ensemble called Trio. This would add another element to her compositions that we see in her work Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, Fire (2001), which were based on Dong's piano improvisations. In these pieces, Dong takes inspiration from the 5 elements that make up the material world according to traditional Chinese beliefs, but is not seeking to write a programmatic piece. For example, Dong says that the piece Earth does not refer literally to soil, but rather is a spiritual representation of mankind that inhabits the earth. The movements Wood and Metal refer to pencils and metal rods placed in the piano strings that create distinct timbres. Fire, the last movement, is the longest and most energetic not because of the element fire's importance in mythology, but because compositionally its length allowed previous themes to return and bring the work to a close. The prepared piano[4] shows influences of John Cage, the clusters of dissonant chords are suggestive of Henry Cowell, and repeated, stagnantly moving sections could be described stylistically as minimalist music. However, there are also fragmentary moments of pentatonic melodies as well as heterophonic passages which create the flavor of Chinese music, but in a more subtle manner than previous works. In these pieces, after being in the US for 10 years, Dong finally seems to be able to amalgamate the influences that she has been exposed to and bring them together in a balanced way.

Another piece that Dong considers part of this "Fusion" period is Shui Diao Ge To & Song. The texts for this work were the 11th century poem, Shui Diao Ge, by Su Shi and a contemporary poem, Song, by a friend of the composer named Denise Newman. Dong felt that these two texts balanced each other within the composition, and that her work would not be complete without one or the other. Written for mixed chorus and percussion, the piece was commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers but was deemed too difficult to perform by their conductor and was eventually premiered by Volti (then known as the San Francisco Chamber Singers) in 2003. Dong views this piece as a "cultural amalgam of all her life's experiences" [5]

In 2004, Dong wrote the piece Ludamus Denuo, which she still considers part of her "Fusion" period, but is moving in a new direction. The text of the piece is a 20th-century English poem written for children, which Dong has translated into medieval Latin and set for children's choir. Here, Dong is attempting to create a sense of timelessness and stylistic anonymity in the piece. At certain sections the piece is motet-like and at other instances evokes more of a twentieth-century harmony. When it was suggested to Dong that the piece did not sound stylistically "Chinese", she replied by saying that she is Chinese herself and asked how anything written by herself could possibly not be Chinese.

Cultural Influences[edit]

As a composer who has lived a significant portion of her life in two different cultures, Dong faces challenges and opportunities that many other composers face today in our global world. She navigates her musical language between cultures in her own distinct way, choosing by personal preference what she would like to keep and incorporate and discarding what she does not. Although Chinese music and Western art music are strong influences, her iTunes listening spans everything from classical Indian music, to Rachmaninoff, to James Blunt (popular for his song "You’re Beautiful"), to Japanese opera.

Analysis of The Seasons[edit]

One of Dong's latest pieces, entitled The Seasons or Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, also is from her "fusion period". The first movement, "Spring" is included on an album Ring of Fire released by the Del Sol String Quartet on the Other Minds label, which includes composers, including Dong, who have worked extensively on the Pacific Rim.[6] The piece is written for string quartet and four Chinese musicians, who play the zheng (Chinese harp), dulcimer, sheng (mouth organ), and Chinese percussion (bass drum, tom-tom, cymbal, opera gongs, temple blocks).[7] Dong says that the work is an homage to John Cage and Antonio Vivaldi, who both wrote music inspired based on the four seasons, solo piano in the case of John Cage, and a violin concerto in the case of Vivaldi. The first movement, "Spring", is based on a symmetrical chord structure based on the third (C, E) and gradually moving outward in thirds to expand the chord (A, C, E, G, then F, A, C, E, G, B). The entire piece basically moves from an Am7 chord to a F11 chord.

The first section of "Spring" is based entirely on the Am7 chord, with no clear melody. The strings are simply repeating these notes overlapping each other in groups of 4, 5, and 7 notes per beat, creating a shimmering effect musically. Once this timbre is established, slight changes become noticeable. Accents are placed on single notes that trade off between the instruments creating a sense of shifting, but still using the same pitch class. Then, at measure 23, for the first time a new note, B, is introduced in the cello. In order to punctuate this note, the cello stops playing for 2 measures after the note is introduced for the first time. This B then becomes very important, since it creates a new possible interval of a second between A-B and B-C. The melody line interplay between the viola and cello that follows the introduction of the B rely heavily on this second.

Then, suddenly all the instruments drop out except for the second violin, who is playing a major third, C-E (measure 32). This is the "middle" of the symmetrical Am7 ACEG chord. The second violin first plays it in groups of 9 notes/beat, and then subtly trades with the first violin who plays 10 beats/note. This again creates a shimmering effect of slight phasing. The first violin then plays a fifth, C-G while the second violin continues the third (C-E). The viola and cello enter again, now asserting the second between A-B and B-C even more by playing them together vertically rather than simply using them in a melody line horizontally. The B is brought out more by a trading of the note between the viola and a harmonic in the cello in measures 52-54, and also in measure 65 when the cello plays a pedal tone with its lowest note C together with a B a seventh above.

The tension that is built up by this added B, which in a way unbalances the symmetrical chord structure (if we are thinking about C-E as the middle) on the top, is countered with the introduction of the new note F in the cello. This F balances perfectly on the bottom of the chord what the B added on top. It also changes the mood of the piece slightly as the piece now has an overall sound of a F11 chord (FACEG) with the F as root rather than Am7 (ACEG) with the A as root. Sweeping gestures with the F on the bottom are heard in the cello from measures 78-83, when suddenly the lowest note changes to C in the cello and the F drops out completely in all voices. There is a measure of rest after this at measure 87, and the F reappears as the each voice now has swooping lines, (Dong writes the instructions "Big romantic sound! Use separate bow for every "longer" note" on the score) that do not quite sound like single melodies separately, but their interactions with each other create an overall melodic shape, with overlapping groups of 3, 6, and 5 notes per/beat. These groups then become 7, 8, and 9 notes/beat in measure 94, then 9 and 8 in measure 97 until the end of the piece. There is an intense feeling of release in the closing chord, (F-A-C-E-G-B) in its symmetry and its verticality. For the entire piece we have heard pieces of this chord, but the parts have been always moving horizontally and constantly changing rhythmically. The held final held chord creates a sense of rest and stillness that everything previously in the piece had been searching for.


  1. ^ Dept. of Music page at Dartmouth
  2. ^ Gimbel (2005-03-01). "Dong: Earth, Water, Wind, Metal, Fire; Pangu's Song; Blue Melody; Crossing; 3 Voices. (Guide to Records)". American Record Guide. Retrieved 2009-05-19. 
  3. ^ Kosman, Joshua (1995-11-30). "Composers, Inc. Gets Down To Business With Rzewski". Chronicle Music Critic. Retrieved 2009-05-19. 
  4. ^ Clark, Philip (July 2009). Gramophone Magazine http://www.gramophone.net/Issue/Page/July%202009/77/1002302/. Retrieved 2010-12-14.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ Langert, Jules (2003-06-03). San Francisco Classical Voice http://www.sfcv.org/arts_revs/sfchambersingers_6_3_03.php. Retrieved 2010-12-14.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ Rosenberg, Daniel (December 2008). "Review of Ring of Fire". Gramophone Magazine US. Retrieved 2009-05-19. 
  7. ^ "Kui Dong". Dartmouth College. Retrieved April 18, 2016. 

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