This essay is one in a series of profiles showcasing artists who will be honored in the 2018 National Sawdust Gala, to be held on May 10 at the Alhambra Ballroom in New York City. For more information, see nationalsawdust.org/gala.
“When we talk about diversity, we really need to investigate why we are interested in hearing other people’s voices. It’s not about, ‘I want to hear more from women,’ or ‘I want to hear more from people of color.’ We need to understand that the drive should be: I want to hear from people who are different from me.”
Long before she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with her opera Angel’s Bone, a groundbreaking, taboo-flouting musical parable about human trafficking, Du Yun was well established both as an artist of originality and substance, bent on changing the ways we think about presence and access within the cultural sphere.
As a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Du Yun helped to put that vital institution on the map as both a composer and a performer. More recently, as artistic director of the MATA Festival, she has presented an extraordinary cross section of artists from diverse nations and cultures. Her compositions have been performed in concert halls, galleries, and alternative spaces around the globe, and have earned an impressive tally of prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer and, most recently, a Guggenheim Fellowship.
A primary benefit of the wider visibility that results from acclaim, she says, is the opportunity to spark conversation and change. “I think an artist’s role is to keep asking a society questions,” she asserts. “I don’t think of myself as an academic, but I think of myself as intellectual; to me, that means that I use my head to think about questions and issues. And then the artist part comes later: I happen to be a composer, and I happen to know how to write music, and I get paid to do what I do. And sometimes I post something on Facebook and I say something. If I do that on Facebook, I should definitely do that with my music.”
Poised between the cultural norms of her native China and those of her adoptive home, Du Yun has proved capable of negotiating seemingly unbridgeable chasms with agility and ingenuity in her quest to promote meaningful dialogue. During the Pan-Asia Sounding Festival she curated earlier in March at National Sawdust, she presented folk musicians from Shanghai alongside high-tech western innovations. In China she has toured with an original children’s musical, and intends to establish a folk-art festival to help preserve disappearing folk-art traditions.
Central to her worldview, she elaborates, is her focus on examining individual stories, rather than diagnosing societal issues in broad strokes. “I’m interested in the single person,” she says. “When I read about something that makes me sad, or makes me angry, or makes me feel like, oh my God, then I want to address that, because I’m resonant with that human emotion.”
That sense of personal connection guides Du Yun’s work as both a performer and an advocate for change. “Although I might use different approaches to working with [ICE founder] Claire Chase versus working with boys who don’t read music, the roots are the same,” she says. “They’re both equally exciting and invigorating.”