National Arts Centre Orchestra: Vivian Fung brings forth the music of her mind in new piece Earworms

Vivian Fung

From the forest of Bali to the villages of China’s Yunnan province, Canadian composer Vivian Fung is alert to the sounds around her.

Sometimes those sounds stay in her head and resound continually in a synaptic looptape commonly called an earworm, sometimes called a brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or, more scientifically, Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI).

What do you do with these sounds? Most people hum along but Fung is a creative person and she’s turned those musical fragments into a 15 minute long composition for orchestra called, what else, Earworms.

NACO, which commissioned the piece, will present its world premiere on Thursday and Friday. Earworms is the first of five new works sparked by the centre’s Southam CommissionsThe initiative was announced in December 2016 to mark the centenary of Hamilton Southam, the NAC’s founder.

Fung is acquainted with several members of NACO already. Sean Rice, who plays second clarinet, was her teaching assistant at The Juilliard School. She’s written a composition called Humanoid for Rachel Mercer, the orchestra’s principal cellist. Mercer was one of six commissioners of that work. It’s been performed in Vancouver and will be done in Toronto. And Mercer will debut the piece in Ottawa during a WolfGANG session on April 7 at the Mercury Lounge. Fung has also written for the piano quartet Ensemble Made In Canada, which includes Mercer. And, being from Edmonton, Fung knows of  Jessica Linnebach. So this commission is a reunion of sorts.

In a program note, Fung has described her piece this way:

Earworms is a feisty and whimsical orchestral piece that provides a commentary on the world we live in today – it musically depicts our diverted attention spans, our constant barrage of music and other media, and our multitasking lives.”

In an interview she explained that the piece “has come from my experiences at home and my insomnia and just having certain things stuck in my head. It’s not just one piece there are several stuck in there. I decided to just externalize it in a composition.”

These are the kinds of things you may hear late at night, or while driving the car, she says.

“They are never really complete tunes. They appear as a particular passage, or a rhythm, or a gesture. And that’s the way I composed it.”

Sometimes the musical fragments as composed are recognizable, she says, and sometimes they are hidden or disguised. And occasionally they are developed or stated once.

“I thought it would be whimsical, fun, to put together.

“I had a of of fun with it. There is a lot going on and, at the end, All these earworms get played at the same time, at different rates, and it becomes really chaotic. That’s the way that I experience it sometimes. I think it is something a lot of people can relate to too, so I want to make it relevant.”

Fung’s music is based on her experiences as well as her training and musical history.

For example, you can hear the Balinese jungle in the piece Dreamscapes.

And there are fragments of a certain style of singing from Yunnan, China in Earworms. It’s there along with the child’s song Wheels on the Bus which is her 2 1/2 year old son’s favourite.

“He has to listen to it every night before he goes to bed. It drives me nuts. It pops out of nowhere in the piece and then it’s gone.”

She says creation, for her, it is partly musical, partly psychological and partly spiritual.

“It’s how I relate to the world as well and it’s not necessarily just about music.”

There is a concept called flow which seems to describe the state of involvement she feels when composing.

“If you are really involved in something, time is lost and becomes faster or slower. You are so involved you lose yourself in that stuff. It’s a conduit for whatever is happening in creative process. This doesn’t always happen, but, in the best of times, I find that when I really get involved in something … it is almost like someone else is composing the piece and you are just a conduit.”

“I have found that process to be quite profound and quite spiritual. It’s not just about music in that sense. It’s also about the emotions that the music conjures up and the connections that music can bring to people. I feel very much that’s what drives me as a composer.

“My pieces have a certain voice. I like to experiment with different things so it doesn’t always have the same sort of production. The best pieces for me are those ones where I felt in the process of composing there was a connection.

“Travelling does that for me, where I am experiencing something fresh. A lot of my trips inspire me and become material from new work.”

These days Fung lives in California with her husband and son. She was just back in Canada recently to meet with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

“I felt that this is home. I know so many people there. In this political climate (in the U.S.) I feel that Canada is such a civilized country.”

Fung’s work runs the gamut from a small solo percussion piece to large orchestral works.

In Earworms she is “bringing in as many different sections as I can. The woodwinds are going to have to practice a lot. The brass will be featured and the strings too. It’s really everybody. I love to experiment with different colours in the orchestra.”

Her piece is sandwiched between Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

“I’m not a Romantic composer at all so it will be a contrast.” But she’s not worried about that.

“I feel as a composer that it is part of the training and the job to recognize the past and to come from a lineage. I feel that way about my work. I have a sense of craft and for me that craft is important. I have my own small library of works I go back to. And in my teaching I like to give students pieces to listen to.

“As a composer you have to be well-versed in a lot of different (musical) languages. Whether you do that in own pieces that is beside the point. It’s still very important to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. What you choose for your own style that is almost like a calling. What speaks to you as a composer is very individual.”

For Fung a lot of the time her music is dissonant but there are moments that aren’t, she added.

“It’s not completely new. It’s hard to say anything is really new, but it is coming from me in a way that I created and you can recognize that.

“For me it is about searching for my voice. It’s also situational. This piece is for an orchestra and I know I can push it a lot. When it’s right it really feels right. The feeling of finding something that works is very exhilarating.”

Fung knows it’s important to include Brahms in an orchestra’s season.

“But it’s also important that there is relevance to our society today. And I think that’s important to reach a wider audience. I’m not so sure if we just stay with the status quo it really addresses and makes our music relevant to our society.” And that means putting a piece such as Earworms on a concert lineup.

“Earworms may have something in it that an audience today can relate to even with the dissonance.”

She says it is her experience that people, in the main, respond positively to her work. She believes audiences can “latch onto something that is a shared experience” of today.

“That may not be true with a piece like Brahms. That’s not to say the Brahms is not a great piece. I love Brahms too, but in terms of the diversity of the repertoire there is room for a lot of different kinds of pieces.

“My heart cringes when I see the star pianist or violinist program the same pieces every year. Why is it that we have to program Chopin every season? I know it fills the house. But why not play something from the 21st century.

“There is so much good music out there now. Let’s be curious about what is out there.”

The National Arts Centre Orchestra
Conducted by Alexander Shelley with Boris Giltburg, soloist
Program: Brahms Symphony No. 2; Vivian Fung Earworms; Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 22 & 23 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.