Aesthetic Confusion: Anime, Orchestras, and Poetry

UChicago’s Chamber Music Organization hosted graduate student composer Alison Yun-Fei Jiang for an evening of conversation and music.

By Jad Dahshan

Last Friday, the University’s Chamber Music Organization hosted graduate student, composer, and musician Alison Yun-Fei Jiang at the Logan Center, where the former physics major shared her inspirations with attendees in an intimate setting filled with music, laughter, and warm cookies. 

Born in Nanjing, China, Jiang grew up in Toronto and spent her childhood listening to traditional Chinese opera, western classical music, and the scores from Japanese animated films. At the University of Toronto, Jiang began looking at music composition more seriously upon finding that she could not fulfill her musical aspirations while pursuing a STEM major. On Friday, she conceded her love of “pretty things”; the early work she played was particularly melodic, linear, and pentatonic, influenced by French impressionistic symphonies.  

Moreover, the literary arts also exert a certain allure over Jiang. She composed “And the Abyss Gazes Back” and “Journey” for a full orchestra in 2015, providing a musical counterpart to the concepts of “travelling, transformation, and transmigration” that she stumbled upon in her readings. The drama in these pieces is poignant, apparent in the heavy, thundering percussion and sweeping string section. “Birds Reincarnate” (2016) is a string quartet that, albeit not a programmatic work that evokes a narrative, attempts to bring to life the soundscape of bird sounds, wind, and rain in the poetry of Ko Un.  The contemporaneous “Waves, Exile” was written for the orchestra and is informed by Tim Nolan’s “My Dead,” from which Jiang cited the following lines: “They live in The Land of Echo, The Land/ Of Reverb, and I hear them between/ The notes of the birds, the plash of the wave.” 

“Waves, Exile,” Jiang explained, had more of a conceptual start than “Birds Reincarnate.” She was interested in the ways she could manipulate her musical material to accommodate the concepts of “Echo” and “Reverb,” repeating the same melody in different incarnations throughout the piece. Jiang demonstrates an experimental and inquisitive spirit through her eclectic approach to her work. 

At the end of the evening, the audience sat in contemplative silence, digesting the artistry they had just witnessed. The air was naturally nostalgic, charged by the phantoms of Studio Ghibli and dead French composers. It may even be said that their silence reflected a state of “aesthetic confusion,” which Jiang described as the fusion of the diverse musical, poetic, and artistic sources that have influenced her propensities as a composer as well as her oeuvre. A brief Q&A session followed in which listeners and Jiang exchanged thoughts, career advice, and other sources of admiration for both. 

With a B.M. from the Manhattan School of Music and an M.M. from New York University, Jiang is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Chicago.