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Mindy Meng Wang: Uniting Tradition and Contemporary Influences

Rachel Weinberg

Renowned musician and composer Mindy Meng Wang is a true maven, seamlessly blending her classical training with contemporary influences to create a captivating sound that defies convention. Hailing from China, Meng Wang's remarkable journey began in her formative years when she first embraced the Guzheng, an instrument steeped in the rich traditions. In an interview with to Be Magazine, Meng Wang reflects on the unique circumstances that defined her upbringing, exploring the immense pressure placed upon children to excel academically and artistically. Venturing beyond China, Meng Wang 's thirst for knowledge propelled her to pursue studies in Western Musicology in the United Kingdom. There, she experienced a newfound sense of freedom, liberated from the rigid constraints of her early musical education. It was during this period that she honed her skills and developed an insatiable appetite for collaboration, ultimately leading her to make Australia her cherished home. Currently, as a resident artist at Melbourne Recital Centre, Meng Wang embarks on projects and educational programs, aiming to bridge cultural gaps through her music. As she prepares for her upcoming performance When at Melbourne Recital Centre, she bares her soul, offering a glimpse into her musical odyssey, recounting the collaborations and triumphs that have shaped her artistic identity.

Mindy Meng Wang Hi, Rachel.

Rachel Weinberg How are you, Mindy?

MMW I'm good, how are you?

RW I'm good. How's your day been?

MMW I'm actually home with my baby on Tuesdays. I just took her out to the playground and gave her some lunch.

RW How old is she?

MMW She's one year and five months.

RW Playing any instruments yet?

MMW Well, she really likes to play with the synthesiser. She's actually very musical. Hearing music is a big part of her life.

RW What age did you start playing music?

MMW I started when I was around six years old. In 1980s China, Western classical music was considered really fashionable. So, I first started playing the piano, which didn't really work out. I think I was just too young. My mum said that I couldn't really sit still for practise. So, I stopped and my mum thought, okay, maybe she is not musical, let's try something else, maybe painting or dancing. Then about a year later, when I was almost seven, I started playing the Guzheng.

RW Do you have any siblings or are you an only child?

MMW I'm an only child. I was actually part of the first group of children under the one child policy. In the early 1980s the population grew really fast and effected the economy. The government was really scared of the population growing while there wasn't enough food to feed everyone. Now it seems like people don't really want to have a lot of children, they have become used to only having one child.

RW You were trained in China, then went to study Western Musicology in the UK, and then migrated to Australia. What's it been like in Australia so far? And how do the music industries differ in each country?

MMW I left China when I was 16. Everything before that point was about study. We had to study so much. I didn't even have enough time to sleep. A lot of children were under pressure to perform. During and after school, we needed to train in music, painting or dancing. We had to be 'good' at something. We really didn't have a lot freedom and I really just had to do what I was told to do. When I eventually left China, I embraced the freedom of being able to do what I want. I could decide what I wanted to study, I could choose my subjects, and actually be responsible for my own life. That was a really new feeling for me.

Then, after graduating, I joined the renowned Chinese string quartet in Europe. Although their repertoire mainly consisted of traditional Chinese music, they also showcased new compositions crafted by Western composers or developed through collaborations with Western artists. It was all on the very conservative side. I still really enjoyed it. We toured everywhere. We played at all the big festivals in Europe and in great venues around the UK. My first few gigs were actually at Tate Modern and the Barbican Centre. A few years after playing, I became interested in other music genres and forms. I then had an opportunity to work with some pop and electronic musicians, including the Gorillaz. Just before I left the UK in 2015, I performed this really fun gig with them in this grand show. It was a really good way to end that UK chapter of my life.

It wasn't easy to initially find the industry in Australia. But, after a few years of working in the field and meeting people, I realised how warm everyone is. One of the reasons I chose Australia as my home was because of the people. My colleagues and collaborators became my really good friends and made me feel like I belonged.

RW What do you think of the music in Australia?

MMW I think Australian music is very diverse. There is classical music, jazz, there is also a really strong pop, contemporary electronic industry. I've been working with so many great artists. It's been such a treat.

RW You released Mirror Flower with Tim Shiel earlier this year. Was there anything different about that collaboration for you?

MMW I actually don't know why, but the collaborative relationships I've formed in Australia have been deeper than those formed in Europe or the UK. I think it’s because I changed the way I work with people here. Instead of pursuing a one-off collaboration, I decided to keep working with the same artists across multiple projects. That way, I can get to know their work on a deeper level. When I started working with Tim we were supposed to only remix one track. Then we ended up releasing the EP and are now doing all kinds of performances together. We became a very solid duo, almost like band. The same thing happened with Paul Grobowsky at Melbourne Recital Centre earlier this year. We started working together for a small performance in early 2021. We really enjoyed playing with each other and ended up finding all these opportunities to perform together in different places, including Monash University and then again at Recital Centre. When I recognise a project or collaboration that has potential, I really like to keep the momentum going, rather than just doing it one time and leaving it behind.

RW When you're working with other musicians, how do you unify your classical background with the contemporary strain that they're coming from?

MMW I've always naturally crossed the line between classic and contemporary. Compared to Western music or traditional music scales, the scale of notes on the Guzheng is naturally limited. In most instruments there are twelve notes, but for this instrument there is only five. I had to invent new techniques to unlock the instrument's limitations. Now I am able to work with Western and contemporary artists and play the instrument in a contemporary way. I like to break the rules. 

RW And how do you think musicians with limited knowledge or training in classical music can incorporate these disciplines into their own work?

MMW I think it's very different for everyone. Not all artists are technically concerned. Everyone's strength is different. It’s about what seems right for that person, for that musician. It's about what feels more instinctual. It's also about following your intuition, focusing on it, and being confident in it. That’s the way to go. You need to look at your own strengths and work on those. And of course, it's about passion. I feel passionate about modernising the Guzheng and bringing classical instruments into the new world.

RW Can you tell me a bit about your writing process and where you find inspiration?

MMW Every work is different. When I compose for other musicians or chamber orchestras, I usually sit down and, in a rather traditional way, create the structure and movement of the piece. Then, looking at the structure, I start forming the melody, arranging parts for each moment. Those smaller moments then transform into a whole piece of music. For smaller bodies of work, I really love to improvise. Sometime I get together with the artist, play, and try to find the sound that actually tells the stories that I want to tell. For example, with Tim, we first sent files to each other and recorded ourselves on top of each other's tracks. Then, we listened and decided what worked, what didn't. Because we started during COVID, we would never actually be in the same room. We met each other for the first time during the photo shoot for the album cover!

RW How do you define experimentation within the context of music and what significance does it hold for you?

MMW I think anything that is new can be classified as experimentation. Usually, my instrument clearly defines what it should be playing and how it should be played. But when I, for instance, introduce a plug and string, then hit the string with the pluck drum, or knock at the end of the string instead of the middle, I am really trying something new. Without experimentation, without creating new things, I would have never released the music I do. There would be no progress. I think experimentation allows music to reform into a modern shape. It suits people's lives, people's ideologies.

RW How has your residency at Melbourne Recital Centre been so far?

MMW It’s been so great. I really love working with people there, everyone's so nice. We've done a few concerts together and there are a lot of exciting things planned. We are working on an exchange program with similar organisations in China. We are also planning on facilitating more educational programs together, encouraging young Asian artists to create music. So often young Asian musicians lack encouragement. We are working on a program to support their passion for music.

The upcoming concert in July is going to be quite personal for me. It's my first-time using film and music to tell stories about racism. During COVID, there were a few occasions where I was shouted at, which had never happened to me before.

I want to remind people about common feelings. Although we are all from different cultures, the feelings you have for family, the love and pain we feel, is all the same. No matter if you're Australian or Chinese, you feel sadness and happiness. We're all human beings.

RW Why did you decide to call the performance ‘When’?

MMW I started thinking about it during COVID when my mother and I were separated for almost four years. I often asked myself, when can I see her again? When can we be together? When is this going to end? When will things go back to normal? Thinking about the pandemic and Melbourne's position, I think it also asks, 'when are we psychologically going to get back to 'normal'? Is that even possible? When are we all going to be okay? I think 'when' is a good question to start with.

See Mindy Meng Wang – WHEN at Melbourne Recital Centre Friday 7 July 2023. Tickets available here

Photography Alan Weedon

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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