Arts & Culture

Poetry, music night explores themes of immigration, queerness

Composer Wang Lu, poet Ocean Vuong collaborate in powerful, multidisciplinary event

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2017

As Assistant Professor of Music Wang Lu’s composition trickles into the 200-seat Martinos auditorium, the space becomes intimate and personal. As if by magic, Wang fills the room with raw and emotive sounds that hypnotizes the audience.

Sunday night in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, the Brown Arts Initiative presented “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” a collaboration between poet Ocean Vuong and Wang. The show included live poetry readings by Vuong and four pieces composed by Wang and performed by guitarist Dan Lippel and saxophone player Ryan Muncy.

Wang took part in a six-week residency with Vuong this past summer, where she first came into contact with his poetry. During the residency, she was able to get to know Vuong and his work. Wang carried Vuong’s poetry book as she spent the summer traveling around the West Coast and China.

Vuong, an immigrant born into a family of rice farmers in Vietnam, used to sleep in New York’s Penn Station before he became an established poet. He encountered the challenges of owning his queer identity in a conservative culture.

Aspects of his story resonated with Wang. She also found inspiration in his expressive use of language. “You can see the flash of this person,” she said.

The name for the show, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” comes from one of Vuong’s poems. “It’s a beautiful title,” Wang said. Her compositions, which remain unnamed, do not always respond to specific poems but rather to Vuong’s mastery of language, she added.

The compositions included in the show are works in progress, she said.  Wang had not determined every aspect of the pieces and hoped to leave space for Lippel and Muncy to play with her composition. “They are not just interpreters,” she said of the musicians. “They are composers.”

Last year, she composed a dual piece called “Ryan and Dan” for the musicians to perform, and the pair premiered it at the University. This piece focuses on the relationship between the two people and nature, she said. It has to do with, “playing for the one who understands you,” Wang said, and fit well with the rest of the pieces in the event. “Ryan and Dan” was included in the middle of Sunday’s show, along with her more recent works that responded to Vuong’s poetry. “(Lippel and Muncy) are very busy, stellar, touring musicians” and finding the time for all four artists to work together provided a bit of a challenge, Wang said. Lippel and Vuong did not meet in person until the day of the show.

“The poetry and the music are both very sensual and very…textural,” Lippel said. “Ryan and I are playing a lot of sounds that you can almost … feel on your skin,” he added. The evocative music mimicked Vuong’s poetry in these very tangible expressions, Lippel said. The compositions emphasized a sense of honesty accessible to all listeners instead of a more scholarly structure, Wang said. The synthesis of the two art forms, defined by poignant expressions and authentic spontaneity, came together in a powerful Sunday evening.