VICO – Sounds of two homes

The Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra (VICO) has released their debut full-length album, In the Key of the World. The album, which consists of a multicultural and broadly-influenced array of chamber, folk and orchestral music, features the works of four Canadian or Canada-based composers, including UBC’s own Dorothy Chang. Chang’s suite, Lost & Found, takes the listener through an abstracted cross-cultural experience, often drawing on her own upbringing and heritage between China and the U.S.

“I grew up with an uneasy balance between my traditional Chinese upbringing at home and the culture of White middle-class Midwestern suburbia in the Chicago area… So, cultural identity has thus always been a conundrum and has been a theme that I often reflect upon in my music,” says Chang.

Engaging honestly with culture

Dorothy Chang says that her cultural identity has always been a conundrum, and a theme she often reflects upon in her music. | Photo by Brian Hawkest

One of the most pertinent and recurring themes throughout Chang’s life has been the transcending of categories both on a personal and musical level. Whether it’s negotiating a diversely informed personal and cultural identity or having pursued musical studies abroad in China to reconcile what she calls an increasingly unsettling disconnect between her own musical voice and the music in her curriculum in the U.S., making sense of her personal and musical identity has been a challenging yet engaging journey.

And after many attempts at a musical synthesis of Western and Chinese traditions, Chang says that Lost & Found finally marks a substantial creative moment for forging an uncompromising manifestation of her plurally-informed identity.

“In most of the earlier works, it felt like I was simply borrowing elements in a way that wasn’t entirely genuine or suppressing certain musical influences in an attempt to reconcile the differences between the two traditions. In Lost & Found I tried to fully embrace all my influences as they relate to my personal experience,” says Chang.

Chang gives the example of the first movement of the suite, Folk Song. With this piece, rather than trying to limit the musical impulses of her upbringing in Western music, Chang brings an unabashed blend of Western influences into the fold of Chinese folk song.

“For example, the appeal of a driving 4/4 meter stemming from many years of playing in marching bands. Folk Song is a folk song that reflects on my hybrid culture, and it layers elements of Chinese music, contemporary art music, 80’s pop tunes, jazz as well that strongly-pulsing 4/4 meter,” says Chang.

Emotion and expression

In taking such an introspective and honest approach to music, Chang’s work is often inspired by themes of memory and emotion. Indeed, combining this tendency with her more sincere and honest embrace of both her Chinese and Western musical sensibilities makes for some very touching and frank reflections on both memory and culture.

“My mother once tried to teach me a Chinese folk song she had sung as a child. However, it had been so long since she had sung or heard the song herself, she couldn’t remember it beyond the first line or two, says Chang.

Chang says this fading connection became her inspiration for the middle movement of her flute concerto.

“The melody is completely fragmented and distorted and revealed to the audience only in the final few notes of the movement,” says Chang.

All in all, despite much of her music being influenced by individual circumstances, Chang says that it is her aim to create music that can be understood and be reflected upon by all.

“I find the best part about exploring these themes through music is that the art form is abstract, allowing for multiple interpretations,” says Chang.

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