Composers and Their Dads: A Father's Day Special

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Today is the day for dads! For father-folk! For the people who've put in the fraught, noisy and all-consuming dad-hours it takes to raise halfway decent humans. Or in our case here, four established and dynamic composers: Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Tania León and Du Yun. I asked them about their fathers and how their fathers may have impacted their music. These are the stories they had to tell me. 

Sarah Kirkland Snider

In the early days, my father, Arnie Snider, was definitely the befuddled-but-supportive novice. He got into classical music a little later, through me—I studied piano and cello, played in youth orchestras, and sang in choirs. He loved hearing me practice and compose, and would often just lie on the living room sofa with a bourbon and listen.

He was a dreamer in many ways, but he, like my mother, came from a very traditional, small-town Southern background, and he had a busy life in finance in New York. In my early years, composition was not on my parents’ radar as a living art form, let alone something a young girl could study formally, like ballet or horseback riding. 

When, at age 23, with a B.A. in psychology-sociology and a job as a legal assistant at the Center for Reproductive Rights, I decided to switch my plans from law school to music school, my dad was extremely supportive. “You have one life,” he said. Seven years later, after attending the Yale School of Music performance of my first orchestral piece, "Disquiet," my father looked at me with tears in his eyes. “I can die happy,” he said. Parental hyperbole, but it was the first time I really understood how much pride he took in my work.   

After my dad died, I wrote a 26-minute orchestral piece, "Hiraeth," about him. It was co-commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, the two places my dad called home.

 

Angélica Negrón

My most vivid memories of my dad relating to music are him listening to old-school salsa at an incredibly loud volume at home and in his car with the windows trembling from the massive sound that was coming from the speakers. He still does this and though I can't stand the volume I love seeing how happy this makes him.

Completely unrelated, but we went to Disney World a couple of times when I was young and for every trip he got me these white balloon sneakers which he decorated with rhinestones. At the time he worked in auto body repairs. I think about him meticulously bedazzling my sneakers for me to strut down Epcot Center and it’s the sweetest thing.

I think it took him a while to figure out exactly what I did, but he's been really supportive though classical music and more so new music is a very foreign world for him. It's most likely still in the realm of "crazy music" for him.

 

Tania León

I spoke with Tania León over the phone. She left her home country of Cuba to study piano and composition in Paris and then New York City. Because of diplomatic tensions between Cuba and the U.S., she was unable to return home for 12 years. Her first trip back was a seven-day visit for family reunification. She brought her most sophisticated compositions, which she had written during her studies with Ursula Mamlok at New York University. She showed these compositions to her father.

Before I left, my father and I were walking in the streets of Havana. We would try to stop, since there was music all the time. We would watch the musicians and listen.

At one point there was one of those rituals that had to do with the Santería, and the influence of the Africanos who came to the Americas. We went to listen to these drums. My father asked, “Could we come in? My daughter has been outside of the country for a long time. She hasn’t heard this music for a long time.”

So we listened to all of this drumming, which is very big in Cuba. Batá. We were there for a while, and then we left. As we were talking he said, “Well, you know, I’ve listened to your music. It’s very interesting, you know.” But then the punchline was, “But where are you in your music?”

And that was it. I left Cuba, and didn’t know that that was my last conversation with my father. He dropped dead months after that. I was devastated. He had this question that we were never able to discuss. What did he mean? “Where are you in your music?”

He sort of gave me, without knowing, a tremendous amount of energy to pursue and find my own self.

My first orchestral piece, “Batá,” begins and ends with whistling. If you go to the end, you hear all of this activity — actually, those Cuban drums and rhythms called Batá — that gets interrupted by the whistle. Usually the flutist walks away from the orchestra, and the whistle is played backstage.

My father used to always work away from from Havana. And in the middle of the night, around two or three o’clock, he would be returning. He had a big whistle; he could whistle from two or three blocks away. My grandma would wake us up, saying, “Your father is coming, listen!” My father was coming, sure enough. Within five or 10 minutes, there would be my father walking into my house.

 

Du Yun

My father, Du Yi or Du Changzai, depending on how he feels like to be called on any given day, never went to college, nor did my mom, due to Cultural Revolution that took place in China. When it broke out in 1966, they were both junior high school students.

My father came from a family of capitalists. My father’s father, my Yeye, learned how to build coffins, learning as apprentice from the 1930s until the 1950s. My father’s mother, my Nainai, was illiterate and a bind-feet woman—those women who had their feet bound from the feudal tradition—but a very smart woman according to my father’s stories.

My grandpa later built a small factory—I think it’s more like an atelier—in Shanghai, using his newfound coffin building skills. My grandma was the one who managed the finances. Because of this atelier, they were considered as capitalists by the new country.

My grandpa died of diarrhea in 1975, and my grandma followed him—that’s how we call it—a year later. Before she passed away, she summoned my dad’s wife in, giving her bars of gold, real gold. Illiterate grandma had been saving and hiding the gold bars from the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. She turned to my dad, telling him that he could not waste any luxury on himself. He could only use the gold on his not-yet-born child’s education.

A few months later my mom was pregnant with me. By then they were not officially married because the government didn’t allow them to get married; he came from a capitalist family and my mom came from a peasant family. So they did the Chinese wedding without getting the official papers. Later the government yielded to the my mom’s strong will, granting the legality of their marriage.

I went to my kindergarten when I was 3-years-old. I saw the pump organ in the classroom and I wouldn’t leave the pump organ. So then I had this sure idea that I wanted a piano. It took me six months to convince my parents I really needed a piano.

My parents at the time were both factory workers, earning RMB 38 per month, around $6 or $7. My parents had a serious talk with me about whether I really needed a piano. My dad told me that if a piano were to come in, there would be no return. I recklessly said yes, without knowing what it would get me into.

For my first piano, my parents traded three bars of gold, or perhaps it was six. Anyways they used the beam-scales. I remember those objects in my first memory. My parents also got my first stereo with another bar of gold, and my metronome and piano lessons with most of the rest of the gold bars. I remember going to another city with my dad, going to the black market, trading gold for cash and returning to Shanghai—all so he could get me stuff for my education.

My father had been very envious of real capitalists, who really had the money and who could play instruments and recite poems. His dream was to own a watch, a motorcycle and perhaps even a guitar. My mom thought these were terrible ideas, so that dream later turned into a piano for me and a bicycle for him.

I believe my dad might have had a crush on some girl from a big house who went to a music school. Back then, those people were like fairies to us. The most bourgeoisie of all. For many years on, one of my dad’s hobbies was to window-shop motorcycles and killer furnitures.

My dad was a very handsome looker. He still is.

When that piano came into the household my non-stop training began. My dad took me to piano lessons, later to English lessons, and then some Kung Fu lessons; there were even three weeks of some guitar lessons. I did not like the guitar lessons. I thought it was too much for my pianist fingers … hahahaha. Now I always regret I didn’t keep learning the guitar.

Of all the Du family members from my grandparent’s branch, I’m the only one who went to college and the only one who started rigorous training at a young age. Since I was 4-years-old, my dad has always been at a loss to explain what I do to his relatives.

My dad is a natural performer with a beautiful voice. He can sing folk songs; he remembers all the Russian tunes he learned in his school years. And there is one Chinese folk tune from Shandong province he likes to sing so much I think he’s become the composer of that song. One should hear how he change everything in that song.

My father, to this day, still thinks I should not be singing in public. I don’t play or sing with my dad, because whenever I sing or want to join him singing, he will shush me; he will say, "OMG—’o-yo’ in Chinese—you should not be singing, and let me demonstrate how things should be done."

 

This is "Miranda." That’s me on the piano and vocals, with the cellist Matt Haimovitz. Later I had it in my pop album, "Shark in You." I want to show why my dad doesn't think i can sing—of course, not comparing to his truly gorgeous voice.

My dad is a storyteller. He tells stories again and again until they become myths. I love those stories. Growing up, I always thought he only told 30 percent of the truth of the stories. But recently when we moved our Shanghai apartment, I found this letter that my grandma wrote to my dad’s brother. She didn’t write it, because she was illiterate; she hired someone to transcribe what she said. I was astonished to see that there are more truths in my dad’s stories than I had given him credit for.

I really think his nighttime stories of my family history, and his histories, have impacted directly my own fascination with storytelling. I love to fantasize.

My wandering spirit was definitely planted by my dad. When I was young he took me on trips to many cities and villages around China. He would always introduce me to the new sounds of those places: the dialects, the food, the folk tunes. My most poignant, life-changing trip happened when I was in second grade. My dad took me to visit the village my grandparents left, which we call the “Real Home Place.”

We spent three days on the train, bus and mule carts just getting into the village from Shanghai. The first time I visited my grandparent’s graveyard was such a mystical experience. I sobbed and weeped for hours. I kneeled on the graveyard for the whole entire afternoon. I mourned how I never met my grandparents. I was 8. I incorporated that experience in my first opera, “Zolle.”

Nowadays we can travel back to that "real home place" in under eights hours from Shanghai.

My father and my mother both actually generally don’t want to come to my concerts unless I am performing as a soloist or I have more than one piece on the program.

It doesn’t matter where the venue is. They loved coming to this rundown place deep in Brooklyn where I was belting, and yet they thought crossing town to go to Zankel Hall was too much of a trouble just for one piece. They called me 20 minutes before the concert, saying that it’s not worth getting a taxi from Upper East Side. I was not sad. I thought it was so funny. Maybe the Q train now will change that taxi situation.

Having said that, my dad—to my surprise—did like “Angel’s Bone” when we premiered at the Prototype Festival. He hadn’t liked the earlier stages that much, so I thought we did a good job developing the piece. [Her father was right to think highly of the opera; it earned Du Yun the Pulitzer Prize for music earlier this year.]

Neither of my parents are musicians, but both of them are my best critics. They are so visceral, and I always want to make sure they react to my music and my work. I always always ask their opinions on my projects. They keep my feet on the ground. I always say my prayers that I’m the only one in the family to have had higher education.

On this Father’s Day, I’m glad that I can write this down. I’m sorry that he cannot read this in Chinese. And I probably will not translate it into Chinese for him. Nah, that would simply be too embarrassing for both of us. But I think we both understand this: "In the Du family, my mom is my rock and my dad my spiritual animal.”

When I was born, my dad gave everyone he knew bags of candies and eggs. It’s an old tradition that when a son is born, one celebrates. I think my grandma would have really loved to have a girl in the family, so my father was overjoyed to have me as a girl. Growing up, I was never the daughter, nor the son; I was the only child, the one who would carry on all the family stories, traditions and lineages. Today I bravely turned 40. Dad, I am always grateful for your child-like spirit, which I see in myself. If anything, I’m sorry that I will never be the grown-up you yourself never became either.

And thank you, Mr. Du Yi Changhai, for your never-existed motorcycle.