You mentioned that you’ve begun to look at things differently because of your capacity at MATA. From the beginning, one of the things that has stood out to me about MATA is its consistently international and diverse offerings, and I wonder whether that might something to do with the festival having been co-founded by two women composers, and that there have been other women executives prior to you. Was that persuasive in your agreeing to come aboard?
Yes. MATA was co-founded by Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky. Both are composer-performers, so from day one they were not happy that they didn’t have a platform for all the pieces that were coming to them. So when they were in that position, it was like, O.K., composers can perform. Performers can be composers. That, I think, has always been a central impetus of what MATA was about. And then after that, Missy Mazzoli was executive director, with Chris McIntyre as the artistic director, and we saw a surge of alternative classical – she’ll hate me for saying that! [laughs] – and a move to different venues in the city, out from the Anthology theater.
And then David T. Little and Yotam Haber… I remember you wrote an article about that time. I remember seeing it. I’ve been going to MATA for many years, and I think you’re right: MATA is the place you go when you want to hear voices that you haven’t heard before. And all of those people are very established in their own regions. This year, what [executive director] Todd Tarantino and I have been developing is this idea that music can have different shapes. We’ve incorporated sound art; we’ve incorporated all these different ideas about not just style, but also presentation.
I think that sometimes, because I’m Chinese-born… China is very big, so this idea of Chinese composers being a minority is kind of foreign to me. But in New York, it is, it absolutely is. So when I’ve chosen artists… like this year one of our commissioned composers is Siraseth Pantura-umporn, from Bangkok, who is actually very active in the local scene and in the international scene. He’s gotten a lot of big awards, but he is doing so much for the local scene, as well.
Carlos Gutierrez Quiroga, who is from La Paz, Bolivia – we programmed his work [in 2015], and then the La Paz newspaper did a huge feature on him, because there is national pride. His work is so amazing, and they have this indigenous-instruments orchestra [Experimental Orchestra of Indigenous Instruments]. So he would actually invent new versions of indigenous instruments, and then go to those indigenous communities and teach them how to use these new instruments.
There are amazing initiatives that I’m seeing composers doing, around the corner and around the world, trying to have their own voices. It’s especially important and essential and vital for us in New York to have a taste of that, to have a window to see that, and I think that MATA is a platform for that. It’s such a powerful, important initiative, and I can tell you that next year we’re launching a three-year initiative to focus on the Islamic world, and also a series of solo concerts by female composers, called “A Room of One’s Own.”
The other thing that I’d like to talk about is the idea of gatekeeping. I’ve realized a lot of times if I were on a panel somewhere, sometimes you feel like you’re in sight, but you won’t be in the conversation. Sometimes you really need to be a specialist to understand what some music is about. I really am so grateful to the Pulitzer panel, and I notice there were two women on the panel. [Note: The panel that determined this year’s award included composer Jennifer Higdon and Harvard University professor Carol J. Oja.]
So when boards select juries, they’re also helping to change that dialogue. That applies to MATA, too; we want to make sure we have different voices, different styles. It’s a collective effort, from the composers to the boardroom to the government. I mean, the other conversation is, “I don’t care who wrote it; it’s whether I like it.” But I’m sorry, it’s all contextual; Your good is not my good. The good in New York is not necessarily the good in Teheran, and not really the good in Bangkok. What’s effective is important. And sometimes when you have a festival, you need to have the so-called “bad” pieces – I don’t want to say “weird,” but not “goody-goody” pieces. There is a threshold: We don’t want to seem like every curiosity and oddball is good or important. What matters is if the artist has a voice that’s important for us to hear – to see and to witness and to experience.
It is also dangerous: people could criticize, “Who do you think you are to pick?” I think that I would love to initiate a conversation. I don’t think it should only be me. That’s why I say that the Pulitzer should not be a finish; it should only be the start. And I really want to thank people like Beth Morrison and PROTOTYPE – and PROTOTYPE has three women running it, and look who they’re championing: female composers doing crazy work! [laughs] And Julian Wachner and Trinity Wall Street – you need to have those champions who support your vision, regardless.
In earlier times, I wasn’t criticized, but people who’d have that conversation would say, “Du Yun’s music is very hard to cast,” or “what are we going to do with Du Yun’s music?” And now, it’s more like, “oh, maybe we can find a solution to do it. Maybe it’s not as hard as we might think.” And maybe the opera house will open the doors to people like Jennifer Charles, who is just such an amazing powerhouse of a performer, but who might not be an opera singer. It’s not, “We should have classical music that has more pop-music influences.” No, no, no, no, no, no: I think we’ve already moved past that. I think we all understand it by now. But we should have the confidence now that we’ll be able to do so many things in so many styles, and if the content calls for that, then let’s just try it. Let’s experiment, and see what fits.