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Yiqing Zhu Yiqing Zhu Yiqing Zhu
Composer Prize 2024

Yiqing Zhu

Essay

Persistent Volatility

by Li Mingyue

Zhu Yiqing’s daily effort to think in a way that shuttles between different territories of knowledge is manifested as much in his music as in his leisure-time study notes, an example of his miscellaneous channels of verbal expression, including poems, travel diaries, and essays. In these notes, glosses on terminology from math, microeconomics, and cognitive psychology, often typologically formalised—mirroring how his musical œuvre expands in multiple series—are interlaced with spontaneous remarks on artistic, philosophical, and social issues pertaining to our time. The rationale behind such an exercise? The belief that a heuristic mapping of scientific concepts onto musical knowledge helps to form new ways of imagining music. Increasingly, a curiosity about how far two seemingly incommensurable things can approximate each other has become a driving force in Zhu Yiqing’s composition.

Yiqing Zhu

As interest in sound technology and AI grows, Zhu Yiqing indulges in an effervescent soundscape: volatile micro-gestures propagate in a condensed timeframe, dashing, ricocheting, and twitching in the widest possible spatial and dynamic ranges. A Janus-faced intensity takes shape. On the one hand, this is hyper-energetic music, so concrete that sounds become touchable objects. This sensibility radiates sheer exuberance—testament to the satisfactions and stimulations that Zhu Yiqing has found in computer composition, a realm that he wishes he could have entered earlier. On the other hand, this music is equally engrossing for its refined craftsmanship, which, interestingly, stands in almost anachronistic contrast with the world of codes, weaving Zhu Yiqing’s excitement into crystalline filigree, watertight structures, and finely proportioned forms. Working extensively on algo-based sound synthesis and live processing in Stuttgart has proven a turning point (Zhu Yiqing studied under Marco Stroppa). The digital approach prompted him to see sound, time, nature, and the finitude of human perception in a fresh new light and has led him to the special modus operandi of constantly travelling between two milieux: one of vital, qualitative materialism and the other of digital, quantitative simulacra, to use Jean Baudrillard’s parlance. This oscillation continues to the extent that one of the original milieus is continually inundated with patterns from the other. The idea of translation or transcoding is without doubt at the heart of digital technologies. The same idea has become especially fertile in Zhu Yiqing’s compositional approach—one that always seeks to disrupt boundaries distinguishing the artificial from the natural, the technologically manipulated from the corporeally rooted, instrumentality from vocality, and the autonomy of human agency from a web of mixed forces affecting situations and events.

Yiqing Zhu

This orientation provides anchorage for a series of electroacoustic works composed in a phase when Zhu Yiqing searched for a “granulation-inspired” aesthetic. The legacy of granular synthesis, which inaugurated a way of imaging sound as infinitely fissile and malleable particles and made the universe of what Xenakis once termed “micro-composition” widely open, fed into Zhu Yiqing’s classical ensembles and orchestras. The core of this music is implied in the title of each work—different inflections unified by the Chinese character “”, meaning something smashed, fractured, pulverized. This semantic image and the character’s phoneme—sui, an insubstantial, sibilant sound—jointly epitomize the sound archetype defining this music: splinters or droplets of “noises”, spitting, splashing, scattering. Anomalous in spectrum, explosive in trajectory. Just like pixels becoming ever denser, granular processing confronts us with the riddle of resolutions of perception with its quantitative approach to realism. But as much as the calculation of perceptual difference—the “smallness”—fascinates Zhu Yiqing, the biological underpinning of perception remains a key determinant. Thus, in the cycling and micro-mutations of minute slices of sound, one experiences a kind of modulated difference that manifests itself not through quantitative divisions, or a negation of idenity, but through qualitative resemblances, which approximate non-identity. What feels refreshing is a minimalism so saturated and an intermittency that relentlessly rejuvenates itself. In Le ciel écrasé 碎穹 (2018), the restless flux of sonic shards is carefully navigated by buoys serving effectively as cognitive “bridges”: a short, spasmodic morse-code-like ostinato, for example, or duplications of an octave in clusters, the purity and simplicity of which are analogous to those of a sine tone.

Yiqing Zhu
Yiqing Zhu

A mutual becoming is a central design device here. As the gritty and springy sounds emitted from the tenor saxophone in L'oeil brisé 碎瞳 (2017) mirror the perforated sonorities of the electronics, the becoming-instrumental of the electronics is also under way: synthetic cut-ups, notated as if they were non-pitched percussion, fill in empty fissures and form a micro-contrapunctal line against the solo instrument. When this dual becoming involves processed and unprocessed human voices, such as in the case of Le visage déchiré 碎脸 (2017), something disquieting emerges: hints of vocal warmth and the sputtering of shattered syllables foreground a voice that is deeply polemical. The question of whether it is from a seething subject, crying on the brink of total disintegration, or, rather, from a “ghost in the machine” is perplexing until the epilogue, during which a cyborg-soprano, now put in the spotlight, sings a carefree but assertive final cadenza.  Vanishing Chant (2019) takes this to the next level. Six singers act like an omnipotent human synthesizer—a thoroughgoing a simulation (vocal) of simulation (digital). Adding to the humanness of the piece is Zhu Yiqing’s choice of text from an Agatha Christie whodunnit, potentially using the extraordinary plasticity and theatricality of voice to reinvigorate a Christie hallmark: in a play of appearance, nothing is quite as what it seems to be.

Yiqing Zhu

As conversion and reversion between media continue to fuel Zhu Yiqing’s inspirations, a cultural sensitivity is progressively maturing. The years when Zhu Yiqing studied composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music witnessed an aesthetic reality in which standardized idioms based on historical models of European new music were concurrent with two other tendencies: a resistence against aloof academicism and a newly-felt urge to articulate a Chinese cultural identity. Already evident in his earliest works, Zhu Yiqing’s pluralism is both an acceptance and a negation of such a reality. The Silence of Borobudur (2014) meanders through a maze that blends musical antiquities from Japan, Indonesia, and China. The piece anticipated an ongoing series (“Chinese Poetry”) that engages with the composer’s Chinese and East Asian heritages, one that bypasses the stylistic clichés so often associated with an essentialist attitude towards cultural identity. Seen in this light, the refined polyphonic technique and the teachings of Formenlehre that are thrown into relief in works such as DeepGrey (2020) for orchestra, the First Prize winner at the Basel Composition Competition, and a series of works that reimagine the Baroque suite, including Partita (2019), a set of five virtuosic concertinos, should arguably be regarded as an equally remarkable example of how Zhu Yiqing culturally locates himself. Recently, an ever greater diversity of influences has seeped into his music, encompassing metal, techno, and glitch. But these elements do not appear to settle, nor do they proclaim dominance over one another. Such is the case of DeepBlue (2020) and  DeepVoid (2022). The former, a capriccio for large ensemble and electronics, features a porous milieu where jazzy snippets, electronic throbs, sizzles, beeps, and quotidian sounds like heartbeats and radio speech travel freely in and out, filtering and moulding one another.  In the latter, atmospheric allusions to gamelan and ancient folkish singing permeate a genre that is quintessentially occidental and canonical—the string quartet. The chameleon-like adaptability behind such a capricious musical assemblage, one that is constantly “en route to deterritorialization", as Deleuzian critics would have it, originates more from a strong penchant for fluidity and change than from Zhu Yiqing’s cross-continental or intercultural experience in fact.

Yiqing Zhu

Unsurprisingly, “Deep-” as a prefix for Zhu Yiqing’s work titles comes from what preceded the rise of deep learning: the first chess robot to beat a human expert, Deep Blue. Zhu Yiqing sees it as a token of the kind of creativity that would lead him somewhere unknown and unpredictable. In the same spirit, he refers to the idea of convolution, which originally denotes a mathematical operation that couples one function with another. In digital image processing, for example, convolution results in blended information that turns the purely numerical into something “perceptual”—it is precisely this kind of threshold-crossing transformation that is the attraction here. Zhu Yiqing’s latest experimentation involves tactile and motion sensors and the visualization of sonic data. The carving, warping, and melting of sounds thus become even more real (or surreal) in the sensory and physical dimensions. And what will follow? As yet we do not know.  What we can be sure of, however, is that this is a daring, unreserved, and tender mind. As his travel diaries attest, to circle back to where we begin regarding Zhu Yiqing as a keen writer, when roaming around different corners of Europe, he never restrained himself from marvelling, sympathizing, being moved, exhausted, and, most importantly, extending his antenna in unknown directions.

Yiqing Zhu