By Hugh Heller, Ella Clair and Jake Amy
Musicians who emigrate to Australia face the challenge of integrating into a new culture while preserving their own identity and tradition. This is on top of the challenge already faced by all artists; creating art that expresses themselves as well as the collective that they emerge from. Chinese-Australian musician Mindy Meng Wang has forged a strong identity, blending Western influences with her own musical tradition. Hugh had the opportunity to discuss identity and art with the distinguished instrumentalist. Here are the most inspiring parts of their conversation.
What do you think is the role of art, or your art, in bridging the gap between people of different cultures?
Lack of understanding has caused so many problems in the world, and art is one way to introduce a cultural mentality to people who don’t have that background. When I perform, I don’t just “play music” - I try to introduce music plus philosophy and culture, and I’ll often tell stories. The reason that harmony and other elements of music are different in Chinese traditional music is because they’re actually connected with mathematics and philosophy. Most people have no idea about that. If we all start to understand each other more across cultures, we will eventually find that there are many similarities that make it easier to understand each other and also break stereotypes. And I think the reason people still have these stereotypes is because (even in European countries) they’re formed by secondhand information - we think we have lots of freedom on the internet, but what we get to see is very selective. For some reason, people trust the media so much that it forms their political views.
Being a Chinese musician that works in Australia with a lot of Australians is a bit weird - I feel that people have a curiosity about me. There's still this “exotic” sense there. And people don't really understand what I do, but they're interested. Generally, those people are very positive. Sometimes, there's hidden racism.
Many times, industry collaborators will first check my political views before they commit to working with me. That’s kind of weird. If I was a white person, maybe they wouldn't ask me, “Do you support Trump? Because if you do, I’m not going to work with you.” With me, people check who I support and what I think is right and wrong.
So I guess this is a special experience of being a Chinese musician working in the West. People don't understand me… And that's why I'm here - I want people to understand me, and I want to introduce them to the culture from where I grew up, show them that the music is nice, and that I love Chinese culture and Australian culture. I want to be a positive influence.
You’ve said that the "Western art world system is innovative and encourages the individual". Could you elaborate on that?
I think that in Australia, we’re encouraged to be ourselves; to be different. We’re still working on that as a society, but it’s definitely mainstream now. Here, we are proud that we're human beings, and even though we have faults, they are accepted. In China, things are very different and based on ancient philosophies… In China, there is often a standard of what is “good”. When we’re young, we’re told we’re not good, and no matter how hard we try, we're not good enough. And it’s everywhere: assuming telling people they’re not good will make them try harder; so they'd be better. And it’s not encouraging. This is a way to train children.
And the ancient philosophy actually doesn’t encourage individuality. It emphasises harmony and sacrifice. You sacrifice for your family, for friends, for society, and therefore if your individualities get in the way of others, you should definitely not have them. The mentality is so different. That comes in everyday life and also music. In Chinese music, for example, they will give you an old, ancient piece, and the best way you can play it is exactly what you've been taught. Within there, you can put emotion, but they don't encourage you to be so different.
Chinese people are very restrained and contained, even about a feeling. When you're young, you shouldn't just let things out because that would disturb other people; you should contain and digest it by yourself. So the arts is all in a very finite, contained form. For those who do not understand music that well, they might think different people play one piece almost exactly the same. The differences are very, very small. Here, you could go any direction and it's all encouraged. I think it’s very different, in terms of arts and mentality, and you can see it easily.
Considering that, why is it important for you to maintain your traditional practice?
I’m definitely not a typical classical musician from China - I try to musically “break the box”. But traditional practice has formed me and become a part of me. I have to use that to my advantage: to reach to different levels, different directions. I think it’s very important to maintain a strong foundation, so I can go higher, or in a completely different direction later. A traditional player might look at what I do and think, “Wow, it's really out there, it's something we haven't even thought of, something we’ve never tried,” but if you look closely, the traditional practice is the foundation.
What challenges have you had in maintaining your identity since being in Australia?
Definitely a lot of challenges, but it wasn’t so bad, because the first difficult time was when I went to England. That was more of a shock, coming from China, because before I went to England I had never been to a foreign country. When I was there I didn't really speak the language very well and I was young.
Before I left China, my life was very controlled. Like all the kids; I went to school, I had lots of homework and I had to practice. So I basically had no “childhood”; it was about study and practice. Even when I was 16, my mental age wasn't that grown-up compared with Western kids. We were absolutely a couple years behind. In China, parents would never let you go out for a date. It's definitely not allowed when you're 16. So when I went to England, that was a really big challenge and a very shocking time for me. When I came to Australia, it was much easier. At least I spoke the language. But it was still very difficult, because I didn’t really have friends and I had no connections here. I definitely didn't know how to get into the music industry… That took a bit of time, and at many points I thought “maybe I just can’t make it here” and would have to go back to England or China. But, after two or three years, I found that my connection to Australia grew. Like a plant I started growing roots. I started to get to play music with lots of different and interesting musicians.
Before I left China, I only had one identity. Since then, I constantly have to juggle between two. I think I have actually been influenced a lot by Western culture. When I go back to China now, or even talk to my family… well, actually, my mum is not happy. She asked me, “Are you Chinese?!” I think she finds that she doesn't really know me sometimes because the way I think about things, or do things, is very different from what she used to know. And even my friends, like Western friends, sometimes comment, "You are different from other Chinese people." I think they are trying to give me a compliment. It is actually really weird to hear that, but what they mean is; they feel they can understand me better and I understand them better.
I guess it's just because I was quite blended with Western society after I left China, unlike a lot of students. They live in bubbles, and so they don't really get to understand what's going on here, and what the culture is, you know? So, yeah, I'm constantly between these two. And now I think I actually find a very comfortable space, where I really embrace all the traditional culture of China and also have a very confident knowledge about my own value and where I want to go. So I don't have doubt about my identity anymore. I accept it is a blend, it's not going to be Australian or Chinese. It's a blend of both. And I feel really lucky that I can see things from different perspectives. You really have to have this deep understanding and experience in both cultures to be able to have that. I really like it now, so it's not a challenge anymore.
What advice would you give to a young composer who has moved to Melbourne from China?
Firstly, being a composer or musician is just generally a very difficult thing, without even thinking about where you are from. Unfortunately, if you're female, or if you're young, or if you're from a different country; these things will make it extra difficult. You have to be mentally prepared. You have to be strong about what you want to do. Otherwise, you're not going to last.
Secondly, just try everything. You probably think you know what you want to do, but there are so many things you haven't tried, and once you try, you might think, “Oh, I can do more than one thing.” And that actually gives you more opportunities to get to know the industry and understand people and introduce yourself as well.
Thirdly, you have to be super positive, mentally. There'll be a lot of things that upset you in the progress of your career, and you have to be mentally prepared to overcome all this, which is probably one of the most difficult things. When I first came here, I did actually try to get some advice from someone who had a similar background, and I think that advice was to go back to London. Now I understand why it was like that, but I would not tell that to a newcomer, because I understand what it feels like when you hear that. I think I would just tell people that you have to be super strong. But, you know, if you are, and you're determined, just stay and try to be patient.
Why did that person suggest that you go back to London?
I think that person explained that “there’s not much going on here, it's super difficult”. This was an established composer from an Asian background, which even for him, it's very difficult. He was saying, “You're doing so well in London.” I was in the best Chinese string quartet in Europe and it looked like the environment and the future was bright. He was saying I wouldn’t “have any of that here”, you know? I guess he thought it would be much easier for me to pursue my career there rather than here. But I’m so glad I stayed, because now, after so many years, I really understand Australia much better now. I do feel like it was a good choice. It suits me, and I have no doubt this will be my home. If I gave up, I would have never learned this.
How would you change the Melbourne music scene to make it more welcoming and inclusive for people migrating from another country?
Compared to Europe, we don’t have a good system. Even though the Australian government is putting effort into this, in London, there are a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge about Asian culture. In London, there are community groups practicing different art forms, and there is a community interested in that… there’s a full system. Here, even on the basic level, the community are not gathering together to do those things. It doesn't have an environment. Imagine if there was a huge community of a thousand people who organised events to practice the one art form regularly. Then they actually have this culture here, and then maybe more people will be studying this, in university, for example, and the entire awareness of one thing will be different. So, I think we have some individual artists like me, who are promoting and introducing arts and culture, but I don’t think it's in the full chain. It's a bit broken up. I don’t think that provides a healthy, self-sustained form of developing this type of culture. And it’s the same with every culture, not only Asian. So it needs so many different things to actually create a healthy environment, and we're missing lots.
You developed a work using "ancient Asian art forms to trigger human emotions and artificial intelligence to read the audience's mind and emotional states." What are the implications of that for using software to make art in the future?
The software I use is called Biometric Mirror, which reads emotions, and I use the arts to trigger people's different emotions. Then we can see the connection between what artists do and how it goes to the audience and how it is recognised by artificial intelligence. What I like about this is we're actually using something really ancient versus something really futuristic. It's like a communication between past and future, between what is ancient and what is going to be the future for all of us. AI is going to be more developed… it’s not perfect now, but it will get there. And I think it will eventually come into our life from many different angles. But by doing this kind of project, what I really want to tell people is to think about how far we want to go with modern technology. To think about how much of our life and and our humanity and feeling we want to give to the AI to let it interfere with. Even now, you can tell your speakers what to do without pressing a button. 30 years ago, you wouldn't think about that, you know? Is listening to music from a speaker at home, by telling and talking to your Siri or something, the same as actually going to a concert or going to a jazz bar and watching real human musicians play music? You know, there are so many decisions, and I feel like people don't really pay attention to this. They just take whatever they've been fed. The reason for this project came from one time when I went to Splendour in the Grass. I saw they had a science tent, and they were showing this programme called a biometric mirror, which is the one that analyses you from a single photo. And it's kind of a joke, because it's not accurate. It only just developed and it was actually meant to make people think, to question, but guess what: people don't question! They just come, they queue up, and when the software tells them they're irresponsible or not attractive or older than their real age, when it answers not what they expected, they just get upset straight away, you know. From being so happy, queuing at a festival, and then they see that and their face completely just drops. I found it very interesting. They didn't even question what it was, how accurate it is...they just get influenced. So I just thought, okay, I want to do something to push people, make them uncomfortable, even, so they think about making a decision for modern technology, not just getting it without any thought. I'm going to take this project to another level. Hopefully next year, we can put in a big live performance, and this time I'm using this software, the AI, to pick up the emotions from the audience and translate them into music language to be played on the electromagnetic piano. So while the audience is watching the human perform on stage, they're mind-controlling this piano to interactively play with the human musician at the same time. And they can't lie about their feeling! Sometimes you go to a performance and people ask “what did you think?” And you just say "Oh, yeah, it's pretty good". But with this one, you know, if you don't have a positive feeling, you can hear it. There's no way you can lie about it. So I hope by exposing people's feelings, and challenging the audience, it will make them think about what they want to do with modern technology.
Keep up to date with Mindy here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.
Photos provided by artist.