We had the good fortune of connecting with Ania Vu and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ania, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
As a contemporary classical composer and pianist, my work life balance has been gradually shifting overtime. My years before and during my undergrad were always busy with school, focused on practicing, building various skills, studying, and consuming knowledge. However, currently as a doctoral student in composition, I find that constant work is no longer the most productive solution in nurturing creativity. I believe that various life experiences outside of work are not only enjoyable, but also necessary in helping with creativity and my work because more often than not, they may bring inspiration when I least expect it. My activities outside of work include, but are not limited to, reading, watching art films, discovering new hobbies, going for walks, visiting museums, and traveling. I’m from Poland, where there’s a saying “Co za dużo, to niezdrowo”, which means that whatever it is too much, is unhealthy/not good. Philosophically, I’m becoming more of a believer that everything in life should be balanced and in moderation.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
My recent music has tended to gravitate towards playing with language/text and time perception. As an avid language learner and fluent speaker of four, it is only recently that I found a way to combine languages and music – my two passions – in my work. Since writing my first poem in 2018, I discovered that I like writing musical texts and exploring the interplay between sound properties of the words and the music. To me, composing text and music is almost identical — from careful crafting of individual sounds to designing the large-scale structure of the work. After writing the text, I find it easier to write music inspired by it. Another topic that became fascinating to me was time perception in music. This obsession was prompted a few years ago by a series of difficult life events that led me to experience time in a new way: time without motion. I realized that music could manipulate time perception so that the listener would experience time that moves either faster or slower than the time outside of music. As someone who grew up in Poland in a family of Vietnamese descent, studied in a French school for ten years and then has been studying in the US for the past seven years, I have been exposed to many different cultures, schools of thoughts, and musical influences and styles. I do not feel that I fully belong to any particular place, but rather that my personal and musical identity belong to bits and pieces of many places. Knowing several languages, especially of different language groups, also opens doors to new ways of thinking and being. It is my hope that my music will reflect this unique background, which is deeply rooted in my identity.
To me, the greatest challenge is to compose consistently, even on a bad day. On the days when I don’t feel like composing, I try to keep thinking and brainstorming in my head so that I’m always somehow in touch with my current project, listening to other composers’ music to find inspiration, and applying to various opportunities/grants, etc. One lesson that I have learned is that the more we get immune to rejections, the better; many times, I was so close to not applying to some opportunities, thinking that there’s no way I would get accepted. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten accepted to some of them. What I’m about to say is obvious, but still worth mentioning: you will not get accepted if you do not apply. And if you get rejected, apply again next year!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If a friend were to visit me in Philadelphia, where I currently live, I would take them to the following places: Elfreth’s Alley (the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street!), the Barnes Foundation (an exquisite art collection), the Old City and Spruce Street Harbor Park, a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra, walking/biking along the Schuylkill river, and the BioPond at Penn. In terms of food, Philly has a huge variety of affordable and international restaurants. Some of my personal favorites in no particular order: Xochitl (Mexican), Hello Vietnam, Ekta (Indian), Front Street Café, and Suraya (Lebanese).
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
First and foremost, my parents! They have been not only supportive, but also giving with everything they had to get me the best education possible. My mom is the reason why I am a musician today. As a pianist and composer herself, she worked tirelessly with me since I was five: first it was piano, then composition. She also worked with me on Vietnamese and reciting poetry. No matter what she taught me, she always held me to the highest standards, and I owe her everything. My dad, although not a musician, was a great music lover, and introduced me to a lot of different music genres outside of classical music; we would listen to a lot of songs together on the radio in the car on my way to school, and he’d always share some trivia about the given singer/band/songwriter. Another very important person who vastly contributed to my musical journey is my piano teacher Prof. Irina Rumiancewa, with whom I was very lucky to study with for a decade during my most formative years. Her deep understanding of music, charisma, and attention to detail taught me how to truly feel music on a more profound level; I wouldn’t be the same musician I am today without her. I am forever indebted to Mr. Lenti for his kindness, endless support and unwavering belief in me as a pianist; his dedication to his students as a teacher is simply exemplary and something I will always admire. I’d like to thank ALL of my composition teachers with whom I’ve studied with at Eastman and at Penn for enriching my perspective as a composer, musician, and thinker; in particular, I’d like to thank my most recent teachers – Anna, Jim and Marcos for their wisdom, support, insight, and honest feedback. I want to thank my friends and colleagues from whom I have learned so much over the years, and all of my collaborators with whom I’ve had the utmost pleasure to work with. Last but not least, I’d like to sincerely thank my partner for constantly supporting, encouraging and pushing me in what I do, and for deeply caring about my work and my career.
Yuan Gao, Nikos Vasilakis