Student Spotlight: Serena Wang Explores Tradition and Innovation in the Music of Chinese Émigré Composers in New York City

Serena Wang

Serena Wang (Ph.D. ’21, Music) says that her dissertation, New Chinese Music in New York City: From Revival to Musical Transnationalism, explores two generations of Chinese composers in New York City whose “training in Western music here provides them with tools that they can apply in their own ways.” Wang explains, “While they are influenced by what they learned and their exposure in New York City, they also contribute to the city's culture by drawing from their own historical and cultural heritage.” The resulting transnational appeal of their music and the flexible accumulation and combination of musical resources is what Wang calls “musical transnationalism.”

Wang trained in piano performance and has taught Introduction to World Music at Medgar Evers College. She will present her research at this year’s Dissertation Showcase and she spoke to The Graduate Center about the creative conversation between cultures and why she decided to study here.

The Graduate Center: What first drew you to this topic?

Wang: I came across the writing of the composer Chou Wen-Chung, who was a professor at Columbia University. He wrote about how Chinese landscape painting, calligraphy, and philosophy informed his own compositions, which are written using Western compositional techniques. He also interpreted these Western techniques in individual ways. That writing inspired me because he was able to talk about the different cultures with equal depth and eloquence. He is the one who spearheaded what I call the New York School of new Chinese music. 

Another reason I came to my topic was that Chinese composers were appearing in the headlines of cultural and musical news. They have continued to receive high-profile commissions and awards from such institutions as the Metropolitan Opera and the Pulitzer Prize. And I realized that this is more than just about Chinese composers. I'm writing a New York story and at the same time, a transnational one.

GC: Would you say that the composers are creating a new kind of music or vocabulary?

Wang: I think there's this historical perception of Chinese musicians as imitators, that they are technically very proficient, but lack the essence or soul of Western music. These composers are, in fact, innovators. They are exploring the next stages of Western and Chinese music at the same time. They're trying something new, and I find that fascinating. 

I frame their practice as a revival movement, which can be counterintuitive when paired with innovation. But the composers are reaching back in order to do something new, to show that we're always connected to history and that we are always in conversation with history.

GC: What brought you to The Graduate Center?

Wang: My research interests, as well as being in New York City. The Graduate Center allows me to work, live, and study here. The faculty allow me flexibility to explore my interests. My adviser has helped me every step of the way, honing my topic, developing the thesis, and making sure that all my subjects are fully contextualized. I’m also inspired by my colleagues here, who are accomplished scholars and musicians.

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Submitted on: APR 29, 2021

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