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‘My music can contribute to helping the world understand Chinese culture and people.’
Gems in this
Instrumentalist and composer Mindy Meng Wang has forged an inimitable musical style that resonates with audiences the world over. It was her culturally diverse upbringing in China’s Lanzhou city, followed by studying in the UK, touring throughout Europe and a move to Melbourne that has inspired Mindy most.
Her incredible expression of courage and multicultural enlightenment has seen her play with Gorillaz in London, Australian rock outfit Regurgitator, and at numerous international art festivals. Guided by her global outlook and cross-cultural narratives, Mindy has redefined the parameters of traditional Chinese music and expanded the physical and melodic parameters of the traditional string instrument, the Guzheng. From her home in Melbourne, we chat to Mindy about harmonizing Eastern and Western music, Australia’s musical identity, and some of her top live music and art gems to explore when in Melbourne.
On choosing Australia as a long-term home
After my father passed away, I started to think about life differently. Before that I was so preoccupied with pursuing work and new career opportunities. But then I reassessed a lot of things. I understood that relocating to Australia would mean work opportunities were more difficult to come by — Australia is so far away from other countries. However, I thought about my life in the long term, in five or 10 years. That is ultimately what made me think Australia would be a better place for me to settle than England.
On your first impressions of Melbourne
When I landed here no one knew who I was, or what I did. I was trying to find places for gigs, and even willing to offer free concerts, but people weren’t interested. It was a big shock after being in Europe and enjoying early career success. I was convinced Melbourne wasn’t for me. This didn’t stop me from being curious about the city though.
On the creative scene in Melbourne
When most people come to Australia it’s usually a choice between living in Melbourne or Sydney. I actually liked Sydney more than Melbourne at first. Visually, it’s beautiful, with the harbor and having the incredible Opera House. Sydney was closer to the idea of the ‘big cities’ I had become used to in Europe. But in the end, what drew me to Melbourne was the arts culture that seemed strong and diverse. I decided to put in the effort to really make it a place I called home. Looking back now, my career has progressed well since being here in Melbourne. I feel like I’ve achieved many of my goals in a short time. Melbourne has nurtured my career, and me as a person.
On the cultural transience of your home, Lanzhou
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province in northwest China. The province borders inner Mongolia and Tibet, so there were more than 40 different ethnic groups living in the city. The religion and the culture of the city is really diverse, as you can imagine. My town was actually one of the exchange spots on the Silk Road. Trading groups coming from ancient Persia, India, and inner China all came to this spot to exchange their goods. This city has been multicultural for thousands of years.
On lasting influences from childhood
Both my parents were university teachers. My father was a famous history professor known for his studies in the Ming-Qing dynasty and Tibetan Buddhism history. We lived on campus for a while when I was young, so I grew up in this ethnically diverse university environment. Unconsciously, it made me aware of different cultures, and from a young age I became interested in ancient literature and history. It was certainly a very unique upbringing, and it really influenced my aspirations and my sense of identity.
'What drew me to Melbourne was the arts culture that seemed strong and diverse. I decided to put in the effort to really make it a place I called home.'
On must-visit places in Lanzhou
White Pagoda Mountain to see the whole view of Lanzhou. There is a stop-by boat restaurant floating on the Yellow River, and a tea house on top of the mountain where you can eat Lanzhou noodles, local barbecue lamb, and drink Yellow River beer. I would also suggest people visit the Gansu Provincial Museum in order to discover more about the province’s culture and history. The Zhengning Road Night Market is a must to experience food from all of Gansu’s different ethnic groups. I suggest trying as many stores as possible. Don’t miss the lamb skewers; the fermented rice with milky dry fruit sweet soup; potato pancakes; chive dumplings; and try the blood sausage if you are adventurous.
On your early musical inclinations
I started playing the Guzheng when I was very young, around six or seven. I became very serious by the age of 10. My teacher at the time was one of the best in the region, and she recognised that I had talent, so she started putting a lot of effort into my lessons. She happened to live in the same building as me, and could hear when I practiced. She’d knock on my window and say, ‘You played that part wrong, you need to do it again’. Under her guidance I progressed really fast. From the ages of 10 to 16 I did lots of national competitions and won some awards, as well as completing all the exams for the Guzheng. In my final year of high school I had already received a special offer from a music conservatory. But instead of telling me to relax and maybe waste a year, my father encouraged me to consider an exchange program his university was running with a college near Manchester.
On following a career in music
I realised I couldn’t float around with my life. If my parents were going to pay for university and give my music aspirations the support of their life savings, I had to be very serious about it. I think that’s when I really made the decision to make music my career. As I continued my studies in England, I knew I’d made the right choice in deciding to make music my future. Although, I often found it hard to be confident about this decision. There were hundreds of musicians around me at university, and everyone was amazing. It does make you doubt your abilities, but it also makes you challenge yourself. All you can do is put your best effort in, and it pays off, eventually. After I graduated from university with an honors degree in music, I went to London to develop my career as a musician. I joined the best Chinese chamber orchestra in Europe, which was based in London, and started my career as a professional musician.
On harmonizing Eastern and Western music
Certainly my music is very culturally driven, but it is equally driven by emotion. I was recently speaking to a great musician friend and he was saying how Western music is often based on structure, rather than on emotion or personal experiences. It’s really difficult to teach people to play music according to ‘emotion’. When people compose music, most are usually thinking about chords, structure and texture as the most important elements. Whereas in Eastern music, my inspiration comes more from emotion and storytelling. When you play a piece of Eastern music you need to be thinking about placing visual narratives into your compositions, in order to transport your audience. It’s an incredible feeling when the audience ‘gets it’ and you engage them in your story.
'When people compose music, they are usually thinking about chords, structure and texture as the most important elements. Whereas in Eastern music, my inspiration comes more from emotion and storytelling.'
On using music to mend cultural differences
My music doesn’t just scratch the surface of a culture, language, or identity. In my work I try to share my cross-cultural knowledge, and people really appreciate that. My collaborators and I will naturally talk about my hometown and my life there, and I show them videos and photos of my city. I’ve even taken artists back to my hometown in China to show them around the Tibetan–inhabited town, Gobi Desert and ancient caves. I’ve also taken friends and collaborators from Australia to big modern cities like Shanghai for the Shanghai International Festival. I’ve taken a lot of Australians to China, and they can’t believe how different it is from their initial ideas. I feel so grateful that I can use my music to contribute positively to helping people understand the Chinese culture and people. People ask me a lot about my relationship with China and Australia, and I say, ‘It’s like your parents got divorced and you want them to be nice to each other.’
On the challenges of creating a career internationally
Not many people take a Chinese traditional instrument and attend an English university. I was considered an outsider. They didn’t even have a teacher for Guzheng. So I had to choose another subject as my main focus. Then there was a period a few years after graduating that was really difficult. I couldn’t musically ‘fit in’ anywhere. When you think about the Guzheng, it has physical limitations in the sense that you can’t just sit down and play it anywhere you like. Compared with Western musical instruments, the Guzheng is pentatonic, meaning it only has five notes in every octave. The piano, for example, has 12 notes per octave. Physically, you don’t have the scope to do the things that other musicians can do when you’re playing the Guzheng. For a long time, I felt like I was stuck with Chinese traditional music. Being an outsider with a desire to fit in made me start exploring ways to change my instrument to make it more physically and creatively functional. This is really where my curiosity for experimental composition started.
On music as a global language
A big part of me moving into experimental composition with the Guzheng was because I wanted people to understand me. It was one thing to learn English and be able to tell people what I am thinking or feeling, but it wasn’t so easy with my music, which had so much cultural background in it. So, it became quite clear that my musical approach was not only about maintaining a traditional practice, but also enriching it with contemporary elements. Musically, I could see such a big world out there, but my instrument was so limited in allowing me to explore it.
On your most memorable performance experience in Melbourne so far
Presenting my own composition called “Cocoon” for the Australian Art Orchestra at the Arts Centre Melbourne was really special. I wasn’t just an artist performing the piece, I was the composer, and this was the first chamber orchestra piece I’d presented in Melbourne. It was really successful, and it went to the Shanghai International Festival the following year. I think that particular performance is so memorable because it was the first time I felt established as a composer in Melbourne, and not just a musician.
'There are so many diverse cultures in Australia, and our music industry has been shaped by these many different voices and different cultural influences.'
On Australia’s musical identity
Australia has a very unique musical identity — it’s young and fresh. When I first arrived in Australia I was overwhelmed by how cool and unique the music scene was. I was really impressed by the live gigs I went to, and I felt this diverse energy from people who were experimenting with all different genres of musical composition, like fusing alternative pop, folk and surf music for example. There are so many diverse cultures here, and our music industry has been shaped by these many different voices and different cultural influences. Unlike other Eastern and Western countries, Australia is not limited by thousands of years of classical art and musical history, so I think people feel a greater sense of freedom to explore more alternative music styles. We’re a young country, and this is reflected in the music being created.
On where to see live music in the city
Where do I even begin? There’s so much going on in Melbourne’s music scene, and many suburbs have their own unique musical subcultures too. At the moment I live in Brunswick, and this is one of my favorite suburbs to go out and enjoy live music. One of my favorite places is The Jazzlab, where you can enjoy classic jazz from some of Melbourne’s best musicians. Along Sydney Road there are so many places to explore different live music offerings, from Brunswick Ballroom to the Retreat Hotel, to Tempo Rubato, there are six or seven really good music venues within about a 10-minute walk from each other. Classics, jazz, experiential music — you can find It all.
On showing a friend around Melbourne for the day
I’d take them to the Southbank Arts Precinct, so we could walk around the Botanical Gardens, visit the NGV and then maybe watch a theater show at the Melbourne Recital Centre or the Melbourne Theatre Company. I’d also take them to buy some fresh organic produce at CERES [Community Environment Park] in Brunswick, and we could explore Merri Creek after that.
On escaping the city
Getting out of Melbourne for a drive is also something I love doing when possible. It’s lovely to explore regional Victoria and beautiful country towns, like Daylesford, Ballarat and Lorne. Being among this serene natural landscape is really a blessing. The Red Hill wine region makes for a lovely weekend getaway too.
On a place in Melbourne that reminds you of home
I’d have to say Princes Bridge near Federation Square that goes over to the Arts Centre precinct. Back in my hometown, they have this really significant old bridge, and it was the first metal bridge built across the Yellow River. Going to that bridge over the Yarra reminds me of Lanzhou. It has a very similar feeling to my hometown there.
'Melbourne is full of possibilities that help you to grow personally and professionally. For me, this growth has been largely due to the diversity of experiences in the city’s arts and music scenes.'
On the sounds of your travels
When I close my eyes and think about Lanzhou, there are so many sounds that come rushing back. One of the most defining characteristics of the city is the Yellow River (or Mother River as Chinese people call it). It crosses the middle of the city and divides it into the left and right bank. I can hear the river flowing. I can also hear people’s dialects and different languages on the streets. When thinking about Melbourne, I can hear trams and traffic lights.
On a window or an aisle seat
This is easy because I travel a lot. If it’s a long trip I do like the window seat, and if it’s a short trip, I take the aisle.
On Melbourne in one word
I feel like Melbourne is full of possibilities that help you to grow personally and professionally. For me, this growth has been largely due to the diversity of experiences in the city’s arts and music scenes.