• May 14, 2024

Dr. Chiayu Hsu on Cultural Fusion

Dr. Chiayu Hsu on Cultural Fusion

Dr. Chiayu Hsu on Cultural Fusion 870 501 Welcome to Kingston Chamber Music Festival | Kingston Chamber Music Festival

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re delighted to share the work of Dr. Chiayu Hsu. Born in Banciao, Taiwan, Dr. Hsu is a prolific composer and associate professor of composition at The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. During our 2017 summer festival, pianist Hanchian Lee played a world-premiere of a solo piano work by Dr. Hsu.

Chinese Symbolism

Dr. Hsu’s artistry infuses modern classical music with folk materials from her Chinese background. Her orchestral trilogy Fan Jing (Folk Images) is based on elements of the three main ethnic groups in Taiwan: Min-nan, Hakka and Aboriginal. “Just as each of these groups has its own spoken language, folk music, and musical style, each movement of the trilogy has its own character,” Dr. Hsu says. “One of Fan Jing’s most important stylistic attributes is its exploration of cultural fusion—by which I mean that I work in a musical language that attempts syncretism of influences from different sources, and their synthesis. While the harmonic progressions and contrapuntal writing in Fan Jing are influenced by Western classical music, the music does not necessarily sound Western on the surface.”

At our July 2017 concert, from left to right: Natalie Zhu, Dr. Chiayu Hsu, and Hanchian Lee

Cultural Fusion

Dr. Hsu sees classical music as a fertile ground for cultural fusion: synthesizing Chinese and Western elements to create a new musical aesthetic. For example, her French horn concerto Xuan Zang is based on the account of a journey taken by the most famous Chinese monk of that name. “The formal structure of my piece loosely follows Xuan Zang’s journey, which spanned nineteen years, covered 12,000 km, and took him to 108 countries. In this work, I integrated the folk song of Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province with my own musical elements and developing technique.” A new solo guitar work titled Sheng Sheng Man is based on a poem of the same title by celebrated Chinese poet Li Qingzhao, who lived during the Song dynasty, and wrote the poem about a heart-wrenching search for her lost husband. “By asking the guitarist to both sing and play, I tried to express the feeling that’s depicted in the poem,” Dr. Hsu says. “I was trying to evoke authentic Chinese culture – and also to innovate. I hope to be developing an idiom that is capable of giving voice to both Chinese thematic elements and Western developmental techniques.”


Dr. Hsu finds inspiration for musical structures and elements through poems, myths, images, travel, and experiences. For example, in 2022, she took a trip to Europe and wrote  Journey Landscape about the six-weeks spent exploring cities, lakes, rivers, and mountains. “I was in awe of all the different cultures and landscapes that these places provided,” she says.” At the same time, there were also challenges and excitements and different psychological stages one had to process. The first movement, Lakes, depicts the ebb and flow of waves and tides, the reflections on the water, and a peaceful calm state of mind. Mountains starts with a section which uses clarinets to imitate birds’ songs and chords in the piano part to portray the high mountains. The low sound in this section represents where I stood at the bottom of the mountains.  Then the music moves to illustrate the hike which was intimidating at the first and then turning to a joyful experience. The movement ends with a celebration at the top of the mountain with satisfaction before the mountain chords are lastly presented again. The final movement, Cities, tries to capture the hustle and bustle sounds in cities which create excitement but can cause anxiety at the same time.  The piece ends with a passage of quick running notes to picture the fast pace of city living.”

In Progress

Dr. Hsu is currently working on a wind trio inspired by French pastries; a piano concerto exploring the earth and cultures of Taiwan and Ukraine; and a viola concerto tied to the history and community of Eau Claire, WI, where she currently lives. “My music is contemporary classical which still has some melodic lines and harmonies but is not necessarily following the traditional directions,” she says of her personal music aesthetic. “ I like to incorporate some unconventional timbre and sometimes energetic rhythms or sometimes it’s free of rhythms.”

Photo credit: Les Todd