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Sounds as Intense as Silence

May 26, 2021, 10:00 AM by National Flute Association

by Yi Xiang

Spring 2020 feels like a century ago. All of us have been through a series of upheavals in life, during which I have been observing my thoughts and feelings about the world and myself. More importantly, I wonder how they have affected my musical creativity. These thoughts and feelings are chaotic and contradictory—yet so vigorous that I feel volcanic passion in me as an artist.

Therefore, winning the 2020 Young Artist Competition has extraordinary meaning to me. Now I have this wonderful opportunity to express my thoughts through writing—although it feels to me more like another late-night conversation with a dear friend. I hope my words can be relatable in some ways.

Only Human
Though I believe I am strong and healthy mentally and physically, living in this unsettled world, I have had quiet moments at night when I could not fall asleep. I sat up in the silence and felt no different than a piece of lifeless furniture in the small room. I am not sorry or ashamed for expressing my negative feelings because they are as sincere as the positive ones. There is simply no need to blame ourselves for not being optimistic all the time.

Bad news flooded in March, as well as my bad moods. In addition to the consecutive cancellations of auditions and competitions, I had to indefinitely postpone the doctoral recital that I had prepared with full effort. Beyond that, I thought not having the chance to celebrate my birthday with friends was a big deal, not knowing that I would be crying hard the day after it for a great friend who passed away suddenly in an accident.

In the midst of that, I had to call my parents, worrying about me on the other side of the ocean, and try to convince them I was perfectly fine and had a plan to get through this all by myself.

But in fact, like many others, I had no idea how much worse it could become.

I tried to keep my days “productive” by doing whatever I had on my schedule, including working out on a yoga mat, maintaining a good diet, practicing routinely, reading, and so on. But I was just not happy. I soon realized what I called “being productive” was nothing but forcing, without truly listening to my heart and understanding myself.

The pandemic bluntly reminded me of the fact that death could take anyone at any unexpected moment, which has led me to examine the meaning of life more obsessively than ever. Meanwhile, throughout the world, malice and ignorance were spreading faster than the disease. Depressing news all over the internet has also enormously affected my sentiments. The feelings of isolation and exhaustion were overwhelming.

Yi Xiang - Sounds as Intense as Silence
Photo by Qian Zuo

Sparks in the Dark
Nevertheless, before I had gazed for too long into the abyss, my deep sorrow for human fate transformed into a kind of enlightenment. At first, a short video of people in Italy singing together from their balconies during quarantine deeply moved me. I have also noticed musicians worldwide, including my colleagues and friends, posting videos of their playing. Hearing music from various composers, all kinds of arrangements, or just practice videos, I have never felt so inspired and strongly connected with others. A little bit of toughness and compassion from each individual has jointly built a warm and solid refuge for all worn-out souls.

Art empowers us to transcend despair. I’ve abandoned the rules I made for myself in order to find my lost happiness. I’ve developed my own recipes, talked to my parents more patiently, played online games with friends, watched tons of cat videos—and sometimes done nothing. I’ve practiced meditation more often—and not just to reduce performance anxiety. I have reinstalled mindfulness and allowed my body to be activated by breathing at ease.

Once again, I gave myself permission to embrace all of my feelings with music in daily practice, setting no goals or limits. It has been a pure joy to have genuine conversations with myself through music. I have felt understood.

We hardly ever pay attention to how careless we are about ourselves. In an era channeled by attention and exposure, it is even more crucial to stay faithful to our hearts and guide ourselves through the labyrinth of desire. 

If it is too hard to achieve that on one’s own, do not hesitate to seek help. I am deeply grateful for having understanding parents, insightful mentors, and reliable friends who always selflessly advise me and support me whenever I need them. I am certain if I ever look back at 2020, most of my memories will be filled with those precious moments of feeling loved.

True Treasure
My parents, both oil painters, have always been significant sources of my inspiration. Long before I started my own
journey pursuing music, their legends as artists taught me about the bittersweet destiny of being an artist. Although I had the opportunity and gift to choose another life—perhaps to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a painter like my parents—it was too painful to even imagine it without music. I was hopelessly drawn to the destiny of becoming a musician. 

However, I was running blindly at full speed toward a dead end. Like so many young musicians, I was enthusiastic and ambitious about winning competitions and auditions but was failing from the very beginning. I was among those who dreamed about having celebrated careers, hoping to be recognized for their talent and hard  work. Yet reality kept telling me, “not this time.” I went through a period when I tortured myself with endless self-criticism: If I am not perfect, I will fail; if I fail again, it is because I am not perfect. 

I finally freed myself from this loop when my father said to me, “you have a lifetime to be with music, so why are you rushing?” Right at that moment, it became clear to me that I was misdirected by the illusion called “success.” All this time, I was holding the true treasure—an unquenchable passion for music.

From then on, I began to view things much differently. I stopped seeing the results of competitions and auditions as judgment standards for my music. I stopped tying my self-worth to my achievements. I began to love the fact that I am not flawless and never will be.

Ironically, this change of mindset resulted in a sequence of victories almost immediately. I am thrilled. But frankly, I believe whoever wins deserves it.

An Artist’s Voice
Winning three competitions this year, including the prestigious NFA Young Artist Competition, means a lot more than honors and encouragement to me. I have boldly experimented with my musical ideas and capabilities with a challenging program, not only for me but also for the audience.

While recording in an empty hall by myself, I felt like a glorious tree, stretching out my branches to reach for sunlight and raindrops and looking forward to sheltering a passerby. I was delighted to share the music that I intuitively resonated with—among which there is one piece I would like to highlight.

I recall hearing Toru Takemitsu’s Voice the first time in an international competition 10 years ago. I was astonished by the dramatic effects and the truthful beauty presented through “sounds that are as intense as silence.” The contemporary techniques and theatrical effects are highly demanding yet extremely appealing. Influenced by Western and Eastern culture, Takemitsu wished to “swim in an ocean that has neither West nor East,” which has also been my wish.

Furthermore, the lines requesting the “unknown existence” to present itself and the corresponding music exhibited complex emotions: fear, hesitation, curiosity, courage, impatience, anger. I couldn’t help but relate it to our current circumstances, feeling so vulnerable facing the virus.

Takemitsu’s Voice embodied his musical philosophy that “music is either sound or silence,” symbolizing the eternal theme of life and death. Death, the most profound form of tragedy, manifests as silence; sounds from the deepest of our souls, music, is the most ardent protest against the doom of mankind.

Our wounds will eventually heal. Through music, we may evoke the goodness in human nature and broaden the capacity of our understanding and compassion. I am obligated and honored to participate in this ultimate mission for artists to cure the traumatized world.

This piece was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Flutist Quarterly. National Flute Association members can view the issue in its entirety here.