Composing Calligraphy: Words Inspire Music

Mo Zhao
Mo Zhao

By Dagny Crepeau
BU News Service

Mo Zhao stands wedged into the corner of a tiny practice room in the basement of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, flipping through pages of sheet music, brow creased in concentration. From a distance, her slight frame almost looks lost in a forest of crooked music stands. Also packed into the cramped space are two cellos and their cellists, a grand piano, a singer, and a cameraman. The small crowd watches Mo expectantly. After a long moment, she glances up at them, and looks surprised to find their eyes trained on her.

“Oh, are we waiting on me?” she asks. They are; it’s a rehearsal of music she wrote.

Mo is many things at once. When she’s working on a piece of music, she is compact, hunching over her work with the air of a surgeon performing a particularly delicate procedure. When she’s relaxing, she stretches and expands, taking up more space with a personality that is often sparklingly witty. She doesn’t speak unnecessarily, but when she does, she regularly comes out with snarky one-liners you wouldn’t have expected from someone who seems so reserved.

“I am 46 years old,” she says monotonously when asked for her age. Almost immediately after, her face splits into an involuntary grin, and she laughs boisterously. “No, no, I’m 22.”

Mo is a senior at Boston University studying music composition. At first glance, she is the stereotypical portrait of an artist. She seems to almost perpetually have sheets of music in her hands, and a pencil can often be found tucked into her right pant pocket, ready to jot down melodies at a moment’s notice. Her short hair is left to do as it pleases, and it frequently ends up in an impressively gravity-defying pose that makes one suspect it was styled by her pillow. She never wears makeup, and her wardrobe is comprised almost exclusively of khaki pants, flannel button-downs, and heavy boots that would look more at home on a burly lumberjack.

As with many artists, Mo considers her appearance secondary to her art, but her androgynous style isn’t just a side effect of her devotion to music. It’s also a reflection of her gender, which she describes as essentially nonexistent.

“I tell people to use whatever pronouns they want,” she says. “I don’t care what gender people associate me with. I don’t really feel that I have a gender.”
She says she once had a French teacher who spent an entire semester referring to her by male pronouns, and it didn’t bother her in the slightest. If anything, she thought it was funny. Mo’s nonchalant attitude toward her gender is often met with frustration from others, who would prefer a clear label to file her under, but she waves off reactions like those with a dismissive shake of her head.

“Not everyone needs a label,” she says. “Why do they care that I don’t care?”

For Mo, the gender other people see her as is a trivial matter the grand scheme of her life. Though it is, like so many other things about Mo, unconventional, her attitude toward this particular aspect of herself echoes the attitude she has toward almost everything else: they take a backseat to her music, and the effects she wants her music to have.

“I know this sounds really cheesy, but I just want to make this world a little better with my music,” Mo says. “I’ll be happy if I get an email from someone one day that says, ‘You know, I was having a really rough time, and your piece made me feel that I’m not alone.’ At the end of the day, that’s what I want.”

Mo was born in Chengdu, the provincial capital of China’s Sichuan province, the “hometown of pandas,” as she calls it. There she began teaching herself to play the piano at the ripe old age of 4, at the behest of her grandparents, and from the first moment her fingers touched the keys, it was loathing at first sight.

“I absolutely hated it,” she says.

Her relationship with music would remain strained until she was 13, when she came under the guidance of a Russian instructor by the name of Tanya Heeb, whose exacting standards pushed Mo to improve her musical abilities. It was the fear of being reprimanded by Heeb at every lesson, Mo says, that motivated her to practice, and practice she did. By the time she graduated high school, she had not only honed a talent for playing the piano and the erhu, a classical Chinese instrument, but she had also developed a remarkable talent for composing music.

Now, in her last few days as an undergraduate, Mo is on the cusp of completing a rite of passage that all music majors must accomplish before graduation: her senior recital. In typical Mo Zhao fashion, she decided to go above and beyond what’s required of her, just because she can. She has composed an hour-long performance comprised of five different musical pieces.

The show will feature 14 BU music students from the College of Fine Arts, the Arneis Quartet, a Boston-based string ensemble comprised of BU alumni, and Sarah Tao He, an internationally renowned erhu player. Brett Abigaña, a composer whose music has been commissioned and performed around the world, will appear as the show’s conductor. Mo laughs as she describes the innumerable amount of email she had to send to assemble such a sparkling company of performers. The show is titled

“Splashes of Ink: A Musical Calligraphy,” and the reference to written art is no accident.

“A lot of it really is inspired by text,” Mo says. “Good poetry, for me, is the thing that inspires me.”

Mo finds much of her musical inspiration in evocative words, especially in the powerful voices of slam poetry. In the past, she’s commissioned spoken word poets to write lyrics to accompany her compositions. Such is the case for one of the pieces for the recital, “The Home(land).” The piece is comprised of two songs, “February Arrived,” and “This Dynasty,” which Mo describes as a “musical, political criticism” of the censorship and propaganda employed by the Chinese communist regime.

The featured vocalist for the piece, which is the only one of the five compositions to include vocals, is Alex Selawsky-Group, a junior voice performance major at BU, and Mo’s longtime friend. This is the third time Selawsky-Group has collaborated on a musical project with Mo, but it is by far the most extravagant, incorporating elements of classical, contemporary, and operatic musical styles to create something that is entirely unique to Mo.

“Mo has a really intuitive ear for what’s going to work, musically,” Selawsky-Group says. “Incorporating influences and pacing things the way she does makes everything really dramatic, and really creates a beautiful narrative.”

Part of Mo’s aspirations for the recital is to draw a larger, more diverse audience than the usual crowd of fine arts students. To achieve this, Mo hired Jack Davidson, a BU alum and multimedia specialist for video game company iRacing. Mo hired Davidson to create a promotional video to be posted on as many social media platforms as possible, in an effort to spread the word about the show far and wide. In the time that Davidson has spent with Mo and her musicians, filming several rehearsals and interviews, he says he has come to admire Mo’s unyielding devotion to her craft, and her efforts to build her music into more than a simple performance.

“I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Mo wrote all this music,” Davidson said. “It’s so foreign to me, how all of this is put together. It’s pretty cool, what she’s trying to do. She’s trying to tell a story.”

Mo herself views her music not just as a performance, but as a challenge. Every concert is a chance to push herself harder, to create pieces that are more innovative, and more evocative. After she graduates from BU in May, she will continue honing her skills at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Regardless of what exactly the future may hold for her in terms of a career in music composition, however, Mo knows she wants her work to evoke emotions and ideas in her audience. She wants to make people think. Music, to Mo, is about pushing boundaries.

“I’m just taking it as far as I can,” she says.

“Splashes of Ink: A Musical Calligraphy,” will be shown at the CFA Concert Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 1, and will be free and open to the public.

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