Helen Feng is a recipient of the 2020 NextNotes High School Music Creator Award

Helen Feng has perfect pitch.  When she was very young, her parents encouraged her to take piano lessons. Initially, Helen admits she was not very fond of piano but she always knew from a very young age that she liked Bach.

“There is just something in his music that makes me want to dance, makes me want to sing to.” Her parents kept a lot of records around and when they would play them, Helen would effortlessly improvise to them. “That kind of opened the door to me improvising and experimenting with different sounds.” 

During the summer following her 7th grade year, Helen  became a teutonophile which started with a strong admiration for the German national football team. She was studying all things German and she came across a few bios about Bach. She spent the summer exploring his music and soon found his Sacred Cantatas and in particularly arias which she found beautiful. She was inspired by the fact that Bach had written for more than just the keyboard. She was also encouraged with the broad curiosity Bach had; he studied history and medieval Spanish, he brought all of these elements into his practice.

Helen confesses that initially she was very imitative of Bach in her own music.

“While Bach really explores the universal human depth, the depth of human evolution that transcends boundaries of faith and spirituality, I feel that Handel, the way he handles text is incredible. While being a non-native English speaker? That’s quite incredible.”

She added Monteverdi to the trio of her early influences and she is very much influenced by the books and recordings of John Eliot Gardner and through his work with L’Orchestre Revolutionaire, she would be introduced to the more contemporary works of Sibelius and more.

Helen was born in China and spent a number of her early years in New Zealand but eventually found herself at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA. There, she has found a strong mentor in Thomas Bergeron who has had a positive impact on her musicianship and introduced her to even more contemporary composers like Esperanza Spalding and Vijay Ayer. Bergeron has also encouraged her to expand her listening outside of choral and early music. As a rising junior she attended the Walden School in an institution for composition in New Hampshire.

“I remember the first time I heard new music. It was a very interesting experience and it made me very uncomfortable. It was very exciting but also strange.” She expressed her feelings to an instructor at Walden and his response to Helen was that she should open her heart to it and just listen. “It was very simple advice but it is something that has stuck with me all of this time.” 

Soaring to the Past: Jen Si for voice and piano is part of a multilingual song cycle that she has been working on that incorporates a cultural theme of how to re-interact with culture hybridity. 

“I love to sing classical and musical theater and in [the] Classical world you sing in the standard languages; German, Italian and French. So these languages are of course the linguistic building block of a lot of Western repertoire. But what about other languages? There is so much I want to explore in this song cycle but why don’t I incorporate some Chinese? some Thai?”

She set the first piece to Walt Whitman’s “These Carols Poem” and the piece in the cycle is the one that Helen submitted to Next Notes use the text from a poem by Li Shang Yin, a poet from the Tang Dynasty. In the poem, he explores the past.

“I wanted to explore the poem and how we interact with history. He talks about the zither and each pluck of a string is a year in his life. He has so much imagery, both grand and intimate energy. It’s kind of like Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.” 

I spoke to Helen on the last day of School at Deerfield Academy which has had an admittedly strange Spring Trimester. But not too long before the global pandemic began, she was able to give a TedX talk on cultural appropriation.

“The long standing power dynamics are not to be trivialized. There is boundless oppression and that is not to be trivialized. There is a legacy of slavery in America.”

In her TEDx thesis Helen stated that artists should feel free to tell stories beyond their own experience, if they follow these guidelines in having respectful intent, a thorough consideration of impact, and awareness of contextual complexities such as representation, commercialization, and power dynamics. She believes that adopting this approach can help advance informed cultural dialogue and reduce stereotypical barriers to maximize the benefits of cultural exchange.

Helen spoke about the fluidity of culture and power dynamics, “One thing that should remain constant as power dynamics shift over time is compassion and respect.”

Join us on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at 7:30pm CDT as, for the first time, NextNotes will culminate in a live-streamed awards ceremony emceed by public radio and podcast creator of Trilloquy, Garrett McQueen. The ceremony will celebrate Charlotte and the other five talented creators who were selected from over 140 across the US and represent the skill and range of music being created today. Learn about their experience as part of this year’s cohort and hear samples from the award winning creations. Livestream the ceremony here.

The NextNotes High School Music Creator Awards are generously supported by The Augustine Foundation, the Rosemary and David Good Family Foundation, The Thelma Hunter Fund, the Dr. Fred Noah Gordon Charitable Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation, and other generous individuals.