Vienna Concert Halls and Swedish Death Metal: A Conversation With Christine Wu

By Ana Ottman

 

Christine Wu is on a mission to revolutionize the way people interact with art music. She’s composed original music for film and original string arrangements for such artists as Kelly Clarkson and Usher. Christine has played with world-class symphonies and toured Carnegie Halls around the world. A resident of Los Angeles, she founded the L.A. Strings to have an experienced group of string players to write and play pop songs with. Yet, despite these accomplishments, she remains unfazed; Christine exudes a down-to-earth personality and has a magnetic sense of humor. We spoke on the phone about her career as a professional violinist, how she reinvented herself as a producer and composer, and her favorite tour stops in Europe.

Your professional career started when you were 17 years old. Tell us about the years leading up to that point.

I started playing the violin when I was two and a half years old with the Suzuki method. The teachers basically taught the group of toddlers how to hold the instrument, what their posture should be and so on. It’s a little bit like a soccer game with 5-year-olds, where all the kids just run after the ball. In the violin class, the students would just move the same way and squeak through “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” together. When I was five years old, I also started playing the cello; but when I played in an orchestra, I had to pick one so I would always go with the violin. I feel like the violin chose me.

However, I did rebel against playing the violin when I was a kid; I quit probably ten times. I was good enough to get by without practicing. Looking back, I wish I’d had had the wisdom to work harder and build a better foundation, but you know, the universe unfolds as it has to.

You got a scholarship to play in college. What was that like?

When I was 17 years old, I was offered a scholarship to play in college. When I got to college, I auditioned for a job with the Pittsburgh opera, and that was my first job.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I thought, “Really? I can get paid for this? Let’s do it!” I’d never really given it that much thought. I was a normal kid; I wasn’t slaving away in a closet like a prodigy. I just practiced.

What did you do after you graduated college?

After college, I won an audition for a fellowship program with the St. Louis Symphony. It is a very prestigious symphony, one of the top ten orchestras in the United States. It was a program where I would earn a master’s degree and play with the orchestra for two years. So I moved to St. Louis; I think I went to one class and I only stayed a year. However, I had the opportunity to tour all over Europe and got a taste of what a major tour and major orchestra is like. To have that experience right out of undergraduate school was amazing.

Was that experience typical for someone in your field?

It was a narrow opportunity, somewhat special. I feel very, very fortunate and the experience really motivated me. I thought, “Wait a minute, I want this job for real. I want to build my skills and I want to win this job for keeps.”

What was your favorite tour stop?

Vienna. So much of our history from art music comes from Vienna. It’s a beautiful, ornate city. The concert hall is gorgeous. So many world-famous composers lived, played or died there. Not to mention, the pastries were unbelievable and the coffee shops were like palaces. I think I gained five pounds a week eating chocolate cake in Vienna.

When you say “art music,” what do you mean by that?

I mean the span of what would be called classical music, typically. It includes orchestral music, opera, ballet music and concert classical. I call it art music because classical isn’t exactly the right word since there was a classical era of music. However, classical music would be the section where you would find this music in records stores, if there were any left.

Let’s talk about auditions. I think most people that aren’t in the art music world know next to nothing about what they involve.

Orchestral auditions follow a very specific process. You’re asked to prepare four hours of music. When you get to the audition, there could be two hundred people you’re competing against. Then, they just drop the needle somewhere in the middle of a piece, randomly within four hours worth of music; you have to play it perfectly, without a conductor keeping time. You have to keep your nerves under control and just play it perfectly. That process is repeated maybe five times and there are three rounds. Then, they take it down to ten or 15 people, and when you return for the second audition, they repeat the process again, maybe asking something a little different. Oh my God, I’m getting nervous just talking about it. It’s like the Olympics: you can practice and practice but if you fall on game day, it’s over. So mastering an audition has a lot to do with nerves as well as preparation; you have to prepare for your nerves as well.

How do you prepare for your nerves?

I’ve read The Inner Game of Tennis, because tennis is a very mental game, and you have to maintain your mental stability since it’s such a long game. I’ve read that and some similar books. I also asked everybody that had been through the process: “How did you do it?” I would run up and down the stairs and when my heart was racing, that’s when I would try to play my selection, because that’s what it’s like. I’m getting nervous just talking about it. These auditions are a big deal; in fact there is an entire industry dedicated to training people how to succeed at these auditions.

I wonder if people practicing for job interviews and other stressful situations should be doing the same, running up and down stairs.

You have to be aware that your environment is going to change. It’s all well and good if you can play the piece in your bedroom in a controlled environment. To truly prepare, you have to scare the shit out of yourself in advance. I would ask random people to drop
the needle for me, and I would also record myself with a camera because video doesn’t lie. I was fanatical: I didn’t go out and I didn’t have a life. I just thought big picture about how I wanted the job.

It takes a lot of discipline. I’m half German and half Chinese; somewhere in my genes is the focus and work ethic, I guess.

Your preparation obviously paid off. You nailed the audition and got a job with the world-class Houston Symphony.

Yeah, that was the job that I prepared for and won. That was the first audition out of graduate school. I was with the Houston Symphony for five seasons. I got tenure and I could have worked there until my arms fell off.

Why did you leave?

My main drive was that I really wanted to connect art music with a more visceral experience. Symphony audiences tend not to be interactive; they clap politely and you can’t tell if they love it or hate it. Art music is somewhat misunderstood; people that enjoy it can be intimidated so they might not come to the concert hall to listen to the symphony, for example. I was finding that people did connect when I played my violin with rock bands and with house music DJs. I wanted to find a way to bring art music to people that don’t know they appreciate it. I didn’t think I could do that while working at the symphony.

I realized I had to go out on my own. I thought about it for two years, until finally all the people in my life said: “Just freakin’ do it already!” That’s when I made the very difficult decision to leave the Houston Symphony. I was grateful for the job but knew that I wasn’t going to be happy there forever. I got that job when I was young enough that I didn’t have a mortgage or kids yet. I felt like I could see my future in the suburbs with a yard and a minivan. I have nothing against those things; it just wasn’t a future that I wanted.

You were self-aware enough to know, at the very least, what kind of future you didn’t want. Was that going against the conventional wisdom of your career track and industry?

Yes, absolutely. Those symphony jobs are so hard to get, not to mention I was tenured at that point. Symphonies rely on private donors, and especially as the economy started to turn, so did symphony donations. Symphonies were starting to save money through
attrition and as a result did not hire at the usual rate (this was across the country). The people in my life had mixed reactions to my leaving.

It seems like many people have preconceived notions about art music. You’re right that most classical concerts are lacking in audience participation, especially when compared to say, a rock concert.

Art music is very intimidating and the classical concerts have not evolved, like, ever. It’s very formal; we all wear black gowns and tuxedos. In particular, it’s not very inviting to younger generations. As a musician, you work so hard to get a seat in a symphony,
and once you get there, not being able to have individual creative expression can be very frustrating. I didn’t want to hate my job. I thought about what a waste it was that we played great music and people just didn’t know. Now, there are some orchestras that are
trying to change the format, bringing in rock stars and doing stuff with lighting, but this is not the norm.

After you left the Houston Symphony, what kind of work did you pursue?

I called some contacts I had in Los Angeles and was very lucky to start working with some indie bands, writing a few lines for their songs that didn’t collide with the pop aesthetic. I realized that I had been studying the work of the great art music masters my entire life, and the idea of bringing that knowledge to pop music was very interesting to me. It was like a puzzle. I had to leave the song intact but give it an accessory (art music). I had to forget the classical esthetic that I knew; it had too many notes and was too complex for pop music. I had to go minimalist. I think a lot of good writing is what you don’t say as much as what you do say. You have to know what to leave out. Art music is so ornate, if I had just referred to that, that wouldn’t have worked.

I also had some great mentors that gave me advice and taught me some difficult lessons. I had teachers and pop producers that told me what they wanted to hear. I got useful feedback and probably horrified some of my early clients that I practiced on. It was a process of recording things and listening and learning. I would say to myself, “Okay, this doesn’t sound right, why doesn’t it sound right. Oh, because there’s too much of this and too much of that. Why does this sound weird?” I learned by trial and error.

Any favorite collaborations?

They fall into different categories. I’ve worked with some amazing superstars, like Bono, although I didn’t get to write for him. I’ve worked with indie bands that you’ve probably never heard of, but where I got to have lots of creative expression. I’ve written for Beyonce and I’ve arranged for Kelly Clarkson, for example. As long as I feel like we’re doing something with integrity, that’s what I’m looking for in collaborations. My favorite recent collaborations have been with filmmakers. I love writing for film and merging my
creativity with the vision and creation of a director.

Tell me about founding the L.A. Strings.

I was working with various producers and everyone kept asking if there was a group that I worked with. I did have a casual group, but nothing formal. I decided to create the L.A. Strings to provide a resource of a small, string section of experienced players. There are
some amazing players in the group. I also founded the group to be able to write and play pop songs together, and to play live gigs.

It sounds like as your career has progressed, you’ve had the opportunity for more and more creative control, and to pick and choose which people you work with.

It was a gamble to get there. I had to give up security in order to have creative control. And I’m learning as I go. I’m always discovering new things I can do, like writing for film music. I’m starting to work with indie filmmakers who are pursuing their dreams, too. The film business is risky and uncertain. You just never know which project is going to be a big one. We’re all trying to move our game forward and get closer to our artistic dreams.

What kind of music do you listen to?

In high school I listened to hard rock; I liked Rob Zombie and Pantera. I sat next to a colleague at the Houston Symphony who was a big fan of Swedish death metal, so I got into that. I’ve always listened to alternative rock and pop. My taste is pretty eclectic. I love Alison Kraus and Robert Plant’s album, I’m a huge fan of Sheryl Crow and Alice in Chains. I’m a huge fan of Tool; they can do no wrong by me. You have to be a chameleon in this job; you have to listen to a wide variety of stuff.

What advice do you have for other people that want to take risks, but are nervous and don’t know where to start?

It’s very important to be honest with yourself about how much risk you can tolerate, because there’s always a range you can choose from. You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re good at and get some feedback from others about what you’re good at. There is no sense in pursuing something if it just sounds cool and you think you’re going to make a quick buck. Persistence is very important. Many people give up too soon. You have to fail so many times before you get traction. Persistence is half the battle. It isn’t going to happen overnight. I took failure so hard at first. You have to see it all as a learning experience. Everything is dependent on so many factors; you’re not in control of any it.

Finally, dream bigger than what you think you can accomplish.

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Ana Ottman does not play a musical instrument, but her car singing has been known to make angels cry.

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