This story is the first in a series featuring international students at Oberlin Conservatory.
Hao Zou ’19 was destined to be a composer. A voluble and endlessly energetic conversationalist, he constantly searches for exactly the right words for his thoughts, yet it’s through music that he expresses himself best.
“Writing my own music is important for me, because I need to show people my personality,” explains Zou, a native of Anhui Province in China. A first-year composition major, Zou began playing piano at age 4 but moved into composition when he was 8. “If you are a pianist and playing other composers’ pieces, no matter how well you play, the piece is composed by another person,” he says.
After attending schools for the arts in Shanghai, focusing on piano but also studying composition, he became determined to study in America, where he felt art was taken more seriously and appreciated by a greater number of people. But noisy cities like New York and San Francisco did not suit him. He found himself attracted instead to Oberlin and its quiet, comfortable environment—even its occasionally brisk weather.
“My major is composition, so I need a space that lets me focus. I cannot write a piece in a New York apartment with the car noises and all that. Also, I like cold weather! Cold makes me feel calm and more rational.”
Zou also admired Oberlin for its strong contemporary music program and artistic culture. His enthusiasm for contemporary music is ravenous, and he breathlessly rattles off Stockhausen, Lachenmann, and Schnittke as influences. (Boundlessly curious, he also boasts an insatiable appetite for film.)
Despite his interest in avant-garde music, one of Zou’s most recent projects was a set of tonal French songs that would not be out of place in a fin-de-siècle Parisian salon. The stylistic departure came about at the prompting of Visiting Assistant Professor of Collaborative Piano Bretton Brown, who teaches a course on French art song, in which Zou is enrolled as a pianist.
“One of the most important lessons that I hope my students take away from Mélodie is that French song, and music in general, is about communicating deep and honest feelings with our audience,” Brown explains. “I wanted to have Hao compose songs for our class so that he could express such emotions in his own voice.”
That goal aligned perfectly with Zou’s aspirations, and he embraced the project wholeheartedly, producing two songs that are “evocative and charming and wonderfully Hao,” in Brown’s words.
Zou describes the composition as a “reverse process” in that he wrote the music before having chosen poetry for text. Not being fluent in French, he worked closely with Brown to set words to his melodies. But he also decided to include a wordless stanza: In the second song, the tenor whistles. A talented whistler, Zou just completed a concerto for orchestra, electronics, and, yes, a whistling soloist.
The combination of whimsy and rigorous devotion that results in writing a piece for whistling and orchestra is typical of Zou. As Brown says, “His enthusiasm is infectious, his knowledge of music is far-flung, and his passion for what he does is inspiring. I have no doubt that Hao will excel at Oberlin and beyond.”