This past Friday, the Wesleyan community packed the Memorial Chapel to support Mel Hsu ’13 in her senior recital, “Call Home the Crow.” Friends, family, alumni, and fangirls alike filled the seats of the Chapel to hear Hsu’s music and celebrate the completion of her four years at Wesleyan.
Hsu has been a major presence in the Wesleyan music scene for the entirety of her time here, playing in everything from pit orchestras of Second Stage shows to intimate concerts at Earth House and even to the jazz orchestra concert this month. Her senior recital featured, along with Mel, 24 other musicians performing her original works. Hsu dazzled the stage in the humblest way possible, and her voice as the composer permeated all of the pieces even as her fellow musicians took the lead in the execution.
The concert had a jazzy-bluesy feel that seeped with meaning as Mel drew from her personal experiences as a musician. “For Buddy” was inspired by the improvisation she was gently pushed into when she was asked to accompany Buddy Wakefield’s Wesleyan appearance. She was not told what to play, which resulted in a simple yet enticing melody plucked on her cello. “Call Home the Crow [Reprise]” concluded the concert with powerful sound that filled the entire chapel, using all 24 musicians as an army of beautiful sound-makers. Hsu’s talent and passion shone as she switched from cello to singing to piano to guitar, never missing a moment to express her gratitude and joy.
The Argus had the opportunity to sit down with Hsu, so she could further explain her motivations and inspirations behind the music, discuss what it was like to play for such an enthusiastic audience of supporters, and reveal when she will dazzle us next with her talent.
The Argus: Can you tell me a little about what it was like leading up to the concert? How long were you guys working on these pieces leading up to Friday?
Mel Hsu: It’s a hard question to answer when it started. The little seedling of ideas started years ago, but it wasn’t until the summer that I started writing music. So the music-writing process lasted pretty much the whole year. I finished writing my last piece, like the last notes, the Monday before. So it was a really long process. We started rehearsing in January, as soon as everyone got back, and we’ve just been going hard ever since.
A: How would you describe the style of resulting music in this concert?
MH: I was raised as a classical cellist, and I played classical string quartets and string trios for a lot of my high school life. So the style of music was inspired by my classical background. As soon as I got to Wesleyan, my music consciousness was exposed to a lot more than my friends were listening to, including hip-hop and jazz and R&B, the whole spectrum of music that definitely influenced in my songwriting. Also, I started taking jazz here last spring, and there were definitely some structural and emotional approaches from my jazz sense.
A: Definitely. A lot of the lyrics and the singing that you used were syllables, which was so cool. Would you say that was partly from the jazz inspiration, choosing to use the notes themselves?
MH: Thank you for asking that question. Everything in classical music does not have words. Well I don’t want to say everything, but a lot of what I’ve played has just been sound, and it’s taken me a long time to realize how much of a language that is, just the sound and how much emotional potential or charge there is in different note choices that composers use. And so I wanted a lot of the show to be nonverbal because I wasn’t trying to convey a specific story. And also I just had so much fun writing this because I chose a lot of vocalists who are just beautiful musicians, and I wanted it to sound like some kind of non-human force descending on the chapel that didn’t speak English. A language beyond English.
A: That definitely came through in your last piece.
MH: And for the lyrics, I was definitely inspired by the acoustic singer/songwriter genre in high school, so lyrics definitely come from the fact that some of the pieces did have a story, and it was a very specific quality that I wanted to get across about why the song was written.
A: How did you feel about the turnout, the fact that you filled the Chapel?
MH: So I did not have any idea it was that full until the lights came on at the end. I knew that there were people, I could see the silhouettes, but it wasn’t until the very end that I was like “Ohhhhh!” It was one of the most humbling experiences of my entire life. Just a lot of my closest friends and family, seeing people I didn’t know, that everyone took time out of their days to be there. It made me feel like I was being held by so many people’s hands, like a crowd of hands, I was being held up. I’m still trying to process what that means.
A: That’s a beautiful way to put it.
MH: But I just cannot believe how much this community has been there for me. Obviously I had known, but it was the visual manifestation that blew me away. Oh my God, this place. And honestly, I’ve had a lot of doubt about my future in music, a lot of insecurities and doubt about whether or not I can keep playing, and seeing everyone there made me realize—and I said this that night—you guys have my back. And I’ll be able to keep going because those people truly believe in what I’m doing, and that’s going to carry me so far, through all of the doubt and insecurities.
A: So what’s next?
MH: I’m moving to Philadelphia. To be very honest, this whole year has been a lot of just working on this project, which has been just amazing. But I want to take a little bit of a break from just my own writing to listen again and to learn and to take music lessons and to listen to as much music as I possibly can. When I have a deadline for when music has to be written, it’s easy to just look inside and just write my own work, but I’m really excited to step back for a little bit and learn about other people’s work, read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of musicians I look up to, and just really look outward.
I want to teach kids. There are a few organizations in Philly that I’ve reached out to that I would love to get involved with because, in the same way, it’s so easy to get sucked up into your own mind when you’re trying to write your own stuff, but I’m so excited to do something that’s not just about me and not just about what I can create. Something that excites me about education and about teaching is that it’s so much about small, private accomplishments. It’s between you and your student or your student and your student. It doesn’t need to be this huge thing that is publicly celebrated in large quantities. I’m excited to remember how important those little accomplishments are. I’ve been teaching a little bit, I’ve started learning a little bit how to best motivate kids to have powerful relationships with music, and I’m so excited for that to push me as well and to help me think about how I want to convey my relationship with music.
The other thing that’s next is that Jess Best [’14] and I, we have a band that’s changed names like four times, but we’ve decided it’s called King at Bay. We’ve been working on an album that’s being released next week actually.
A: That’s awesome! Where can we get that?
MH: We have not yet created the Bandcamp but look out for it. Around the May 10th weekend, just keep your eyes open for King at Bay album release.
A: Is there anything else you want to add about leaving Wesleyan?
MH: Usually after shows where I feel like I’m being very honest about who I am and what I believe in, whenever there’s a lot of love in the room, I usually get really sad the day after, and it’s like a withdrawn feeling of…it’s like being very permeable and vulnerable and raw; I just feel raw. So I was, like, prepping myself for Saturday morning just being so sad that this is all over. I’ve been having the best few days. And I think a lot of that is because…this show helped me find a lot of closure at Wesleyan. I feel so fulfilled with my time here that it feels ready to move on. And that’s a blessing in itself that helped me find that peace with like, “Wow, what an incredible place this has been to me.” I just feel so honored by Wesleyan’s campus right now. That’s really all you can say.
Oh can I add one more thing? I had a conversation with a really good friend of mine early on in the semester—he was a senior a few years ago, and I was in his thesis—and I asked him if he had any advice for me, and he said, “Simplicity.” And we had this beautiful conversation: that the more you learn, it’s so easy to want to make things complex. I don’t know if it’s like impressing anyone or just showing what you can do.
But at the end of the day I kept reminding myself that what feels the most right to me is the most simple melodies. Just like five notes, long whole notes. That’s something that I want to hold on to and remember moving forward: that often it’s the most simple things you have to say that are the most powerful. And obviously it’s a struggle when you feel like you need to be saying these super complex things but…the last piece especially was technically one of the most simple things. I love that…what am I saying? What’s my concluding statement? I don’t really have one except that I’m remembering often to go back to that. Simple.