Q&A with Composer Robert Bui ’21: “This Piece Stands as a Tribute”

Robert Bui ’21 won this year's Orchestra Composition Competition with a piece inspired by family history and opposition to censorship and violence.

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Robert Bui ’21 has recently completed his sophomore year studying composition at NEC. Bui's The Diminished, The Assembled won NEC's Orchestra Composition Competition and received its world premiere in April with the NEC Symphony led by Hugh Wolff.

Tell us about the origins of the The Diminished, The Assembled.

The genesis of The Diminished, The Assembled really began before my arrival at NEC. I had long been encouraged to write a piece dedicated to my great aunt, who has been among the most adamant supporters of both my career and education throughout my lifetime.

It was actually only relatively recently that I heard the full historical account of my family’s escape from Vietnam in the 70s. I listened to the gruesome conditions and the painful injustices they dealt with—as migrant boat-people, as prisoners, as refugees—merely to stay alive.

Now, living in North America, my great aunt fights for creating awareness of current humanitarian crises, ending censorship, and opposing violence. This piece stands as a tribute to her past struggles, as well as the pain and suffering of many other unnamed survivors of tyranny who strive daily for a world that is better than the one that was left behind.

May their stories—and this piece—stand as a reminder of the dangers of those with abusable power and malicious intent, in the hope that we may seek the brighter, more optimistic kind of society my family dreamt of.

How did your NEC experiences influence your composition process?

Student composer Robert Bui smiles on stage with the NEC Symphony behind him
Robert Bui ’21 accepts applause from the Jordan Hall stage after the premiere of his composition.

I began work on The Diminished, The Assembled immediately after my first NEC orchestral reading for an older piece in the spring semester of my freshman year. I had been long anticipating the reading and I knew I was very excited to hear what my piece would sound like in real life.

The biggest takeaway from that reading—my very first one with one of NEC’s orchestras—was the power of the acoustics. The sheer volume and power of the sound that comes from the back and saturates the whole space was very incredible.

Realizing the size and intimacy [of Jordan Hall] was a large takeaway during that reading, and this later made me feel inspired (and enthused!) for the next piece.

Tell us about the rehearsal process. Would you say you grew as a composer during that process?

It was extremely quick, and had to be, given that my piece was also sharing the concert with a whole Beethoven Piano Concerto and the whole Symphonie fantastique. Thankfully, Hugh Wolff was able to fix all of the rehearsal spots I had in mind before I had even thought of how to bring it up.

Despite the brevity of the rehearsals, I found them the most meaningful parts of learning. It was such a great chance to discover what’s effective, what’s ineffective, what was difficult, and what wasn’t difficult.

For me in particular, these rehearsals helped me pick out which parts of my piece were compositional emulators of who I look up to, and which parts of my piece were more personal.

Tell us about the night of the performance—how did you feel during and after?

I was surrounded by some of my closest and most endearing, supportive friends.

During the performance, I already knew I trusted the talent and integrity of everybody on that stage, so I had no concern at all of how it would go.

The feeling during and after is a complicated concoction of pride, joy, shyness, embarrassment, adrenaline—you name it.

I enjoyed feeling very loved and supported during and after, but also, I’m not very great at receiving, accepting, and reacting to praise. Fortunately, I had to run away afterwards to go to a rehearsal I was playing in so I wouldn’t need to deal with too much attention!

Where have you found a sense of belonging and support at NEC?

Any part involving collaboration and departmental crossover is where I feel NEC shines at its strongest. [Composing] pieces for the Honors Ensembles, the orchestral reading program, and things like the Rosenbaum Piano Prelude studio project—we absolutely need more of these. There’s only so much composers can learn from sitting in their room staring at paper.

Serious opportunities to collaborate with the star performers of this school are a benefit not only for composers, who get to interact and learn from the prime quality talented performers sitting just seats away, but also for the performers, who gain exposure to and experience with new music.

What are you looking forward to for the summer and next year?

This summer, I’m playing cello in a contemporary music workshop at the Orford Music Academy. In the meantime, I’m pursuing a side-passion of mine with a full-time job as a barista here in Boston.

Next year, I’m very excited to incorporate more contemporary performance in my life to help inspire better, more personal music to be written!

I’ve found my career aspirations and future goals keep changing, since so many new opportunities and experiences have sprouted during my two short years at NEC thus far. I can’t really anticipate what’s next, but nevertheless, I’m excited for the ride!