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Inner Voices (1995)

  • Composer: Hui, Melissa
  • Conductor: Wong, Samuel
  • Performance Date: 1995-11-22
  • Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Portrait of composer Hui, Melissa

Hui, Melissa

Apr 22, 1966 -


Can color be depicted in sound? That’s what Melissa Hui attempts to do in Inner Voices. She presents “color fields” of instrumental timbres which sit side by side, rub and interact in various ways – the analogous procedure in abstract painting where planes of color interact on a flat surface. The “inner voices” of the title refer to “intertwining lines within the color fields,” as Hui explains. “The variation of rhythm and/or instrumental color of these lines add richness to the texture and makes the color vibrate with subtle nuances of the same hue.” Learn more

Music Connection

Visually Inspired

Musical ideas can be inspired by visual images, as composers Melissa Hui, Serge Garant, Alexander Brott, Pierre Mercure, and Steven Gellman demonstrate, making connections between their compositions and the elements and principles of design. Learn more


Born in Hong Kong, April 22, 1966;
now living in Montreal

Like a number of other Canadian composers, Melissa Hui was born in a foreign country and settled here early in life. She is also one of the few Canadian composers with a strong presence south of the border, where she resided while studying and during the ten years she taught at Stanford University.


Melissa Hui received degrees from the University of British Columbia (Bachelor of Music), California Institute of the Arts (Master’s in fine arts), and Yale University (Masters in music and a doctorate in music). She counts some of America’s leading compositional voices as her teachers: Jacob Druckman, Martin Bresnick, Mel Powell, Morton Subotnik and Earl Kim. Hui continued living in California while she taught composition at Stanford University from 1994 to 2004, following which she moved back to Canada and now lives in Montreal.

An eclectic catalogue

Hui has composed a large number of works over the years. Chamber music constitutes the largest portion of her highly eclectic catalogue. In fact, aside from two works for string quartet and two for solo piano, every composition calls for a different combination of instruments (and sometimes voices), many of them highly unusual. Take for example Planet 5 (2001): flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello. Or Love-a-Bye (2002) for mezzo-soprano, tenor, violin, bass clarinet, accordion, drum set and double bass. Or Still (2000) for flute, percussion, violin, viola and cello. Several of Hui’s works reflect her Chinese heritage. Come As you Are (2000) is written for pipa and nine instruments; Due East is for traditional Chinese instruments (dizi, guanzi, pipa, yangqin and percussion) plus flute and clarinet; Rush is for pipa and string quartet.


One of Hui’s most successful works is Solstice, scored for piccolo, oboe d’amore, percussion and piano. This eight-minute work, written in 1994, has been performed in such widely scattered venues as New York City, Winnipeg, Toronto, Los Angeles, Fargo (North Dakota), the Marlboro Festival in Vermont and Amsterdam, among many others. It has also been recorded. “I consider Solstice to be one of my most intimate pieces,” writes the composer. “In terms of the materials - each instrument plays only a few pitches throughout - it is also one of my simplest, with silence playing a central role.”

San Rocco

Another work that has received many performances is San Rocco (1991) for oboe d’amore, chamber choir and percussion. It was inspired by the centuries-old Italian village overlooking the Mediterranean, whose “tranquil life there,” writes Hui, “struck me as at once possessing the aura of both antiquity and modernity, a place of seeming timelessness - a place where the daily rituals of the past thousand years have been etched and where time has passed but has yet to be felt.” This too has been heard in numerous countries, both in live performances and via radio

An enormous range of influences

Influences from an enormous range of cultures and images have found their way into Hui’s music: traditional court music of ancient Japan, music of the mButi pygmies, the ragas of Northern India, the jazz of Charles Mingus, the color field paintings of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, the brooding statues on Easter Island, the visual aftermath of 9/11, and the tragic event at Tiananmen Square.

An Oscar nomination

Hui’s soundtrack for the National Film Board’s 1998 documentary Sunrise over Tiananmen Square received an Oscar nomination for best short subject. The film was first shown at the Human Rights Festival at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, then went on to showings in Helsinki, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other cities, followed by HBO and other cable broadcasts throughout 1999-2001.

Other awards and honors

In 1997, Hui received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2000 a Fromm Music Foundation commission, two of the most prestigious awards granted in the U.S. She has received grants from the Canada Council, Meet the Composer, the Aaron Copland Fund and the ASCAP Foundation. She has also won prizes from the Winnipeg Symphony’s Canadian Composers Competition, the Nouvel Ensemble Modern International Forum 93, and from SOCAN, CAPAC and PROCAN competitions. Hui has served as composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Festival, the Saskatoon Symphony and the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival. In 1992, she represented Canada at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris.

Concert Program Notes

Melissa Hui: Born in Hong Kong, April 22, 1966; now living in Montreal

Inner Voices was co-commissioned by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and the National Arts Centre. The Saskatoon Symphony gave the first performance on September 23, 1995 with Dennis Simon conducting. The composer has these words to say about her ten-minute work:

“In composing Inner Voices, I set out to juxtapose ‘fields’ of color in a way very similar to that of some abstract paintings or photographs. The subject of the work is therefore not about a figurative or narrative idea but is rather about the interactions and proportions of the ‘color fields’ themselves. Just as I have chosen to elevate one aspect of music – color – to predominate as the work’s focus, I have also chosen to present these colors upon a flat, aural plane. This is analogous to a painting without perspective, where there is no background, and where the flat canvas does not depict an illusory three-dimensional world.

“In Inner Voices, there is no hierarchy represented by melody and accompaniment. Each ‘color field’ has its own unique instrumental color (quite often that of one family or kind of instrument) and musical material. This is juxtaposed or presented simultaneously with other color fields. Even when two fields are presented simultaneously, each field’s internal rhythm and phrase structure remain independent of the other, with neither being subservient. Thus, they exist as parallel ideas, sometimes in harmony.

“As to the title of the work, Inner Voices suggests two things to me. The first highlights what I think is a third aspect of the work: the often intertwining lines within the color fields. The variation of rhythm and/or instrumental color of these lines add richness to the texture and makes the color vibrate with subtle nuances of the same hue. The second and more immediate allusion of Inner Voices relates to the spirit of the work, more readily identifiable in the ebb-and-flow of the color fields as they sound to me – drifting in and out of consciousness, sometimes conflicting, sometimes confirming.”

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1995

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • 94% of eligible voters in Quebec cast their votes in the sovereignty referendum; the referendum fails by less than 1%.
  • The James Bay Cree vote 96.3% in favor of their territory remaining part of Canada in the event of Quebec Separation.
  • The two-dollar coin, “the Toonie,” is introduced.
  • Christine Silverberg becomes Canada’s first female police chief when she is promoted to that position in Calgary.
  • Representatives of Aboriginal peoples gather and issue the Sacred Assembly Proclamation; from this was developed the Reconciliation Proclamation and the Statement of Principles and Priorities.
  • The World Trade Organization (WTO) is established to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
  • The Supreme Court of Canada rules that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • Radarsat, Canada's first observation satellite is launched.
  • Canadian National Railway, the nation’s largest Crown corporation and one of the largest state-run enterprises in the industrialized world, is privatized.
  • The Java programming language is announced to the world.
  • The DVD, an optical disc computer storage media format, is announced.
  • Yahoo! is founded in Santa Clara, California.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • Carol Shields wins the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries.
  • Robert J. Sawyer wins the Nebula Award for his work The Terminal Experiment.
  • Contralto Maureen Forrester receives the $125,000 Royal Bank Award for “significant contribution to human welfare and the common good.”
  • Rohinton Mistry publishes A Fine Balance. The book, set in mid-1970s Bombay, wins numerous prizes, including the Giller Prize, and was a Booker Prize finalist.
  • Michael Moore’s film Canadian Bacon is released.
  • Acclaimed author Robertson Davies dies.
  • Native groups pressure Robert Crosby to return Aboriginal artifacts and sacred objects collected by his grandfather, legendary Christian missionary Thomas Crosby, to the Tsimshian, Haida, Coast Salish and others.
  • In southern France near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, a network of caves is discovered that contain paintings and engravings that are 17,000 to 20,000 years old.

Music Connection

Inner Voices explores the timbre of instruments as ‘fields of colour’ that intersect and are presented simultaneously with each other, similar to some abstract paintings without perspective. Note the layering of these ‘fields of colour’ as they are juxtaposed upon one another, sometimes creating harmony, but existing as parallel ideas. Listen for the variation of rhythms within the colour fields, and changes within the instrumental colours used.

Visual artists and composers each have their own media for making meaning in the world, but often a work in one art form can be the catalyst for a creation in another art form. Visually Inspired explores the intimate connection between visual art and music found in works by Canadian composers Serge Garant, Steven Gellman, Melissa Hui, Pierre Mercure, and Alexander Brott.

The composers explain in their own words how these musical compositions were inspired by specific real or imaginary visual images. The listening and learning activities in Visually Inspired! guide students in exploring the elements and principles of design - colour, line, shape and texture – found in these catalyst images. They then examine the different strategies and techniques composers use to “translate”, respond to, and extend these elements in a musical medium. Students compose their own music and apply some of the principles introduced during this unit.

Learn more