A Broad Playlist, With Chinese Influences

Julia Glenn
Christopher Huang
Julia Glenn

The penny dropped for violinist Julia Glenn, who joined the Lydian String Quartet in the fall, when she was a high school senior on a performance tour of China with her youth orchestra. Her curiosity about a completely unfamiliar culture was immediate, and the experience proved magnetic.

“It showed me how little I knew about East Asia in general, about China specifically,” she says. “Those are the greatest moments, when we realize how little we actually know.”

Glenn says she started “sniffing around” East Asian studies as a first-year student at Harvard, eventually focusing on Chinese language and phonology, the study of sound patterns, and how our brains perceive and organize them. “I didn’t have any particular aim,” she says. “I just felt this call to play in the sandbox.” But there were interesting convergences. Phonology, for instance, helped explain why the students in her Chinese classes who excelled at speaking and listening tended to have a musical background.

After completing her undergraduate studies in linguistics, Glenn obtained a master’s degree in violin performance from New England Conservatory and in 2018 graduated from Juilliard’s C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellows Program, writing a dissertation that examined a phonetic approach to Chinese contemporary music.

She’s performed in the world’s major concert halls: Alice Tully Hall, Sanders Theatre, Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. She was the violin soloist for the 2016 world premiere of Milton Babbitt’s Concerti for Violin, Orchestra, and Synthesized Sound (her article on the history and discovery of that piece, and how she prepared to perform it, was published in the 2021 issue of Contemporary Music Review). She taught for three years at the Tianjin Juilliard School, in northern China, exploring contemporary Chinese music and collaborating with many of the country’s leading composers.

Westerners tend to put music by Chinese-speaking composers in a box, Glenn says, and most would be surprised by its breadth and depth of musical styles. For her album “The Road,” recorded last summer for a spring 2023 release, she commissioned a piece for Baroque violin and electronics, based on the reconstructed phonology of Middle Chinese, from composer Chen Yihan.

What’s on her personal playlist? French Baroque. The Biebs (as in 17th-century Austrian violinist/composer Heinrich Biber). Scottish fiddle music. Bollywood soundtracks. Coldplay. Radiohead. Zac Brown. And contemporary Chinese music, of course.

In addition to performing with the Lydians, Glenn is an associate professor of the practice of music at Brandeis. She describes her violin and chamber-music students as dedicated and disciplined, intent on balancing academics with a concern for being a global citizen.

“When my students say they are struggling to find a path, I tell them I never really have chosen a path per se,” she says. “I believe meaningful work leads to meaningful questions and ways forward. I encourage them to keep looking for what will keep them hungry, stimulated, and contributing.”

Having managed an international move (with two cats), started a new faculty position, and completed a major recording project over the space of three months, Glenn has been, to say the least, busy. But she did manage to squeeze in one more event: her October wedding to Richard Müller. The ceremony took place in Slosberg Music Center, with accompaniment by Brandon Qi, GSAS MFA’24, on the recital hall’s organ.