The Music of Chemistry

Every year, the Sudler Prize is given to the graduating senior with the most exceptional record of artistic achievement throughout his or her undergraduate years. This year’s winner was violinist and composer Wenjia Xu, a double major in Music and Biology.

Wenjia’s principal teacher, Ciompi Quartet violinist Hsiao-mei Ku, describes him as an extraordinary student, not only for his musical skill but also for his commitment to music and to service. He was concertmaster of the Duke Symphony Orchestra for two years. He took a leadership role in the Duke Chamber Players, the Graduate Composers’ New Music Ensemble, and the pit orchestra for productions by Hoof’n’Horn. As a participant in many different chamber groups, he was notable not only for his fine violin playing but also his ability to get the best out of the whole ensemble by encouraging and supporting of the other players.

In Ku’s words…

Wenjia outdid himself each semester at Duke, and his performance simply amazed me at each recital. Wenjia was not simply taking on an elective; he came to me with a purpose to search for the art of possibilities, to create something that is truly magical and meaningful, to discover the unknowns, to speak the unspeakable and initiate communication from heart to heart.

Wenjia Xu consults with Ciompi Quartet violinist Hsaio Mei Ku during the reading of his Elemental Suite.
Wenjia’s dedication to music is matched by a commitment to service. Ku found this especially striking the summer he joined her DukeEngage program in Zhuhai, China. The program sends Duke students to Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School, where they use performing and visual arts to teach English and to enrich the school’s curriculum in other ways. Ku was struck by Wenjia’s energy, resourcefulness, generosity, and optimism. In addition to English, Frisbee, and Acting—something he taught in spite of a complete lack of experience—he created the school’s first musical ensemble, a mix of Chinese and Western instruments, for which he arranged the music.

Back at Duke, he was an active member of HANDS (the Health Arts Network at Duke students initiative), a group that performs music for patients at Duke Hospital. He was also a volunteer at George Watts Elementary School. This community-oriented attitude carried over to his time on campus, where he was both an advocate for music and the arts and a mentor to his fellow students. As the unofficial undergraduate representative for the Music Department, he was an energetic advocate for the arts on campus.

For Graduation with Distinction, Wenjia presented a recital and composed new music for string quartet. For his composition, Elemental Suite, he pursued a project that links his musical skills with his scientific ones—he devised musical representations of chemical elements and compounds. His advisor was Anthony Kelley. In a process he describes in the first of the accompanying videos, the piece starts with hydrogen and ends with DNA. The other video documents an intense, jovial reading of the piece by the Ciompi Quartet.