Bright's country

Updated: 2012-11-09 13:40

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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 Bright's country

Composer Bright Sheng's Dance Capriccio will be performed by the Shanghai Quartet this weekend at New York's 92nd Street Y. Provided to China Daily

 Bright's country

Bright Sheng was commissioned to compose a piece for this US state dinner hosted by President Bill Clinton in 1999 to honor visiting Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. Provided to China Daily

Bright Sheng, who trained in China and has risen to prominence in the US, brings his Chinese roots and experience to a modern classical-music language that speaks to a broad audience, China Daily's Kelly Chung Dawson writes.

On Tibet's border is a region so inhospitable it has been called "the roof of the world," characterized by brutal weather and high-altitude desert grasslands. But Qinghai (or "Blue Ocean", named after the enormous salt lake that sits in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau) has proved to be fertile ground for artists, who as early as the 8th century drew inspiration from the landscape to produce poetry, art and the folk-music traditions of Hua'er.

In 1971, at the height of China's "cultural revolution" (1966-76), millions of young people were sent to the countryside for "re-education" through manual labor; a small percentage of them were spared, the beneficiaries of increased funding to the performing arts.

One of those lucky few was the renowned composer Bright Sheng, who at 15 was sent to Qinghai to perform as a pianist and percussionist in a local dance theater. His seven years in the region remain a dominant influence in his music, as evidenced by his 2011 work, Dance Capriccio, which will be performed by the Shanghai Quartet this weekend at New York's 92nd Street Y, a nonprofit cultural and community center, accompanied by pianist Peter Serkin.

"My time in Qinghai was very important for me," Sheng, now 56, said in an interview. "Those were my formative years, and although life was rough, looking back it was kind of exotic. Dance Capriccio is definitely in tribute to that time - as many of my pieces are."

The capriccio (Italian for "caprice", a largely free-form musical idiom), which debuted earlier this year at Detroit's Seligman Performing Arts Center, is inspired by the dance folk music of a Himalayan ethnic group called the Sherpa, who are best known for their assistance to Westerners attempting to scale Mount Everest. Their music reflects a love of dance, combined with a passion for love songs and drinking songs, Sheng said.

"I know their music quite well, because I have cassette tapes recorded in those years. I tried to create a tribute, a nod to their culture, but it's not necessarily a piece that they would recognize or claim as their own. I was inspired by the open atmosphere of the mountains, the fresh air, that cool and clean cold air."

In those years, Sheng - his Chinese name is Sheng Zongliang - traveled all over the region, to perform for people in the mountains and the grasslands. He collected folk songs and developed a love for "the beauty, the savageness and the sensuality of Hua'er," a popular folk song format sung by both peasants and herdsmen in the fields.

"This fascination remains unchanged to this day, as many of my works are based on the Hua'er folk song materials," he writes in an essay titled Love Songs of Qinghai, China.

Sheng, who was born in Shanghai and began playing piano at age 5, rose to prominence after his cultural revolution-inspired piece H'un: In Memoriam 1966-76 got its debut with the New York Chamber Symphony in 1988, to critical acclaim. The piece was later performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Tokyo Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, which presented it in six cities on a European tour. Other major works include Red Silk Dance (1999), Nanking! Nanking! (2000), Tibetan Swing (2002) and Madame Mao (2003).

In 2001 he was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow, as "an innovative composer who merges diverse musical customs in works that transcend conventional aesthetic boundaries." He is now a Leonard Bernstein distinguished university professor of composition at the University of Michigan; until Bernstein's death in 1990, Sheng studied privately with him as the composer's only protégé.

In 1999, Bernstein wrote: "I have followed [Sheng's] work for several years, with particular interest in his valiant attempts to bridge the gulf between his beloved native China and the Western world. I think this bridging has resulted in some extraordinary works. He has a truly individual voice."

Gerard Schwarz, former conductor of the Seattle Symphony, met Sheng shortly after he immigrated to the US in 1982 to study composition with George Perle and Hugo Weisgall at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.

"I was extremely impressed with Bright's ability to mold his Chinese background and influence into a 20th-century classical music language," Schwarz told China Daily. "What makes Bright special is he has a tremendous grounding in his own heritage, but is as knowledgeable about Brahms as anyone.

"He has everything one needs to be successful in this field. We often say in our world that 90 percent is hard work, knowing how to make a piece go from beginning to end. But 10 percent is inspiration. What Bright has is extraordinary technique, but he also has inspiration in abundance. His mind is always active and always learning from his past experiences, to continually innovate."

Schwarz, who commissioned H'un, was taken aback by what Bright created, he recalled.

"I was expecting something more grounded in traditional, contemporary music - and instead what I found was something that was startling, powerful and unique. I'm happy to say that I'm not the only one who felt that way, because after our premiere every major symphony in the country wanted to perform the piece."

Sheng demonstrates mastery over Western harmony, melody and structure - with the unmistakable influence of a traditional Chinese background, Schwarz said.

"The combination is extraordinary," he explained. "In the 1980s Bright was a composer with great potential, and within a few years he was an important composer. Now he is one of the most important living composers."

Although Sheng feels grounded in the Western classical tradition, he has actively drawn on his heritage for material.

"My initial inspiration is often Chinese culture, and from there who I am, my own experience, my understanding of Western culture and Asian culture, takes over," he said. "It's hard to find an analogy, but with my music it's a little like I'm telling my story in a foreign language. But music shouldn't require interpreters; it should speak to various audiences, regardless of their cultural background."

In 2000, he received a grant from the University of Michigan to travel the ancient Silk Road trading route, which linked China and Rome and facilitated cultural exchanges between East and West. Over a two-month trip that took him from Xi'an in northwestern China to Kashgar, he collected classical and folk music, with results that were "both fascinating and eye-opening," he writes in an essay on his website.

"Not only was I profoundly touched by the beautiful music from the region, I also realized how significantly the music of different ethnic groups has been inspiring and infiltrating each other for thousands of years. And just as there is no pure blood in any race, there is no true nationalistic music either. Bartok, speaking of Slavic folk music, believed that the most interesting music was the music from the regions bordering more than one ethnicity."

He has also drawn on historical events for inspiration. Nanking! Nanking! in 2000 was an attempt to honor victims of the massacre.

"For someone who did not live through this horrifying episode, the story only exists in the realm of its author's imagination," he wrote. "Here I try to tell a story from the world of one person (the pipa), who is not only a victim, but also a witness and survivor. But it is also a story of human spirits, of the people in Nanking who had endured and survived this cruel violence when the government was incapable of defending its own citizens.

"There were also heroes during these darkest pages in history, a handful of Westerners (including a businessman from Hamburg) who risked their lives in order to save Nanking civilians. Ultimately, it is the humanity that triumphs."

Sheng isn't entirely comfortable with the role of cultural ambassador.

"'Ambassador' is too big of a word," he said. "I just want to write something that expresses myself and I hope to reach people, whoever is listening and willing to hear - and maybe in doing so, I am able to inadvertently serve that function. I spent the first half of my life in China, the second half in the US. I like to say that I am 100 percent Chinese and 100 percent American."

When Sheng began composing, he was more conscious of his "Chinese-ness," he said. "Now I think less about it, because no matter what style or what the content or subject matter is, both my Chinese-ness and my years in the US will seep through. I can't eliminate either part of me."

Sheng is one of several Chinese composers who have attained international prominence in the past decade, including Chen Yi, Tan Dun and Zhou Long. They are all part of the so-called Class of 1978 - the group that entered into the Shanghai Conservatory in the years directly following the end of the "cultural revolution".

Weigang Li, who will be performing Dance Capriccio with the Shanghai Quartet, also entered into the conservatory after the "cultural revolution" came to an end. He believes Sheng and the other composers to come from the Class of 1978 chose composition out of necessity, as a result of being slightly older at the close of the "cultural revolution".

Most of the would-be students who auditioned that year were in their early teens; Sheng, Tan and others were already in their early 20s - too old to pursue intensive training as musicians.

But due to their time in the countryside, they approached composition with a unique cultural perspective that their younger counterparts lacked, Li said.

"For those of us who stayed in the big cities, there wasn't a lot of culture or nature to be inspired by," Li said in an interview. "But for those who spent those important years in the rural areas, that influence lasts forever.

"Bright saw temples, ruins, monks, things that the rest of us didn't have access to. Those influences are so strong and unique, and at that age you absorb everything. It clearly shaped him."

Sheng and his peers trained in China, and then moved to the US for further training, Li said.

"The style they represent is not entirely a Chinese style of composition either. I don't know if that even exists, because this music has been extracted from different nations. This is a Western art form to begin with, but they do use elements from all over China. Chinese composers write world music. Bright's music is his own."

Maxine Frankel of the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation, which commissioned Dance Capriccio, said she doesn't regard Sheng as a primarily Chinese composer.

"Today, we live in a world community, and artists and composers draw inspiration from sources and influences from around the globe," she told China Daily. "Bright's music is reflective of that."

Sheng believes American and Chinese audiences likely see him differently.

"In the US I am viewed as Chinese-American, and in China I'm viewed as AmericanChinese," he said. "In Europe, I'm American. For me, I feel the wonderful part of being American is that there's only good or bad - not right or wrong. Whatever it is, the world is getting smaller. Cultural identity is being blurred, which is both good and bad. The world gets smaller, and it's harder to find real authentic food.

"For example, Italians living in America want Italian food; Americans living in Italy want American Italian food - eventually the food will make the change, because of that demand.

"Culture is like that. But as artists, we simply do our best. We introduce our understanding of the different cultures, and hopefully one person in the audience will care enough to look up more information. If that happens, I'll know I've been successful."

(China Daily 11/09/2012 page16)