An Interview with Bright ShengSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J: How did you get your first name?
Sheng: Well, my Chinese name is Sheng Zong-Liang. In Chinese the family name goes first. Liang means something like "bright lights." I got "Bright" out of a book that referred to an Englishman named Mr. Bright and I decided to use that as my first name. I did not know then that "bright" also means smart (laughs).
J: How did you become a musician?
Sheng: I took piano lessons when I was a child. According to my teacher, I was talented, although I didn't really like it. Then the Cultural Revolution started and the Red Guards came and took the piano away, as it was considered "bourgeois." I was rather happy at first about that since I didn't have to practice. But a year later, I heard piano music on the radio one day and I realized how much I missed playing the piano. Since I didn't have a piano at home, I would play it at school. Shortly afterwards, I decided I would like to play the piano all my life, although I didn't think I could be a musician. My family isn't a musical family.
During the Cultural Revolution, there was no high school and college because one of Mao's missions was to demolish the education system. All the young teenagers graduating from junior high school could become social problems if they did not have jobs. Because the economy was not so great at the time, he decided to send all the young city people to the countryside to be "re-educated'' by the peasants. Those who had some talent in the performing arts could escape a career as a farmer because Jiang Quing, Mao's wife, wanted to make a reputation for herself as a patron of the arts. She gave state funding to arts companies and encouraged them to bring in young people. My very limited piano skills became my great escape.
J: What happened to you then?
Sheng: I was sent to Qinghai province, which used to be part of Tibet, and is the home of many different ethnic groups such as Tibetans, Mongolians, and Chinese Muslims. Because of the rough lifestyle there, folk music is their only form of entertainment and it developed phenomenally. At first I was mostly a performer - a pianist and percussionist. After a while I began to compose music. Shortly after I arrived in Qinghai, I found out that I was the best pianist there (though I wasn't very good).
So in Qinghai I had to teach myself how to make music: to play musical instruments and learn theory. Teaching oneself is a very good habit since ultimately one's best teacher is oneself. I also started collecting folk songs, including the huar'er or flower songs, which are sung in one of the provincial dialects. I did not realize then what a great influence this folk music would have on me. To this day, Qinghai folk music is a strong inspiration in my writing. In some of my compositions I use the melodic style of the flower songs. My opera Song of Majnun is based on the Tibetan folk music in Qinghai. .
J: How long were you in Qinghai?
Sheng: I was in Qinghai for seven years. When the Cultural Revolution ended, I took the admission test for acceptance into Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
J: What kind of musical training did you receive there?
Sheng: Western music education in China is a bit like Chinese food here: not very authentic. But one is more likely to have more decent Chinese food here than Western music education in China. This is simply because here at least the cooks are Chinese, whereas in China most of the teachers teaching Western music have never studied outside China themselves. However, education in Chinese classical and traditional music was very good and this was most beneficial to me..
J: How did the Cultural Revolution affect China musically?
Sheng: The Cultural Revolution had a tremendous impact on Chinese musical culture. Music developed enormously because there was a great amount of state funding to train young musicians. However, the training was completely controlled by the government, which didn't want any independent thinking. The government both cultivated and controlled a lot of talent. There was very strict censorship regarding any Chinese music composition to be performed in public and no Western music was allowed to be performed, even though "professional" musicians could practice it. On the other hand, repression stored up a lot of energy that came out in music after the Cultural Revolution, as in every other art discipline at the time.
Ironically, if it hadn't been for the Cultural Revolution, I, for example, would never have become a musician. I would probably have chosen a profession similar to that of my parents' (if there had been career choices). My father is a medical doctor, and my mother is an engineer.
J: When did you come to the United States?
Sheng: I left China in 1982. All my family was already here. The adjustments I had to make were obvious. Besides the language and culture shock, I needed to re-learn or de-learn most of the elements about music I was taught in Shanghai..
I spent three years in residence with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and three years with a major orchestra, the Seattle Symphony. I also taught at the University of Washington for a year. I came to the U-M in 1995.
J: Is there a different aesthetic in Western and Chinese or Asian music?
Sheng: Yes. In my opinion, the most important contribution of Western music to humanity is its contrapuntal concept, which emphasizes harmonies and counterpoints. But traditionally, Chinese instruments are solo instruments and therefore Chinese musicians feel themselves each to be solo artists. Traditional Chinese music for ensemble is mostly written in unison. Furthermore, historically music in China is meant for the performer's self-indulgence and cultivation of his or her spirit, not for the audience.
The concept of an orchestra of Chinese instruments is only a couple of decades old. Chinese musicians are not used to playing with someone else unless they are playing exactly the same thing at the same time together. This is one of the reasons my Western compositional thinking is challenging for them when they try to perform my music.
J: Who do you consider your major musical influence?
Sheng: Béla Bartók has had a great influence on me. He was a Hungarian composer at the turn of the century. While most of the composers before him used folk music for nationalist purposes, Bartók saw the folk music's inherent beauty. To him, folk music was not a novelty but just as good as "high" art and he demonstrated that through his works. Unfortunately, when he emigrated to the United States in the forties, the only job for which he was hired was as an archivist of Hungarian folk music at Columbia University in New York.
Bartók's music is very unique and important to me. I really feel that the so-called "roughness" of folk music is part of its beauty. Bartók believed that there were three ways you could use folk music in composition. One is that you can use the folk melody with accompaniment. The second is that you could write in imitation of the folk melody - in the folkloric style. The third is that you don't deliberately write in folk music style but your music comes out with the flavor of folk music. By then you have the spirit of folk music in your blood.
J: Where does your music fit?
Sheng: My music falls somewhere between the last two steps, having gone through the first one. For instance, in the piano concerto I am working on now, I do not use any folk material or even try to imitate a folk melody. Most of the time, I do not even use the Chinese scale, the pentatonic scale. But hopefully it will sound like me, a Chinese born musician who is now living in the United States.
J: Can you talk a little about the creative process?
Sheng: I don't know if I have anything profound to say. Sometimes my music will come to me after hearing a few notes on the TV, which could very well end up being the climax of the composition I am working on. Sometimes I don't have an idea at all and I have to look for one by doing research.
Sometimes I dream the music. I heard the last movement of my orchestra work, China Dreams, in a dream. In the dream I was at the first orchestral rehearsal of this movement. All the materials that I had used in the earlier movements were put together nicely. But then the dream orchestra had to stop because there were too many mistakes in the reading. At that moment I woke up. But I remembered how the music looked on the score and wrote it down. The first five minutes of the movement are what I heard in the dream.
It's a mystery. Some people say that pieces of art are already finished and God lets you find it only during that moment of so- called inspiration.
Occasionally, I write articles analyzing my own work, and I remember when I came up with an idea for a piece. I remember how it works and why it works but I still don't know why that idea and not another came to me. Or why other pieces didn't work so well. It's a mystery and I don't think I can explain it.
But I will tell you that music is a catharsis. I wrote a piece on the Cultural Revolution called H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976 and that piece is full of anger.
J: Can you tell us more about H'un and its relationship to the Cultural Revolution?
Sheng: H'un was written in 1988 as my first important commission. I felt that I had to tell my story of the Cultural Revolution as a victim, witness and survivor - not so much an experience of my own but my "novel" about the Cultural Revolution. Musically, the composition has no melodies, although I tried to construct some at first. This is because I later realized that even a tragic melody is too beautiful and for the Cultural Revolution I simply could not hear a tune.
J: You've lived roughly half your life in China and half your life in the United States. Where is "home" for you?
Sheng: Am I Chinese? Am I American? Am I Chinese-American? I have lived in the United States since my mid-twenties. The other part of me is Chinese, a person who grew up in China and whose outlook was formed there, in school and while working in Qinghai province near Tibet. I am a mixture. Identity cannot be decided by political boundaries. I used to think that ideally, one should be born in one place and live and work in that same place. Now I don't think it's terribly important. I've decided to accept that. Now I actually enjoy the fact that I can live in, and enjoy and appreciate two different cultures.
Because I have lived in both, I cherish them so much more. To give you an analogy, I grew up speaking Chinese but it was only when I was studying English that I really began to study Chinese grammar. I had always taken it for granted. Musically and culturally, it is the same way.
J: Can you talk a little about teaching music? What makes a good teacher of music?
Sheng: An important part of what I learned about teaching comes from studying with Leonard Bernstein. He had a special way of approaching things as a teacher. He made things easier to understand. A good teacher explains things in very simple terms. He decodes it and makes you believe that everything he can do, you can too. And of course, good students are also very inspiring and I often learn from my students.
J: What projects are you working on currently?
Sheng: Among other things, I am currently involved in the Silk Road Project, which is a multi-nation, cross-cultural music project. The Silk Road is the oldest trade route linking ancient China and Rome, named after the silk trade that was carried on it. There will be many new compositions commissioned in connection with the Silk Road theme. These works will be performed at music festivals and performance centers all over the world in Asia (including central Asia), Europe and United States. Some of them will be selected for recording as well. I will be one of the composers writing a major work as part of the project to be premiered in the summer of 2001, possibly at the Saltzburg Festival.
In order to do thorough research on the subject, I plan to do a field research trip along the Silk Road regions in China in June 2000. I will trace the Silk Road musical culture and collect folk songs, historic materials and so on. Upon my return, I plan to write a research article to accompany the composition. Funding permitting, I plan also to bring a graduate student on the trip to help with the project. Along the way, I also plan to lecture about American music.
J: What do you think the music of the future will be like?
Sheng: I think that 100 years from now the boundaries between classical, rock, folk and pop music will be less clear. However, there will always be good music and bad music. Good music inspires you and takes you to a different world whereas bad music…does nothing. It's like poor food. It serves the purpose but the taste isn't very good.
Making East meet West has been one of the central themes of composer Bright Sheng's life. A native of Shanghai, China, he began his musical education with piano lessons at the age of four. After the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he was one of the first students to be accepted by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he earned his undergraduate degree in music composition. Sheng moved to the United States in 1982. His music has been performed to great critical acclaim by major ensembles and soloists around the world and he has won numerous awards and prizes both in China and in the United States. His H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76, a dramatic orchestral portrait of the Cultural Revolution, was awarded first runner-up for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. In 1991 he was again first runner-up for the Pulitzer for Four Movements for Piano Trio. Sheng is associate professor of music at the University of Michigan. Journal editor Michelle Harper interviewed Sheng at the International Institute in June.