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Music People: China on his mind

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When he was 17, Bright Sheng heard for the first time the folk songs of the remote Chinese province of Qinghai. In 1971, the People's Republic was in the chaotic depths of the Cultural Revolution. Along with millions of his generation, the Shanghai native who's Lyric Opera's current composer-in-residence was dispatched to the countryside in Chairman Mao's massive campaign to root out class differences and inculcate peasant values in urban youths. "There was no high school, no college," Sheng recalls matter-of-factly. "The whole country was shut down. Mao sent all the boys and girls to the communes for hard labor, except for those in the performing arts--Madame Mao's pet cause. So there was incentive for young people to take up music lessons." As a child, Sheng had shown an aptitude for music--even though his practice instrument, the piano, and sheet music were eventually confiscated because of the family's landlord background. Despite rusty techniques, he auditioned and won a place as timpanist in Qinghai's song-and-dance troupe. Exempted from farm drudgeries, he would spend the next eight years on China's harshest frontier.

Now notorious as the Chinese gulag, Qinghai is a mountainous region almost the size of Texas; it borders Tibet to the west and Sichuan to the south. For centuries nomadic tribes have herded their livestock to its desolate patches of grassland, each leaving an indelible stamp on the indigenous culture. In music, Islamic, Tibetan, and Cossack influences are layered on top of the myriad folk traditions of the Han Chinese. "The mix is quite distinctive"--as Sheng discovered shortly after his arrival. "Most of their songs are sung a cappella by tenors and sopranos. They are very open-spirited, with a lot of leaps--fifths and octaves--and a lot of ornaments. Often they can sound out of tune to Western ears--switching to another key without the singer noting it."

As part of the Chinese government's effort to win the hearts of ethnic minorities and to entertain the army garrisons, Sheng's band frequently toured the province and Tibet. "I got a chance to collect folk songs," he says. "Whenever I heard something interesting, I recorded it right away. I was very taken with the genre of 'flower' songs--a euphemism for love songs sung mostly by men. They are like calls of the wild. Qinghai songs, by the way, are different from Tibetan folk songs. Qinghai music shows strong Chinese traits from the east; Tibet's music is closer to that of its western and southern neighbors--Persia, India, and Nepal. Some of the songs I collected were picked for performance later, but they had to be politically correct." In his spare time, Sheng took up composing small theatrical works for fellow comrades. In return he was given a piano, which allowed him to learn clandestinely European classical music. "Looking back now," he says, smiling, "it wasn't a waste of time. I acquired the habit of self-taught, and folk music of that area became an influence on my work. Still, I was glad Mao died."

In 1978, soon after the chairman's death and the ouster of the Gang of Four, Sheng was among the first students admitted into the reopened Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Home at long last, he diligently plunged into formal studies in composition and Western music. "I chose composing because I thought it meant writing beautiful tunes," he says. "I was very naive." The training he received was by no means sophisticated, but he did win several prizes and wrote for the Shanghai Symphony. "At the symphony, I gained a lot of different kinds of experiences performing with musicians. I discovered that expressivity is the most important element in music." After graduation, Sheng followed his parents--a physician and an engineer--to New York City and got a fellowship to attend Queens College and then Columbia University. (Bright is the literal translation of his Chinese given name; to his relief, he found out that "it also means smart.") Mentors at both institutions not only filled the gaps in his education and introduced him to contemporary styles but also steered him in the right career direction, beginning with scholarships to the Aspen and Tanglewood festivals.

An optimist with a hustler's instincts, Sheng is more aggressive--more comfortably assimilated here and more fluent with his English--than most emigre artists from China. At Aspen he caught the attention of conductor Gerard Schwarz, who requested from him a commission on behalf of the New York Chamber Symphony. At Tanglewood, a fatherly Leonard Bernstein advised him to make use of his uncommon background by fusing Oriental and Western idioms into a new expressive vocabulary. The commission that paid heed to the late maestro's dictum was H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76--a powerful, unrelentingly bleak statement about the tumults and aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Deftly Bartokian, with piercingly dramatic echoes of the Peking Opera, the 20-minute work (performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last season) was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. It has acquired symbolic poignancy (and high-profile popularity) since Tiananmen Square. This year a new work, Four Movements for Piano Trio, also placed second for the Pulitzer. Both honors have firmly established the 36-year-old composer as someone to watch.

Sheng came to Chicago in August 1989 to take up the coveted residency at the Lyric. His major obligation at the Lyric has been the commission for a short opera. During his stay there, Sheng says he's learned all about the day-to-day operations of an opera house and the intricacies of writing a drama for the voice. For the libretto of his one-act opera, he approached Andrew Porter, the New Yorker's erudite music critic. Porter suggested an ancient Persian legend about a pair of ill-fated lovers. "It's a lyrical tragedy," Sheng says, "the story line itself has a lot of musical content. You can have some exotic splashes, too." And it also offered him the perfect vehicle for indulging his passion for Tibetan folk melodies. In The Song of Majnun, now completed and scheduled to premiere next April, the protagonist, a poet, is prevented thrice from marrying his beloved. "You can read it as a love affair between China and me. An evil force prevents me from touching China," Sheng says emphatically. "The ending is ambiguous. I don't tell you whether the hero dies."

Yet China--and Qinghai--is always on Sheng's mind. He condemns its politicians, he frets about its future. For the time being, he's uncertain how to categorize himself: "Am I an American composer with Chinese roots, or am I a Chinese composer in temporary exile in America? I don't know. I am hoping to do projects with China. But I like the freedom in the West. My Oriental upbringing is mother love; my education here is father love. I've been nurtured by both cultures. I suppose I am a bridge between the two."

Sheng's chamber music is featured in a program presented by the Arts and Letters Division of the new Harold Washington Library Center and the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. Among the works slated for performance by CSO string players and soprano Elizabeth Futral are several that show unmistakable influences of Qinghai and Tibetan folk music. On hand for discussion will be Jian Guo Li, a music researcher from Beijing whom Sheng befriended in his Qinghai days and has not seen since. The concert is next Thursday, October 10, at 5 PM in the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. Admission is free. For more info, call 747-4740.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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