Bright Sheng: My Father’s Letter and Bernstein’s Question
Bright Sheng is concerned about directly moving audiences in whatever format or style he is working in and is passionate about sharing what led him to his aesthetic positions.
We’ve been wanting to talk with Bright Sheng for years, but given his teaching schedule at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his commitments to participate in performances of his music either as a pianist or a conductor all over the world, he has been difficult to pin down. But when we finally met with him on Presidents’ Day in his pied-à-terre across the street from Lincoln Center, it proved to be worth the wait.
I have long been eager to talk with him about several of his compositions, particularly his works for the orchestra and the operatic stage which were inspired either by ancient folktales or extremely unsettling contemporary topics or a combination of the two. I wanted to know the back story of the work that put him on the map, H’un (Lacerations), which is a searing orchestral composition inspired by the Cultural Revolution he lived through in the People’s Republic of China. I was very curious about his sympathetic portrait of Madame Mao, one of that tragic epoch’s masterminds, in his opera of the same name, as well as his more recent hyper-romantic Dream of the Red Chamber based on one of the most celebrated classical Chinese novels. I also wanted to know why he claimed that his first opera, The Song of Majnun, which is based on a 12th century Persian love story, was in some way a response to the Tiananmen Square incident and his feelings that he’d never be able to return to his homeland.
Music at least expresses one thing if nothing else: the emotions or mood.
Bright Sheng, composer
I often like to say that I’m 100% Chinese and 100% American.
Bright Sheng, composer
In Shanghai, I had a tutor who came to the house and taught me piano every week. But when I went to Tibet people really didn’t have enough food.
Bright Sheng, composer
I really think Boulez destroyed a generation of composers.
Bright Sheng, composer
I was extremely lucky because I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a student at Tanglewood.
Bright Sheng, composer
I’ve strived through the years to achieve this long phrase... I felt the gesture of that long phrase versus Chinese phrases.
Bright Sheng, composer
Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally.
Bright Sheng, composer
I am drawn to ill-fated loved stories. Over the sleeve romanticism is part of me.
Bright Sheng, composer
I always wanted to kill Mao, but I can’t kill him in real life. So I want to kill him in my opera.
Bright Sheng, composer
Everything we do is autobiographical.
Bright Sheng, composer
But what I did not anticipate was how deeply Sheng is concerned about directly moving audiences in whatever format or style he is working in and how passionate he would be about sharing what led him to his aesthetic positions. An early epiphany was his being sent to Tibet during the Cultural Revolution years and discovering how important participating in musical performances was to people there even though they didn’t have enough food to eat. Even more impactful on him personally was a ten-page letter from his father, who had relocated to New York City while Sheng was still a student at Shanghai Conservatory, warning him not to assume he’d be able to eke out a musical career if he immigrated to the United States. But, perhaps what was most significant was his tutelage under the legendary Leonard Bernstein who lavished praise and disdain with equal aplomb.
My father was asking: “Why does a society support art, or a musician, or a composer? Why should society? The society needs food and needs people to fix their cars, but they don’t need a composer. Why is this important?” Bernstein asked the other side of question: “What is your responsibility as an artist if you asked the society to support you?” I think the answer is actually very simple. Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally. Touch their nerves. Touch their emotions. Then you did your work and can say, “Hey, support me.”
Bright Sheng in conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Sheng’s New York City apartment
February 18, 2019—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Read the Full Transcript
Video Presentations and Photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: There seem to be two, somewhat different through lines that stretch across all of your work, even though the two have often intertwined. One is inspiration from folktales and the other is inspiration from personal life experiences. These are very different from each other because a folktale is usually a supernatural and metaphorical story from a specific culture, whereas your own life experiences are your personal reality. I thought of this as I was listening to a radio interview with you and Andrew Porter at the end of the recording of your first opera The Song of Majnun. Although that opera is based on a famous Persian love story, you said that for you the work was autobiographical and reflected your feelings about having left China, believing at the time that you might never be able to return there.
Bright Sheng: Well, I think everything in a way is autobiographical. The important thing is how you translate that—your life experiences, your personality, your attitude—into your work without any hindrances. That’s where technique comes in; that’s how well you’ve learned your craftsmanship so you can express yourself freely. Picasso used to say, “All my life I wanted to learn how to be a painter, and the rest of my life I tried to paint like a child.” So you learn the craftsmanship, and then you try to get it to be free. I think that the essence for any creative artist is to really express your life experience and your way of looking at the world through your work. Many times we say that we always write the same piece over and over again. And that’s exactly what it is: what you write is essentially you saying the same thing in different ways—sometimes more interesting, sometimes more direct, sometimes more circuitous. So it is your personality and your life experience that seeps through all your works.
FJO: One question that strikes me about being direct or circuitous is how can you do that in music? Music is abstract.“Music at least expresses one thing if nothing else: the emotions or mood.”
BS: Yes, but music at least expresses one thing if nothing else: the emotions or mood. You can’t really tell a story. So when you say the two sides of my work, these are more literal and more programmatic, but actually you can’t really be programmatic unless there is a story associated with it, like a tone poem or an opera or theater work. But when you take off the literary part, the rest is abstract in a way. But the mood, you can change. On the surface it could be humorous, but beneath it the humor means something else, or vice versa. There are different ways of reaching human emotions. Sometimes it’s through sheer beauty, sometimes through ugliness, and sometimes through nothingness. It depends on the context. How do you set things up to reach the audience in an expected way, but in an unexpected manner?
FJO: But in parsing out these emotions that we associate with music, how many of them are culturally predetermined? How many of them are culturally specific? I ask this specifically to you since you are somebody who is thoroughly and fluidly bicultural. You grew up in China, but you were immersed in Western music very early on. Now you live in the USA, but you’re still referencing Chinese musical traditions, as well as Chinese folktales. So when you say you can evoke this thing of beauty, or do something that’s sad or angry, are those feelings globally adaptable? Does sadness sound the same in Chinese traditional music as it does in, say, Mozart?
BS: That’s a very pertinent question. I put myself as an audience member. I often like to say that I’m 100% Chinese and 100% American, in a very humble way. Because the first half of my life I lived in China and I was totally Chinese. And the second half of my life, I moved to New York, and I was totally absorbed by Western culture. I really appreciate Western culture, perhaps more so than a lot of people in my generation. But I kept my Chinese-ness, and I’m very proud of that. I like to use the metaphor of food. I could eat Western food for six months or a year without Chinese food. I don’t miss it as long as the food is good. And vice versa. So I think I’m totally well versed in both cultures. Now, when it comes to creative work, sometimes in the early days I thought about these different elements. Like a chef, you can put in a little soy sauce to make this dish and use this other thing for French cuisine. But I don’t really think that way anymore. Quickly, I stopped thinking that way. I just look for things that I as an audience member would get excited about and appreciate. But yes, there will be some reference points and people from different cultures will have very different reactions.
Twenty years ago, I was composer-in-residence for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival for one summer. They took some of my chamber music and played it in the Pueblos in New Mexico. And [the people living there] said they liked my music much better than Mozart’s. I think that it had some reference point [for them], because my music is sort of Chinese-influenced, from folk music. It’s more connected with the wildness of nature. Whereas Mozart is more refined; it has this salon kind of setting. So to Native American Indian people, perhaps they feel closer to my music. There’s another story. I don’t know if I should tell it on camera, but I’ll tell it anyway.
FJO: Go for it.“I often like to say that I’m 100% Chinese and 100% American.”
BS: Years ago Bernstein once said, “Do you know Ravi Shankar?” I said, “Yeah. I’ve heard his name.” He said. “He’s the most famous Indian traditional instrument player. The music could start anywhere and could end anywhere, for three hours or so.” That was his perception of Indian classical music. Then he said, “One day, I invited him to come to Tanglewood to hear my conducting the Boston Symphony in a Mozart symphony. Afterwards, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘That’s the most boring music I’ve ever heard.’” So you see, these are great musicians’ perceptions of different cultures. Of course, Bernstein later on appreciated a lot of other music. And so did Ravi Shankar. He was writing concertos for himself and Western orchestra. But I think there are some things that you need to get familiar with. My first time tasting Coca-Cola, it was just a terrible taste. And pizza—the first day I arrived in New York, I bought a slice of New York pizza [grimaces]. You need a few times to get acquainted. I think art and culture are a bit like that. You need the environment to grow up in, but there is something that goes through the boundaries of culture and race and that is the human emotions. We all yearn to love and to be loved. I think that feeling is going with all music.
FJO: There was this notion that was, and in some quarters still is, promulgated that Western traditions were somehow—and this is a very strange word—universal. All of the other traditions from the rest of the world were culturally specific, but the great books of Western literature, the great Western paintings, and the great pieces of Western music were all timeless works for everybody and for all ages. But I think that now in the 21st century, we see that there is a cultural specificity to everything. Everything has a context. You were saying that Mozart’s music came out of the salon. But it also was coming out of Ländler and other types of Austrian folk music and even incorporated Turkish marches upon occasion. There are folk music elements in it, but they are specific to the culture and the time period he lived in. But now in the 21st century we can also say that it is possible for there to be cultural things from all over the globe that loads of people from around the world could and do appreciate. It’s possible to grow up in New York City and completely love and appreciate Ravi Shankar’s music as well as a Mozart symphony—even if you’re not Indian or Austrian. It all can belong to everybody because we have this globally connected world. You grew up in Shanghai, which was and still is the second most significant city in all of China, and China has one of the world’s great cultures that has existed for thousands of years and the Chinese historically thought their own culture was pre-eminent in the same way that Westerners have. But in the early 20th century, before the Japanese occupation, Shanghai had become a major international city. It was the hub for a movie industry and an interrelated pop music scene, both of which had wide geographical reach. After World War II, these activities initially resumed but then censorship increased. You were born about a decade before the Cultural Revolution started. You were studying piano and your father had a big classical record collection. So you were exposed to Chinese culture as well as things from elsewhere in the world, but then things changed.
BS: Then I moved to Tibet. That’s what happened. Everything changed when I was going through puberty. I was 15, the most rebellious time of life. Actually the most precious years of anyone’s life are those years from 13 through 18, before college. So the high school years. I went to Tibet and that changed everything. I really touched the wilderness and the ground, so to speak. I was dropped to the floor and from there; I realized what life could be in the world. Different lives. When you talk about music, I think that’s very important.
Yes, everybody used folk music. From the troubadour years, people have been using folk music; Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, all people use it. What’s different was that they were using the folk music as their inspiration to write salon music to bring exoticism into their music. Whereas what I think Bartók’s contribution was—you know, people say Bartók’s biggest contribution is folk music, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What he did was he brought in the real earthiness of the folk element. It’s like putting a very smelly peasant with the smell of the earth next to the very refined, fine art salon music, and then he said, “Look, they’re both beautiful.” That shocked the Western audience; they thought fine art, high culture music has to be a certain way. But he brought them and he said, “Look, they are just as beautiful. Can’t you see that?” I think that was the biggest part of my approach to folk music. Bartók was a huge influence, specifically for that.
FJO: So in terms of your own aesthetic epiphany with all of this, I’d like to find out what you were hearing before you were in Tibet. I know that you were playing the piano.
BS: I played some Mozart, some Beethoven, some Bach—the stuff that my daughter now is playing. And I had some records of symphonies. Then I’d open my window and on the street somebody would play some folk music on an erhu. Or in a class in school, people would play some Chinese instruments. My father was also an amateur Chinese opera singer and he played the Peking opera fiddle, which is very high-pitched. He taught me a little bit of that. He would play a little bit and sing a little bit. At the same time, he was also interested in Western culture and he spoke English. We had a piano in the house, which was rare at the time. Even in Shanghai. I had a tutor who came to the house and taught me piano every week. So all of that was part of my very refined and middle class upbringing.
But when I went to Tibet, people really didn’t have enough food. And I didn’t have enough food. Everyone was hungry most of the time. But you still had to make music. I wrote an article about this called “Love Songs of Qinghai.” Qinghai, by the way, is eastern Tibet. It used to be called eastern Tibet. Western Tibet we now call Tibet; in Chinese it’s still called western Tibet, Xi Zang; Dong Zang is eastern Tibet, which is in Qinghai. A lot of Tibetans and a lot of Muslim minority ethnic groups lived there, and life was very tough.“In Shanghai, I had a tutor who came to the house and taught me piano every week. But when I went to Tibet people really didn’t have enough food.”
In Shanghai, I had a middle-class lifestyle. Music was a part of the culture. Just like every once in a while, we would go to a Western restaurant in Shanghai to taste Western food, at the same time, we would go to listen to a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven. So it was a part of the lifestyle. But in Tibet, the basics of life were minimal, but people would still sing folk songs. There’s a genre of folk songs that are love songs. The men and women all sing these folk songs. The texts are very sexually oriented; in these rural areas, love and sex are very much mixed together. Every year, they’d have this huge festival and different ethnic groups would all go there and meet young people of their age and have affairs. It’s like Carnival in Brazil. During those two or three days, you can just go wild. Then after that, you go back to your life, husband, wife, whatever you do. People looked forward to this, and they’d prepare for it. During those days, if you wanted to meet your date, you’d have to sing well. It was not how wealthy or how good looking you are, it’s just how well you sang! So music was another necessity in these peoples’ lives. That was a very huge tip for me. Wow, music is very different in these people’s lives, but equally important—not as a luxury, but as a necessity. Then I studied this music. I spent time during the year learning this folk music. That was my first encounter of very rural down-to-earth basic musical elements that reflect human emotions.
FJO: So before you left for Tibet, were you aware of Bartók?
FJO: Had you written any original music?
BS: I was improvising, fooling around. It was mostly as a performer, as a pianist. But over there, I got a chance to write music and a chance to start conducting and also to play percussion and piano, because I was accepted as a student in the provincial state theater. At that time, during the Cultural Revolution, it was very strict what repertoire you could perform. You’d go through layers of censorship. But we were considered professional musicians, so we were allowed, on our own only, to study and practice Western music. I had my relatives from Hong Kong send me Schirmer scores—the yellow cover scores of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Now I’m a Schirmer composer. It’s kind of ironic how life circles around!
I still have these scores. It was very important that I had these scores and could get a chance to get a recording to just study, without even knowing who was playing on the recording. I didn’t really care. And I started learning English in those years, too. I had a teacher who had graduated from a university in Shanghai before the communists took over. At the university, everything was taught in English, so her English was very good and she taught me. I felt like a Chinese Western musician. I had to know Western culture as much as possible, even in Tibet, that rural, faraway place. At the same time, I was very drawn to the folk music, the rawness of that. But there was no model. I didn’t have Bartók yet. I didn’t know how to put the two together. So I did it in my own primitive way. Then, after the Cultural Revolution, I went to the Shanghai Conservatory. There I started to learn a little bit about Bartók. But the education was essentially from Bach to Brahms, and not correctly taught—which I found out later, after I came to New York.
I like to make the analogy of food and music. If you think about Chinese food in New York, it’s pretty good until you go to China. Then you find that it really was far off, even here where the Chinese food is cooked by Chinese natives. When you go to China, the Chinese food is quite different. Same thing in music: the conservatory teachers were teaching us Western classical music as best as they could but most of them never studied abroad or never really knew Western culture in an authentic way. When I came to New York, I knew sonata form, chords, theory, and counterpoint. I could do all of that, but I had no understanding of composers’ thinking, why these great composers think that way. Little by little, very much through Leonard Bernstein and, another important mentor to me, Carl Schachter, the great theorist of Shenkerian analysis. He told me, “You should sit in my classes and just observe.” And I did. Little by little, I started to de-learn and relearn the stuff that I thought I already knew. And at the same time, I encountered very avant-garde methods of writing music, like George Perle and his theories.
FJO: But, following your food analogy, it’s weird that to get more immersed in Western music, you didn’t go to where that music originally came from. You didn’t go to Europe. You came to New York City. Western music is part of the tradition here, but it’s a tradition that is like those American Chinese restaurants with Chinese chefs. I’ve eaten great meals in China, but I’ve also found some great and, I think, authentic Chinese food in New York City. There are many traditions that are happening here. But I would posit that the combination of going to Tibet and coming here opened you up to this idea that there isn’t necessarily one path. There is an interesting comment you once made about one of your Tibetan-inspired pieces. You remarked that it was inspired by folk songs that were diatonic rather than pentatonic. When you heard this music, you realized that not all of the traditional music from the numerous regions of China was pentatonic. Chinese culture is not and never has been monolithic. Western culture is also not monolithic. And no culture is monolithic in the 21st century. Coming here probably opened things up even more for you. New York City is a place where all these things co-exist. Having a slice of pizza for lunch and Chinese food for dinner is not particularly unusual. In fact, I read somewhere that there’s a pizzeria and a Chinese takeout place on almost every other block in Manhattan. But, of course, both of these things were imported here.
BS: I was glad I came to New York. I came by accident because my parents moved here. They could have moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and then I would have ended up there. That would have been a very different thing, even in America. Still, and that’s why I say I’m 100% America, when you think about American culture or American music, you cannot define what it is; it’s this openness. Everything goes. American culture is a lot more embracing. Or rejecting. Every group rejects the others! But, if you’re talented, somebody will like you and you get a chance of at least 15 minute of fame. Whereas if I had gone to Europe, at that time in France, you had to get into the Boulez camp. Some of my friends from China went that route, and I think they were very frustrated in the end, because they couldn’t really find their voice.“I really think Boulez destroyed a generation of composers.”
When Boulez said let’s burn all the scores, I wasn’t there. A lot of people believed him because he had a huge career. I want to put this out on the record: I really think Boulez destroyed a generation of composers when he said that, and still to this day. I have a student writing a solo cello piece, so I said, “What pieces are you looking up as models?” She immediately thought of a new piece, some so-and-so did a piece hanging a cello on their head. I said, “Do you know Britten’s Three Suites? Do you know the Kodály solo sonata? How well do you know the Bach solo suites?” She knew nothing. This is a constant trend from Boulez. But fortunately, I didn’t really believe that, or I didn’t think that was important. I just absorbed everything.
FJO: Yet ironically, Boulez had a major career as a conductor performing standard repertoire. And in one of history’s weird twists of fate, Boulez’s predecessor as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, came into your life and was an ideal mentor for you. How did that happen?
BS: I was extremely lucky because I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a student at Tanglewood, and he invited all of us—at the time there were composer fellows and four of them were living in New York—“From now on, all of you are on my private list and are invited to all my rehearsals in New York.” In those days, the Vienna Philharmonic would come a day or two days early to rehearse with him, and then they’d start a tour or something. So there were a lot of rehearsals in New York. The first day, everybody went. The second day, I was the only one. The rest of the three just dropped out because he was doing Mahler. They thought, “What’s so interesting? We’re composers. We don’t have to know Mahler.” But I was always fascinated by how classical music was made, so I went to all the Bernstein rehearsals. I would always go up to say hello. And then he asked me, “Do you happen to have a score in your briefcase you can show me?” I said, “No, sorry Maestro.” I’d never thought about this. The next day I made sure I had a score, and then he said, “Let’s go get lunch afterwards. Do you have time for lunch?” So we had lunch and talked about music.I was extremely lucky because I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a student at Tanglewood.”
Little by little, I got to know him and then I asked him, “Can I study with you formally?” He thought about it, and a day or two later came back and said, “I studied conducting. I can teach you conducting because I had Fritz Reiner [as a teacher] and I have all the techniques. But I never studied composition, so I don’t know how to teach composition.” I wanted to study conducting and composition with him, everything, and I said, “You never studied composition? How did you write all these great pieces if you never studied composition?” He said, “I just studied myself. The closest was Aaron Copland. He would tell me this is not good. He could be very harsh.” I said. “Well, can you do that for me?” There was a silence for a few seconds and then he said okay. Then whenever he was around, we had a regular weekly time to spend on composing. It was mostly talk. I would show him some sketch and he would show me a sketch he was working on. We would talk about music and, little by little, I started to feel like my personality was coming through. I felt more and more that I could express myself more freely without much technical difficulty in the music I wanted to write. It’s like playing an instrument. You have to learn how to play a passage before you can think about music. You can be so musical, but if you can’t even get the notes and rhythm right there’s nothing to speak of. When I started to connect the music making of classical music—Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, through Bernstein and through my own study of classical thinking—with what I was writing, little by little I felt freer to express myself. So that’s when I had my first major break in writing, because all of a sudden, I felt I could do anything and say anything, any way I wanted.
FJO: So what does that mean, in terms of compositions, in a practical sense?
BS: I could do one piece that was less Chinese and another that was more Chinese. The piece, H’un (Lacerations), which is about the Cultural Revolution, is not Chinese sounding, but it’s a Chinese subject. I expressed that on a very personal level and it’s tragic. Then later on, I wrote a piece called Nanking! Nanking!, which is a pipa concerto. I was very touched by this book called The Rape of Nanking. That approach was quite different. There’s a pipa and so there’s a lot of Chinese-ness in it. But then I’ve written pieces like The Phoenix, for soprano and orchestra, which is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s writing. So I’ve done pieces like that that are less Chinese, and there are also of course pieces that are more connected to Chinese folk music and Chinese myth.
But it’s very interesting. Three years ago, a year before the premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco, there was a visiting orchestra from China that did a whole concert of Chinese music. They wanted to do something of mine. So we did a scene of Dream of the Red Chamber. It starts with guqin, then the soprano and tenor sing about how they met and fell in love. It’s about a ten-minute scene, with an orchestra and two Western singers in English. But to me, it’s Chinese. The rest of the program was all very Chinese. Most of my music was never programmed in such a way, so I didn’t [previously] get a chance to hear my music next to a series of Chinese composers. I asked my wife if my music was similar to the rest of them and she said no. But I didn’t really trust her, because she’s my wife and she’s been here for many, many years and she really knows my work. So I asked some orchestra members. [They said,] “Your music is Western.” That also shocked me. So then I asked a singer friend of mine, who is Chinese. She lives in San Francisco, but we went to school together in Shanghai. She came to say, “Congratulations. I really like your opera.” I said, “Okay, does it sound Chinese?” She thought for a second and said no. “So is it Western? It’s very pentatonic.” And she said, “Your phrasing is no longer Chinese.” So I said, “Because it’s in English.” But she said no.
Singers think about phrasing. That tells me a lot because I’ve strived through the years to achieve this long phrase. That’s one thing that I learned in Western music, so I’ve tried to make my phrases long. Now I teach my daughter to play Haydn and Mozart. How do you do a long phrase, even for a small kid to feel that long phrase, even though on the surface, they break down to four plus four mostly? That’s something that I, as a composer, naturally or unnaturally learned, and I felt the gesture of that long phrase versus Chinese phrases.“I’ve strived through the years to achieve this long phrase… I felt the gesture of that long phrase versus Chinese phrases.”
Last fall, I did a residency at the Shanghai Music Festival and somebody wrote a preview article about my music. He said, “Bright Sheng’s music sounds Chinese, but also Western at the same time.” He described in detail what I did and was mostly correct. I didn’t realize it. It’s interesting to read what other people think of your music. But for me, again, it goes back to the answer to your first question: I put myself as an audience member. So my taste has changed since I arrived. The second half of my life I’ve lived by and large in the Western world, so I’m used to Western European culture and American culture, where like you said, Americans are embracing all cultures. In the end, it’s not what the style is, or whether it’s Chinese or Western. There’s only two kinds of music: good music or bad music.
FJO: So what is good music?
BS: I’ll tell you two stories. When I was in my sophomore year in Shanghai Conservatory, I was top of the class. My parents moved to New York and the Conservatory was already talking about hiring me as a teacher right afterwards, so they were very upset that I had to leave China. But at the same time, my father was very worried about my moving to New York. There was no Chinese composer making a living here. He was very worried about what I would do here. So one day he got himself invited to this music reception and met this big manager, Harold Shaw, and said to him, “My son is the top of his class and studies composition in Shanghai Conservatory. He wants to come here to continue studying. Do you think he has a chance to make a living here?” The first thing Harold Shaw said was, “Does he do anything else?” And my father said, “He plays the piano.” “Well, the piano’s better. You can make it. American composers can’t even make a living. There are no Chinese composers. It’s very hard.” So my father for this once in my lifetime wrote me a ten-page letter. Essentially he said, “Son, I know you love music, but America is a pragmatic country. They need people to make Chinese food. They need people to fix their cars. They don’t need another composer. American composers can’t even survive. So what will you do? Maybe you should just think about this.” I was totally in shock for a week. I thought that all my striving to work and study very hard to keep on top of the class was totally useless, because I wanted to be with my family and go to the West and I wanted to study. So I didn’t know what to do.
Fast forward four years after I came here, so this is about six years after that letter. By then I had already met Leonard Bernstein. I had my first success in New York with Gerard Schwarz. He had a group at Merkin Hall called Music Today, and he commissioned me to write a piece. I wrote Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty for soprano and thirteen instruments. I got my first New York Times review. It was from John Rockwell, and it was very positive. The one that introduced me to Gerry was a pianist and a critic named Sam Lipman, who had heard me at Aspen. He was very happy that he made the introduction. Sam said, “It’s a small triumph.” So I was very happy and a little bit elated, and I brought the score, the recording, and the review with me when I had another lesson with Bernstein. He listened to the recording, following the score, and afterwards there was a long silence. He didn’t say anything. Then he said, “To whom did you write this piece?” I was struggling for words. I didn’t know what to say. And he said, “Well, did you write for yourself? For Gerry Schwarz? For the singer? For the musicians? For the audience? Or for your student? For your teacher? Who did you write it for?” And I couldn’t answer. And then he wrote it down on the cover—I still have that—with a pencil: “For whom is it written” with a big question mark. It took me a long time to figure that out.
Now these two stories I told you—my father’s letter and Bernstein’s question—are directly related because my father was asking: “Why does a society support art, or a musician, or a composer? Why should society? The society needs food and needs people to fix their cars, but they don’t need a composer. Why is this important?” Bernstein asked the other side of question: “What is your responsibility as an artist if you asked the society to support you?” I think the answer is actually very simple. Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally. Touch their nerves. Touch their emotions. Then you did your work and can say, “Hey, support me.”“Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally.”
My way of defining good music is the work that actually reaches the audience. When we did the opera Dream of the Red Chamber, I wanted to have at least one person in the audience every night be moved to tears. And every night in San Francisco and in China, there were people who came up to me afterward red-eyed who said, “It’s so touching.” The story itself is very touching, but if you want an opera, you want the music and the story to reach the audience and really move them to tears. The rest doesn’t matter. So I feel that I did my job.
FJO: I want to go back what you said about H’un (Lacerations) not sounding Chinese even though it’s about a Chinese topic. Composing H’un just a few years after the Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty, which has much more clearly Chinese sounding music and is based on Chinese poetry, proved to be the pivot in your career as a composer. H’un was also first performed by Gerald Schwarz, but then it snowballed. It was really the piece that put you on the map, not just in New York, but all over the USA as well as around the world. It became your calling card. It’s extremely riveting and moving, but it is not the kind of piece that you would listen to and say, “Oh, this is beautiful.” And yet it was not off-putting to audiences. In a way, it’s quite different from most of your other pieces. Nanking! Nanking! is probably the closest in terms of all the things I’ve heard, and that piece is also inspired by a terrible human tragedy. Still it’s amazing to me that this piece that put you on the map is really dissonant. You have talked about discarding everything you composed before H’un. I’m glad you didn’t, by the way. But it’s ironic that you’ve considered doing so since H’un is a piece about the Cultural Revolution, which was a movement that attempted to discard everything that came before it.
BS: After I came to New York, I learned a lot of so-called avant-garde atonal dissonant techniques in which you really lose direction. The music feels like it could start anywhere and end anywhere. It doesn’t really matter. So I was thinking, “How do I write using those things and still have this sweeping musical direction, so the piece has a goal?” At the same time, I always wanted to write something about the Cultural Revolution, the time that I lived through. It was a difficult time, a lot of anger and sorrow. So through that, I was thinking about the structure of the piece—the technical part of the piece, but when I was actually writing, a lot of emotions went through it.
Before the premiere, I showed it to Bernstein. I had had that experience with Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty where it actually got a good review and he listened and he essentially didn’t give a damn. He said, “What is this piece?” That piece still had a lot of emotions and I think he got that. But he was asking, “Why write something like that?” He was asking a very deep question. So with this piece I was really nervous because it was before the premiere. I had this hand-copied onion skin score, and I showed it to him. He looked at it, page by page, picked out some wrong notes in the score, and about 20-25 minutes later he finished and there was a long silence. I thought, “Oh, here you go. What’s next?” And then he said, “When is the premiere?” I said in about a month. And he said, “Oh, so after he plays it then I can play it, right?” I said, “Wow!” And he did play it and had even [planned] to record it with the New York Philharmonic before he died. But at that time, I didn’t even have a title. He said, we must have a good title and he helped me to come up with the title.
FJO: But you had already realized it was about the Cultural Revolution, so it wasn’t like Penderecki adding the title Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as an afterthought.
BS: No, I knew it was about the Cultural Revolution. And he said that he knew. But he said it must have a striking title. You cannot just call it “Cultural Revolution.” So I eventually came up with H’un, which is a Chinese word that means scars and lacerations and many things. Lacerations is the harshest word, so I used that. But I think it was also pure luck at the time because, in the late 1980s, the compositional wind was already switching towards the tonal. You already had David Del Tredici’s Alice pieces. The avant-garde stuff is already gone. Then you have this shocking piece that I think very dramatically works. Also, at the same time, [there were performances of H’un] shortly after Tiananmen Square, so China, machine guns and tanks, and all that were in people’s minds. This piece was a kind of reminder, although it’s about the Cultural Revolution. I think I was a little bit lucky. Sometimes luck has something to do with it. So all that helped to put me on the map. I’d proven a point: I could write very dissonant pieces that still structurally make sense. But then I realized I cannot write another angry piece like that and just expect to keep going. On the surface, it is very dissonant and angry and harsh. But on the other hand, the gestures are very romantic, so that showed deep inside I’m a very romantic person. And I love romantic music. As a performer, I’m most comfortable with romantic music; I now do Brahms. So after that, I felt that I had to deal with the basics. What do I do with harmony?
Once Schoenberg had discarded tonal, triadic music, every composer to this day has been struggling to find his or her own harmonic language. There’s also a misconception—they think if you find your harmonic language, then you’ve found your own style. But I came from a life with very different things and I also was very lucky to have met Bernstein, because Bernstein brought me eye level to world class Western music, the best in the world. Just being around him for five years, you look at things on a very different level. Your requirement to yourself also changes. To me, a good composition should have the same capacity to express different moods that switch quickly, like in atonal music. That was very important to me. I explored multi-tonality, and I explored various harmonic languages. And now I can do anything. I can mold harmony any way I want. You can hardly find a triad, but I can express things the same way as any composer. I think that’s another thing that I’ve been working for years to achieve.
When you think about tonal music, it’s not a system that somebody came up with. Rameau first started labeling chords and inversions, but great composers don’t think that way. The great composers ignore that. They have their own way to organize on the surface and yes, you can label them, but they break rules. And you say, “Oh, why can they break the rule when the theory says you cannot break it? The rule must be wrong.” Schoenberg destroyed generations of composers when he invented 12-tone. It’s a wrong system. Every music with a system is wrong. Even Rameau, when he first started a theory about a tonal system—that’s wrong. But on the other hand, that’s something people could grab onto and could teach easily. So for hundreds of years, people were taught that was the right way. But great composers—Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Debussy—their music is not like that. They really step back from that concept and think about the 12 notes. What do you do with them? So in a way, they think like 12-tone [composers], but atonal, 12-tone music has a different organization. I tell students to look at tonal music. You mostly have seven notes to work with. Yes, sometimes you have accidentals. You borrow them, but you pay it back. You have collateral, paying back one note. So you always have five in the bank, and then you have seven to work with most of time, because there are only 12 notes and once you’ve used all the notes, there’s no hierarchy and you can’t tell the difference. You lose the importance.
FJO: Unless you have a larger scale with a greater number of pitches!
BS: Yeah, the people who use microtones and all that. But harmonically I feel that I’m comfortable now.
FJO: So not too long after H’un (Lacerations) started getting performed all over the world, you embarked on composing your first opera. You had already established yourself and had a reputation for either Chinese-sounding or Chinese-themed pieces, but The Song of Majnun is neither. It’s not Western, either; it is inspired by a famous Persian love story. I know that the librettist for the opera, Andrew Porter, had long been interested in making that story into an opera, but how did he come to work on this with you? It’s a rather unusual subject for you to turn into your first opera.
BS: Yeah, at the time, to be honest, I really didn’t know much about opera. As a pianist, I worked with a lot of singers. And I dated singers, so I knew singing. I like the voice. I think I knew how to write for voice a little bit. And I was interested in opera. So when the opportunity came to be the composer-in-residence with Chicago Lyric, I was very happy to take that challenge. I didn’t really think much about subject matter. To me, it could have been any subject, because I just wanted to write an opera. But I did channel my feelings into that; there are quite a lot of elements of Tibetan folk music in it and also a lot of pentatonic things. I had some rap music in it, too. I had influences and the style wasn’t important. It was about how to get my personal feelings into the opera. It was the time of Tiananmen Square, so I felt I would never be able to go back to China again. And the tenor, who is the protagonist in the opera, left his home and wanders around and becomes half mad. Majnun in Persian is madman. So it’s the song of a madman. That was the way I channeled myself into this subject matter.
FJO: I feel there is an even stronger parallel to Tiananmen Square and your feeling that you would never be able to return to your homeland in your second music theater piece, The Silver River, since its plot is about the Jade Emperor of the heavens severing the river that connects the heaven and the earth after his daughter falls in love with a mortal. That seemed to me an even more direct parallel to not being able to go back to your past and your roots.“I am drawn to ill-fated loved stories. Over the sleeve romanticism is part of me.”
BS: I am drawn to ill-fated loved stories. Even Madame Mao is to a certain extent like that, then Dream of the Red Chamber also. Over the sleeve romanticism is part of me.
FJO: The Silver River, though, is also a really direct and effective amalgam of all the ingredients that come together in your own aesthetics. There are four characters, and they each come from different traditions. One is a traditional Chinese opera singer singing in Chinese. One is a Western opera singer singing in English with a flutist onstage as his doppelgänger. One is a very American-seeming actor speaking in English, and the fourth is a Chinese dancer who also has a doppelgänger, an onstage pipa player. There is interaction between these four roles, but each stays within their own conventions. So you have these four elements coexisting. It’s a nice metaphor for how you have shaped your life as a composer—coming from many traditions and finding your own individual voice within that amalgam.
BS: I have to give credit to David Henry Hwang, the librettist. He wanted us to create something together that was a combination of music and theater. Originally, when it was first premiered in Santa Fe, we had the actor play the buffalo and the Jade Emperor; it was the same role. Then we wanted to create something where Wu Man would play the pipa on stage. We probably didn’t have a dancer. It was semi-staged. We had a tenor, a bari-tenor, singing the cowherd. Then we went to Nigel Redden. Lincoln Center Festival and also Spoleto invested in this. He thought it was worth doing it, so he commissioned this new version. The Lincoln Center Production was really quite something. They had a very tall tower with everything floating in heaven and real water came down to the stage. There was a huge fish tank where they had the Silver River. Everything happens on the bank of the river.
Actually within the Chinese opera genre, the music was sort of Chinese opera tenor music. But we hired a baritone singer because I didn’t think having a tenor singer was so interesting. So it brings a different character to it. Traditional Chinese opera has different roles; the music for them has a set format and the singing techniques are very different. I thought it would be interesting to mix them. Then an actor plays the buffalo and we have a dancer. The mix up was interesting. In a lot of places the music was playing a supporting role, not fully like an opera because there’s talking and sometimes you do very simple things to support that. But by the time I was finished, I started to have an inkling that I was writing opera, which is quite different from writing theater works or concert works. And that was my first opera where I felt that I knew what was going on in theater. This was my first attempt where I felt that I had control, that I knew when to do something simple and when to write something elaborate. I wrote one scene every week; that was pretty quick. Later on, after the premiere, I revised and extended it a little bit, but that was easy. From thereon in I can switch myself into an opera composer, understanding theater and music and how to marry those two.
FJO: A piece where that seamless fluidity of theater and music really comes across, I think, is Madame Mao. But it’s actually somewhat amazing to me that you would choose as the protagonist for an opera the person who was one of the notorious masterminds of the Cultural Revolution, which caused so much suffering in people’s lives including your own. And yet you were able to write an opera that makes people feel empathy for her.
BS: You have to. If she’s the leading character in the opera and you don’t feel empathy, there’s no point to write the opera.
FJO: Sure, but how were you able to feel empathy for Madame Mao?
BS: I do because her life was very fascinating. She was poor, born almost like an orphan and left in a house where she was disliked. But she was a very talented and beautiful young girl and went to join a Chinese opera troupe so she could express herself. Then she went to Shanghai and tried to make a career as a movie actress and didn’t really get far. She had to sleep around with people to get a little further. She was ambitious. So when she went to join the revolution and met Mao, hey, what else can you do? If you marry Mao, then you’re all set. That’s the most famous person. The leader. So she did, true love or not. Maybe a little bit of both, ambition and love.
I was with Bill Bolcom in Russia during the last days of Gorbachev when they were starting to open up. We were sent by the Ministry of Culture in a limo to visit the newly opened Orthodox Church that was two hours outside Moscow and were killing time. Bill said, “Did you know Madame Mao just died? She hanged herself. It was on the AP newswire.” I said, “Oh, really.” And then I started to tell him the story of her life: That woman had a very pathetic life. She married Mao, but she was put down by his colleagues and was not allowed to interfere with political decisions or have any official post, only to take care of Mao’s personal life. After Mao took over China, he started to sleep with everybody—younger and more beautiful women—and she had to make an appointment to see Mao even though they lived in the same compound behind the Forbidden City. The only time when she became herself was during the Cultural Revolution. When Mao had so many enemies and distrusted everybody, Mao had to use her to get rid of his enemies. And she was happy to be used and, at the same time, get rid of her enemies. Then as soon as Mao died, she was arrested and was in prison for 15 years and hanged herself at the end. And Bill said, “Well, that’s an opera!” In my mind, I said, “Yeah, maybe that is an opera.” Then I started to bounce around the idea. I was still a composer-in-residence at Chicago Lyric and everybody liked the idea. So the idea for an opera formed. But then I was thinking about how to tell the story. It’s very hard, because it’s one person’s life story. And, to reduce that into two hours of music, it’s very brief. How do you do that and what is the approach?“I always wanted to kill Mao, but I can’t kill him in real life. So I want to kill him in my opera.”
So eventually I had this feminist approach. She was wronged by men all her life. Then we were looking for a climax to the story. I was living in Seattle where I was composer-in-residence at the time, and was hiking with a girlfriend of mine and telling her the story. She’s not a musician or anything, but she said, “If you want a climax, you’ve got to have her kill him.” Okay. That was it. So I told Colin Graham, the librettist and director, and he said, “You can’t do that. First of all, it’s not in the history. Secondly, it’s too melodramatic. It wouldn’t work.” But I said, “First of all, Colin, we need a climax. I think it’s a great climax. This will surprise the audience. And secondly, I always wanted to kill Mao, but I can’t kill him in real life. So I want to kill him in my opera.” And Colin said, “Okay, so here we go!” In the end, we decided to have two Madame Maos: one young, one old. They reflect and play off each other. One is more innocent. As a young girl she must have been full of ideas and was talented, but she became this monstrous person at the end, did a lot of wrong things and killed a lot of people. A lot of things go wrong from a psychological point of view. My approach is that she was wronged by the men through her life. The last person she actually loved and hated at the same time was Mao. At the last scene, Mao is on his deathbed and she asks him, “Would you give your power to me? I want to run this after you are gone.” Mao says, “No way. If I give it to you, my legacy will drown down with you. Forget about it.” Then in rage, she just kills him. Of course, it’s not true in history. It’s probably not true, but it could be true.
FJO: Well that’s where the personal memories and the myths of folktales blur together.
FJO: In terms of what is real and what is not real in an opera, I was curious to hear your thoughts about casting. There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether a non-Asian singer should be cast as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or even whether or not Madama Butterfly should still be performed since it’s a Western appropriation of an Asian experience. Same with Turandot. In all of your operas, you’ve featured casts with Asian as well as non-Asian singers singing Asian roles.
BS: There have been different trends in different times. Think about Otello. What if you don’t have a black singer who could play the role at the time? Probably there weren’t many, so they painted somebody’s face. And Cio-Cio San, at the time, there probably weren’t many Asian singers. Little by little, now we have more Asian singers, more black singers, and they try to cast that. When we did Dream of the Red Chamber, David Henry Hwang recommended that we have an all-Asian cast. It’s an Asian story, so it should have an Asian cast. Everybody agreed. San Francisco agreed. But musically, we did have a little bit of a hard time filling the roles. Had it been open to all races for the singers, doesn’t matter what their appearance is, there would have been a much larger pool to choose the leads. When we did it in China, we still tried to keep it all Asian. But then we couldn’t find the right person for Lady Wong, which is a big mezzo role, so we hired a Western singer. It’s fine. Nobody paid any attention to this, because the rest of the cast is all Asian. But we actually also brought in a chorus from the Ukraine Opera House. They’re all Westerners. But that’s fine. Opera itself is illusion. It’s not as direct as a movie. If a Westerner is playing a Chinese role, it feels … you know, because in a movie you want to create a more direct illusion of a real life. When you get to plays, there’s a little bit of distance. And then opera—opera is illusion. To me, it shouldn’t make any difference. If I were to have everything to say about this, I would cast according to the vocal abilities. Yes, I would consider the physical appearance, but if there is a Western singer and a Chinese singer, and one sings much better, I will cast the better singer.
FJO: It’s amazing to me that you were able to assemble an entire cast of all Asians in San Francisco, but in China you had to import singers.
BS: Yeah, it’s kind of ironic. But, it was still hard in San Francisco. We had to dig really hard. It was not just Chinese; we also had Japanese and Koreans. But, still, if you open up the whole thing to everybody, that would be a lot easier, a bigger pool to find the best suitable singers. I don’t know. Maybe I’m too musically oriented. Of course working with major opera houses, I realize that the look is very important. Especially now when it comes to new operas: directors and the visual part is at least 50 percent, if not more. I say the opera is recognized by the composer. You think of Verdi’s opera, Puccini’s opera, or Wagner’s opera. You don’t remember the librettist or the director who did it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the composers that live on. But the stage directors and the singers, everybody laughed. They said, “How could you think that way? Here’s the composer again.” But it’s true. It’s the music that makes the difference.
Why do you want to write opera? That’s the other thing? An opera subject has to have a musical element in it that is inevitable. The music makes it much better. Verdi was a big Shakespeare fan and he studied all the Shakespeare plays, looking for subject matter. Hamlet he considered many times, and he decided it was not appropriate for opera, at least his understanding of opera. Opera must have content, but if the story is good enough—a play, or whatever the story is—then you don’t need music. So why do you want to set it to music? That’s a misconception nowadays going on. People have a good story, then they set music, just sing through the text and then they think that’s an opera. That’s not opera.
I remember the days when I first came to New York. I went to standing room at the Met. At the time, my language and repertoire knowledge was very limited. I got the program note. At that time, there were no supertitles, so you’d read one paragraph for each act—including many scenes written in English, which was always very awkward. It was not very well written. So I struggled to understand and to follow the story. What I relied on was not language. It was mostly in the music. Through the acting and through the music, I sort of got 80 percent of the story and they made a very deep impression on me. To this day, I think of these operas. Later on, of course, I studied Rigoletto, Tosca, Otello, all these operas. But what made an impression was how the music made the drama.
FJO: So now that you’ve lived in America for more than half of your life, you’re still inspired by all of these Chinese stories from folktales and classic novels. But you’ve also been inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, who is Danish. Do you ever see a time where you might be inspired to write a work that is inspired by something that takes place smack in the middle of America?“Everything we do is autobiographical.”
BS: Definitely. Everything influences my music. Clearwater Rhapsody has erhu and also some minimalist approaches in it. I had said that in The Song of Majnun, there’s rap music that I was influenced by, talking with rhythm and simple percussion in the background. A good composer strives to reflect their life experience. Whatever your life is—the food you eat, the books you read, the movies you watch, and the music you listen to—influence you every day, and they influence you tremendously. At the end, it goes back to your first question: everything we do is autobiographical.