Composer  Bright  Sheng

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai, China on December 6, 1955. His mother had been his first piano teacher, having started learning at the age of four. When the Cultural Revolution began, his home's piano was taken away by the Red Guards. Sheng went back to playing a year later, using his school's since he didn't have one at home. Shortly thereafter, he decided to play piano for the rest of his life, although he didn't believe that he could become a musician since his family had no history of music.

Sheng was sent to Qinghai Province, China, which used to be a part of Tibet, and stayed there for seven years. He became a performer, playing the piano and percussion to not only perform, but to study and collect folk music. He also began to compose his own music.

Because Sheng had to teach himself how to play musical instruments and learn music theory to play, Qinghai folk music became and continues to be a strong inspiration in his compositions today. He used Tibetan folk music from Qinghai as a basis for his opera The Song of Majnun.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, he got admitted into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he learned both Chinese classical and traditional music. There, Sheng earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition.

Sheng left China in 1982 and joined his family in the United States, where he had to re-learn different elements of music to adjust to the Western style of music. In New York, he attended Queens College to earn his Master of Arts degree in 1984 and Columbia University to earn his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993. Some of his teachers included George Perle and Hugo Weisgall at Queens College, and Chou Wen-chung, Jack Beeson, and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University, as well as Leonard Bernstein.

Sheng served as a composer-in-residence for the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1989 to 1992, the Seattle Symphony from 1992 to 1995, and as an artistic director for the Wet Ink Festival hosted by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1993. He also taught at the University of Washington for a year and joined the composition department at the University of Michigan in 1995, as associate professor of music.

He was involved in the Silk Road Project, a music project that stretches across different nations and cultures.

His orchestral composition H’un (‘Lacerations’), which premiered with the New York Chamber Symphony in 1988 and was a memorial to the Cultural Revolution in China, was awarded the first runner-up for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. Two years later in 1991, his piece Four Movements for Piano Trio was also awarded first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


It has been my distinct pleasure to interview Bright Sheng on two occasions.  First, early in December of 1990, he was in the midst of his term as composer-in-residence with Lyric Opera of Chicago.  As it happened, about six weeks later, his work H
un was being given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Jean.  That program also included the Violin Concerto #3 of Saint-Saëns (played by David Taylor, one of the Assistant Concertmasters of the Orchestra), the complete Mother Goose of Ravel, and the world premiere of Double Chorus by Robert Beaser.

The second interview took place about a dozen years later, in June of 2003.  Both have been transcribed and are presented on this webpage.

Knowing that many names actually mean something specific, I asked about his . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   What does your name mean?

Bright Sheng:   Bright is a translation of my Chinese given name.  Sheng is the family name, and I have a middle name.  My Chinese name is actually Zong-Liang Sheng.  Zong, which is the middle name, serves as the generation name.  So, all my cousins and sisters have the same middle name.  It goes with the generations, a little bit like Icelandic
the son or the daughter of such-and-such.  That’s the way to keep track of the family tree.  The word Liang is my given name, which means lots of lights.  When I first moved to New York from China, I didn’t want people calling me Zong-Liang Sheng because nobody’s going to remember.  It’s hard to pronounce for Americans, but I didn’t want to call myself David, or Peter, or things like that.  So, I got a dictionary of American and British English Names.  It’s alphabetical, and when I got to B, it said Bright.  It’s a British last name.  My Chinese name, Liang, means a lot of lights, so I thought that’s good.  My English was very poor at that time.  I didn’t even know that bright has the other connotation of being smart.

BD:   You just thought of brightness in terms of light.

Sheng:   Right, lots of light.  That’s what I thought, and I just used that as my name.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  I’m glad you didn’t go to L and become Luminous Sheng.

Sheng:   [Laughs]  If I had gone to L, I would find Leon, and would probably have used that, because it’s very closely associated in terms of pronunciation with my Chinese name.

BD:   But Bright is more distinctive!

Sheng:   I think so.

BD:   How long were you in China before you decided to come to the United States?

Sheng:   I came in 1982.  I was born in Shanghai, and my family suffered a great deal during the Cultural Revolution.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with that...

BD:   Yes, people with intellect were put down, and put aside, and shunted into poor jobs.  That’s the perception we have.  Is that correct?

Sheng:   It is correct.  The whole point of the Cultural Revolution was Mao had trouble with his power.  His power was shaking, and because he was not capable of running the economy, the construction of the country, he turned everything upside down.  His theory is the more you know, the more reactionary you are because you would ask more questions. So, all the colleges were closed, and the high schools were closed.  There was only junior high school in which the education was actually cut down to the fourth-grade level.

BD:   They let you learn to read and add and that was it.

Sheng:   Yes, that was it.  You learned multiplication and division, and nothing else.  I was never taught, for example, geography or physics.

BD:   I would think especially for an intelligent family, that would be just stifling.

Sheng:   Oh, it is devastating.  I’m still very angry about it.  When I talk to somebody about it, I say, “I’m very angry that my opportunity of learning was robbed away because of certain people wanting to keep power.”  But my story is just one of a million, because it’s a whole generation.  Actually, it’s more than one generation.  It’s destroyed at least three generations
my grandfather’s generation, my father’s generation, and my generation.  And now, it goes into the next generation.  They’re still suffering as part of the laceration, the trauma of the history.  They try to cope up with that.

BD:   Mao came to power in 1949.  When did he start imposing these kinds of cultural restraints on everybody?

Sheng:   All those things were going on and off all the time, but the biggest mistake was at the beginning, when communists took over China.  He was officially the Chairman of the Communist Party and the President of the country.  So, naturally, he would run the country and run the economy.  But then he started this whole system which followed the example of Stalin.  It was totally a disaster.  Millions of people died.  I had never seen so many beggars on the streets in of Shanghai.  His colleagues realized that he was really not capable of running the economy, and they finally told him, “If you can’t do it, just step aside and let somebody else do it.”  So, he let one of his colleagues run the country for five or six years.  He became the President of the country, and actually did a good job.  The economy was back, and things were much better.  Then Mao realized that if he didn’t do something
even though he didn’t know how to run the country and the peopleeventually he would be overpowered.  So, that’s why he started the Cultural Revolution.  Of course, the people who suffered were not only his rivals, but also the whole nation.  It’s a tragedy of human history.

sheng BD:   It’s very sad.

Sheng:   It is.  It’s very sad.

BD:   Were you and your family able to escape from China then?

Sheng:   No, no, no.  We wanted to leave, but there was no chance to leave the country.  So, we stayed the whole period of time.  My family didn’t leave until 1980.  Mao died in 1976, so it was four years after Mao’s death.  As soon as he died, his wife was put in prison, and they officially announced and declared the end of the Cultural Revolution.  But then it took them a few years to really open up and get things back to normal.  So, I went to college, back to the Shanghai Conservatory in 1978.  I was the first student after the Cultural Revolution.

BD:   But all this time, you kept up with your studies, and would continue to learn on your own as much as you could?

Sheng:   Well, there’s a big story behind that.  My grandfather was a big landlord.  In China, plantable land was very precious because even though China is a big country, most of the land is not plantable because the chemistry was too rocky, or it is mountainous.  It is not like in the United States, where you see all the plains.  So, my grandfather actually owned a lot of land. 5,000 acres in a suburb of Shanghai, which is a place that the land is plantable, and the rice land has water.  Like most rich people that grow up in China, he went to universities, and even came to the United States.  In 1921, he got his master’s degree in electric engineering.

BD:   So, there was a cultural tie then with the United States two generations before you.

Sheng:   Yes.  He went back and was allowed to work as an engineer.  When Mao came into power in 1949, he took over all his land, but he was allowed to work as an engineer.  But then when the Cultural Revolution started, the whole family was really in trouble, and he was denounced as an enemy of the state.  That goes down to three generations, so it included me.  So, I grew up as a little enemy.  I wasn’t happy.  We were beaten, and the piano was taken.  I had a little piano because I was training as a kid to play the piano, and then the piano was taken.  When I was studying the piano, I was interested in it, but I wasn’t really fascinated about it.  I never thought I would be a musician, but it was something that my father asked me to do.  I would practice, because the Chinese family is very strict.  When the Cultural Revolution started, they took away the piano, and after a few years, all of a sudden, I became so itchy to play the music that I would sneak into the classroom and play on the piano in the school.  The teacher would come in and chase me out, and I would sneak back in.  That’s the way I started learning music.  At that point, when I was about twelve, I had no teacher.  Then, after junior high school, at that point the economy was very bad.  That’s about five years into the Cultural Revolution.  Whatever had been built, the economic foundation had already been destroyed.  But the baby boomers were growing up.  The communists were supposed to supply all the jobs, yet they didn’t have the jobs.  So, they invented another idea, to send all the junior high school graduates to the countryside, to be farmers.  Everybody had to go.  Everybody.  No exceptions, especially people like me, because we had a bad political background.

BD:   This was your punishment, to go off to the farm?

Sheng:   Yes.  Even if your father was not an enemy of the state, you still had to go.  Everybody had to go.  It was a big problem.  At that point, the only way you could get away was if you had any talent in the performing arts.  This was because of Mao’s wife, who was a third-rate movie actress.  When she came to power during the Cultural Revolution, one of her self-proclaimed contributions was revolutionizing the performing arts, and revolutionizing the Western culture into Chinese youth.  That was their slogan.  So, she did encourage performing groups to accept young kids, and to train them and promote them as musicians, acrobats, dancers, all kinds of painters, and all kinds of performing arts.  At that point, everybody played the violin because the violin is cheap.  For $5, or even $3, you can buy a cheap violin, and bring it to the farm and practice very hard, hoping one day you would be accepted in the performance group.  Then you didn’t have to be a hard-labor farmer.

BD:   It was an avenue of escape?

Sheng:   It was the only avenue of escape for millions of kids.

BD:   In Japan, Suzuki came up with his method of teaching the violin.  Was there anything similar to that in China?

Sheng:   No.  We didn’t know Suzuki at that time.  We never heard of Suzuki.  Japan was an enemy, too.

BD:   I just wondered if they borrowed that technique.

Sheng:   Now they probably do, but at that point, no.  They were not interested.  The people who play the violin might hate violin.  They might never be interested in music.  Most of them don’t even have any talent in music, but that was the only way to escape.  So, it doesn’t matter if you played a violin, or the accordion, or a flute, or you played something.  That’s the way.  Fortunately, because I had kept up my piano, I auditioned for many groups and was finally accepted by a group from Qinghai province, which is at the border of Tibet and China.  It was a far region, because I was not allowed to get into the big cities.  I was still the enemy of the state.  When you’re a teenager, you’re the enemy for no reason except that your grandfather was rich.  Therefore, I was accepted in Qinghai.  When I went there, I found out myself that I was the best pianist in the whole province.  This was not because I was good, which I knew I wasn’t because I came from Shanghai where there were a lot of better pianists, but because nobody else who played piano was really any good.  So, I grew up there, but from positive point of view.  I spent eight years there, and every year we went to spend a few months with the Tibetans, and with the Mongolians.  This province had a lot of minority people living there, so the culture is very rich.  [There are over 37 recognized ethnic groups among Qinghai
s population of 5.6 million, with national minorities making up a total of 45.5% of the population.]  Actually, it is the folk culture which is very rich.  The interesting thing was that every year I collected a lot of folk music.  I studied them just like Bartók did, though my music education and knowledge was not nearly as rich as when Bartók did all his research.  Really, life was miserable.  I had a very harsh life, and learned the hardships of life.  But I was young, and could tolerate it.  The other positive point was that I knew I wanted to learn, but it was very difficult to learn anything.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When did you decide that you wanted to learn to be a musician?

Sheng:   At that point, I was happy because everybody was trying very hard to get into a group, so as not to be a farmer.  I was lucky to be accepted by this group, so I was already better-off than most of Chinese.  Aside from all my bad political background, I was very, very very lucky.  So, for that reason I was happy, and I was interested in music.  As I said, all of a sudden, I became itchy during junior high school, with my fingers wanting to play music.  I was fascinated with music, yet it was not a good thing.  It was a tragedy, actually.  When I went there as a teenager, I knew I was not very good, but then I had no teacher because I was the best there.  I tried to read, but there were hardly any books.  All the books were sealed.  All the theory books, and anything about Western music was sealed as bourgeois, and capitalist, and reactionary.

BD:   The books were there, but you couldn’t get at them?

Sheng:   Yes.  The library was sealed.  During the Cultural Revolution, only three movies were playing in every movie theater.  For ten years there was just one symphony, and it was not a Western symphony, but a Chinese symphony.  There was one piano concerto, and three or four novels were allowed.  All the other things were officially denounced.


BD:   That’s real indoctrination!

Sheng:   That’s why they called it the Cultural Revolution.  It’s a culture revolution, and it just destroyed everything.  So, I was there and I played.  Fortunately, I had a piano to myself.  I was forced to be self-taught, because I knew I wanted to learn.  Once a year I was allowed to go back to Shanghai to visit my family, and during that time I would try to get one piano lesson with somebody.  I would also try to listen.  We didn’t even have an audio system.  There were no recordings, nothing.  So, that was the way I learned.  I read music.  I played a lot of Chopin and Mozart.  Looking back, I know now that it was completely out of style, but I did a lot.  I knew the music, being self-taught.  The other thing was that I started to do arrangements.  We had a little chamber orchestra like of fifty people.  It was Western, because one of the things that Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) declared was that everybody had to play a Western instrument.  No matter what, even if you played a Chinese instrument, now you had to play a Western instrument.  It would not be very good, but you had to play.  So, we formed a fifty-member Western chamber orchestra.

BD:   [With apprehension]  How bad did it sound?

Sheng:   Oh, it was very, very bad.  You can imagine, but even though it was a Western chamber group, they played Chinese music.

BD:   Chinese music on Western instruments???

Sheng:   Yes.  That was Mao’s wife’s revolutionary contribution.  So, that’s what we did.  But one good part was that as soon as I finished something, they would copy the parts and play it for me.  So, I learned by experience, by doing that, and I became a conductor.  I was also a timpanist in the orchestra for many years, again being self-taught.  Two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Shanghai Conservatory started to accept students, and I was accepted.  I was the top student, because I already had studied music for eight years.  So, I was number one choice for the conservatory. Actually, I learned later that the two best conservatories of China were fighting to get me.  But I got in without knowing anything about composition.  I decided I wanted to be a composer because I thought writing music was not hard!  I thought it was easy because I could write a beautiful tune.  That’s all it was about.  I went, and I realized I had zero knowledge of what a composer is.  So, I had to start from scratch.

sheng BD:   I’m surprised you didn’t take up another instrument, or continue being a conductor, or even a timpanist.

Sheng:   I actually had that option, but I thought, as I said, composing was easy.  Then, the more I studied, I found the more difficult it is.  At the conservatory, we had four years training, which, looking back was artistic understanding of Western music.  The history of Western music in China started very late.  It was not until the late
20s or early 30s, when a bunch of young kids went to the States or Europe to study for a few years because they were fascinated about Western music.

BD:   [Very surprised]  Was there no Western influence???  Shanghai was one of the big trading centers for the British and the French, and a number of the other cultures.

Sheng:   They were influenced a bit.  Music was first introduced by missionaries.  There was no formal education there.  Probably a few who were living in Shanghai taught some private students.  Some talented youths studied the basic things about Western music theory, and then they went to Europe or to the States to study.  One of them studied with Hindemith, for example.  They studied for a couple of years, and then went back to China without a deep, profound understanding of Western music or Western culture.

BD:   More of a smattering?

Sheng:   Yes, right.  But they became the authorities.  They started the first music school, called the Shanghai Academy of Music, which was the first conservatory in China.

BD:   [Connecting the story together]  So, you’ve gotten back to the Shanghai Conservatory...

Sheng:   Right.  The reason I brought it up is because of the understanding of Western music.  During the war, there were some Russian-Jewish refugees living in China.  Because of the political situation, they were not officially allowed to teach, but they taught some private students.  Then, in the early
50s, the Russians were very close with the Chinese when communists took over, and they sent a lot of musicians to China to teach.  They didn’t send Shostakovich.  They sent some other musicians who were not very good.  They were all right, but at that point it was still Stalin’s period.  So, they did not see Western culture.  They were also going through the same period of revolutionizing the music business.  Remember, there was the criticizing of Shostakovich, and all the denouncement of Schönberg, Stravinsky, and all that.  At the same time, the teaching system they used was very rigid.  It was a Russian system, and they taught a generation of Chinese students.  Then, in late 50s, the Chinese broke up with the Russians.  They completely closed the doors to anything in the outside world.  People of all those schools got together, and studied themselves by reading books.  They developed a system of their own teaching, and their own understanding, which was sort of Chinese-ized view of Western music and culture.  That was the system I had when I got into it, because that was right after the Cultural Revolution.  Then we started to have some things.  The Boston Symphony came, and we started to have visitors.  But you can’t change the whole system overnight.  The teaching system is still like that now, because those people are still running the departments and schools.  Looking back, we were taught only from Bach to Brahms.  Only one sentence in the history book talked about anything before Bach, and even during that time from Bach to Brahms was also very twisted.  They didn’t have a real understanding of Western music of that tradition.  But we worked very hard, and that was the situation I had.  I graduated from Shanghai, and my graduate composition orchestral piece was played by the Shanghai Symphony.

BD:   Did they play it very well?

Sheng:   Well, no.  [Laughs]  I had five of my compositions published when I was still in school, so I was a very big honor student, one of the best students.

BD:   You were a big deal.

Sheng:   I was a big deal.  But when I came to the States, I realized I really knew very, very little.

BD:   If you were a big deal in China, why did you want to come to the United States rather than continue to be a big deal in China?

Sheng:   That’s asking the same thing as when I was a big deal in Tibet, why I wouldn’t want to go back to Shanghai.  I knew I wasn’t good, and I’m not happy being just to be a big shot at some place.  I always want to learn.  If there’s a place I can go where I could be better, I always go.  I don’t care whether I have to start from the beginning.  That’s what I practically had to do.  When I first came to the States, I had no friends in the music business, and I didn’t know anything.

BD:   This was 1982?

Sheng:   Yes, 1982.

BD:   Where did you land in the U.S.?

Sheng:   My mother had relatives living in New York, so they helped my family to settle, and then I came.

BD:   During this time, had you been learning English so that you could adapt to the culture?

Sheng:   No.  I had some study of English, but when I arrived in New York, I couldn’t understand a word with the New York accent.  I turned on the TV, and I couldn’t understand a word.  I thought I had some English knowledge, but it was absolutely zero.  I didn’t have any money, so I auditioned in a couple of schools, and was accepted at Columbia University and other schools, but with no financial help.  I finally went to Queens College because they started to help me.  There I studied with George Perle and Hugo Weisgall.  After I got my master’s degree from there, then I went to Columbia University for my doctorate.

BD:   You must have picked up English very quickly.

Sheng:   Yes, I had to because you have to pass the language exam, and history exam, and all sorts of writing a lot of papers.  You had to do that, so I worked very hard.  But it turns out that Queens College at the City University of New York was a very good school, and they had very strong theoretical and composition faculty.

BD:   Did you enter as a composition student?

Sheng:   Yes, and then I went to Columbia University, also.  As you know, there were lots of the avant-garde composers teaching there, so I learned a great deal.  But I must say that my education through the school is only part of it.  The other very important influence of my understanding of Western music is that I started to make friends with performers, conductors, pianists, cellists, violinists, and all kinds of people like that.  They’re very, very good.  They’re excellent performers, like Peter Serkin, Leonard Bernstein, Gerry Schwarz, and all those people.  I was lucky that they had faith in me and my compositions.  They started to commission me, and to play my music.  My relationship with Leonard Bernstein was very important in opening up my concept of being a composer.  He invited me to every rehearsal he had in New York.  So I just went to as many as possible.  At the beginning, I was sitting there just listening and enjoying.  Then gradually, I asked questions, and noticed things that he did which were different.  He would answer because he always talked about music.  Always.  Constantly.

sheng BD:   That’s really the only way to do it, to see it over a period of time, and see the subtle differences to learn why one performance is different from another, and how to make it different.

Sheng:   Right.  By hearing him talk about music, I learned why he did things very differently from other conductiors, and what the reason was.  But he was just was one of the musicians I learned from.  Others taught me similar things, and gradually I started to understand Western music.  It’s very important if you want to come up with any kind of fusion, because my background is bi-cultural.  In my life, I’m always going to try to fuse both cultures, like myself.  I’m not complete Chinese.  Chinese people will think I’m very Western, and Western people will think I’m very Chinese.

BD:   Do you try to keep strains in your music?

Sheng:   Right.  In my composition, it was very important for me to understand Western culture because I did spend a lot of time in China.  In the conservatory, I studied Chinese classical music for four years, along side of Western music education.  I started to understand, but one of the things that always troubled me was asking if it was possible to fuse the two cultures that are so different, so remote.

BD:   Have you been able to do that?

Sheng:   The answer now is yes, but at that time I was really lost, because when I was in China, I was introduced to this sort of pseudo-Western music education.  What most Chinese composers were doing was starting with the Chinese pentatonic scale and adding the Western triad harmony, functional harmony, and even dominant-and-tonic ideas.  It sounded bizarre to me, and I wasn’t happy with it.  When I came to New York, and I learned so many 20th century techniques, I found that you could do anything in a composition.  I got lost, and I didn’t know how to do both, but I knew there must be a way.  That I knew, but I couldn’t find it.  The times I talked to different composers and friends, they would say, “Oh, no, you can’t do that.  You’re either writing Western music, or Chinese music.”

BD:   But you always wanted to fuse the two?

Sheng:   Yes.  Then I would say, “What about Bartók?  Bartók is European.  He’s Eastern Bloc, but he’s still European.  In the same way, the Chinese are also far away.
 I remember asking Bernstein about that, and he finally asked, “What do you mean fusion?  Everybody is fusion.  Who isn’t fusion?  Brahms was fusion, Beethoven was fusion, Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovich.  Come on!  You know me for such a long time, and you still ask this question?”  [Laughs]  He convinced me there was a way, but he didn’t tell me how.  Of course, he himself was a big fusion.  But I was convinced, and I was trying very hard to get there.  I’m still on my way to doing that, but I can say that now I feel more comfortable.  I have certain ways I feel comfortable doing that, and I’m a lot happier with my work than, say, five years ago.

BD:   Even though you haven’t gotten there yet, you’re on the right track, and you think you’re moving in the right direction?

Sheng:   I don’t know if I have found the way of writing music for me, but at least I have tried several ways.  One of the things I believe very strongly is that people in my generation have to understand.  When I go to universities to talk to students, I say that people of my generation, or even younger, are living in a very fortunate time as composers.

BD:   How so?

Sheng:   My teachers, or the composers before my generation, from the early part of the 20th century until now, explored all kinds of ways of writing music in every direction, and pushed it to the extreme.  By now, like walking to a big lab, we have all the results.  Our language has expanded tremendously, and our media also varies from place to place.  You can virtually do anything.  If we do something this way, we’ll get this.  If we do a minimal piece, we’ll get that.  We can do microtonal, and we can do twelve-tone.  I don’t think our job, our task, as composers, is to find a brand new revolutionary way of writing music, or to come up new system.  Our task is just to write music in an enlarged language and capacity.  Then we can really write whatever we want.  So, in my case, every time I write a piece, I try to write something slightly different.

BD:   Different from the previous piece?

Sheng:   Yes, different not only in terms of the mood, but even in the method.  This is because as a person, I’m not always happy, but I’m not always unhappy either.  If someone’s always happy or unhappy, then something is wrong with the person.  It depends on what I’m trying to say.  This piece, which the Chicago Symphony is doing, is about the Cultural Revolution.  It’s called the H’un, and it means laceration, a mark, a trace scar, a wound, a trauma.  The subtitle is In Memoriam 1966 to 1976.   This is the ten-year period of the Cultural Revolution.  It’s about twenty-two minutes long, and there’s no melody, no tune.  It’s built on a half-step motif.  I don’t think this piece is about my personal experience of the Cultural Revolution, although I consider myself a witness, and survivor, and victim.  I don’t take it as a personal experience, but rather the piece is a description of the culture as a human tragedy, a tragedy in human history.

BD:   So, you’re taking the ideas that were stomped-on there, and relating them to all the world?

Sheng:   Right. Right.  I am also trying to show its cost to the country.  In that piece I write very dissonant and harsh sounds, and yet one thing I try to do in my music is to be expressive.  So, in a piece like that, if it’s dissonant in its nature, it has to be extremely expressive to reach the audience, to reach the listener.

BD:   Is this going to give a wrong impression on the audience of you?  They will hear a very dissonant piece, and think that’s the kind of music you write.

Sheng:   They might get that kind of impression, but other pieces that I write are very, very lyrical.  The piece I wrote right after 
H’un was a song cycle called Three Chinese Love Songs.  It was commissioned by Tanglewood for Bernstein’s 70th birthday, and it was a very, very lyrical tune.  I wanted it to be very beautiful, a loving kind of setting and mood for this giant, Leonard Bernstein.  It shows not only my own appreciation to my understanding of Western music to educate me, but also it’s the whole music world.  People in China actually knew his name, and we listened to his records.  We knew his music a long time ago.  So, from that point of view, I tried to write something very lyrical.  If you listen to it, you’ll find it’s very, very different.  It could be from two different composers, although I think still some of my trademark stands out.

BD:   Your fingerprints are around it?

Sheng:   Yes, my fingerprints.  I’ve been doing different ways of writing in the last few years, and I’m happy with that because I don’t think I’m mature enough to say, “This is the way I’m going to write all the rest of my life.”
BD:   You want to keep growing forever?

Sheng:   Right.  That’s what I will try to do.  For example, Stravinsky changed so many times, even after a masterpiece like The Rite of Spring was written.  In the case of the opera I’m working on now, that’s really exciting because opera has the time that you can do all those things I
ve mentioned together in one piece.  This is because operas deal with not only tragedy, but also love, and all kinds of moods and dramatic feelings within whatever length that you have.  It might take one hour, or two hours, or three hours, and that’s where you can incorporate all those feelings.  Therefore, musically, this is just the perfect time for me.  I’ve been doing different pieces with different ways of writing, and different moods.  Now, in opera, I hope I can do everything togethernot all at the same time, but by following the dramatic changes of the story in the opera, I hope musically I will be able to bring out the ways of writing that I use in each individual piece.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Coming back to H
un, was this written for the Chicago Symphony?

Sheng:   No, it was written for Gerard Schwarz and New York Chamber Symphony at 92nd Street Y.  He commissioned it.

BD:   Has he played it?

Sheng:   He played it in 1988, and then he played it again two weeks ago in New York, and recorded it.  Leonard Bernstein was scheduled to play it in December [Bernstein had died six weeks prior to this interview], and was also scheduled to record it with Deutsche Grammophon.  He death means a big loss to the music world.  Besides the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony is doing it, and the Baltimore Symphony will be doing it in the spring.  It’s the piece that’s making the rounds.  A lot of orchestras are picking up on this piece, and I’m really looking forward to the Chicago Symphony performances in January.  It’s not only because I’m now living in Chicago
so I’m an Illinois resident and Chicago composerbut also the Chicago Symphony is the best symphony in the world.  They will really bring the piece to life.

BD:   It will set a really high standard for the work.

Sheng:   Yes, I think so.

BD:   Right now, are you loaded with a lot of commissions?

Sheng:   Yes, I have a few projects I would like to do.

BD:   When you get a commission, how do you decide if you will accept it, or if you will turn it aside?

Sheng:   First, I like to see if I have the time, and if the players are good.  I’m a composer who thinks a lot about the performance, because of myself being a pianist.  I play concerts, so I think of myself as a performance-oriented composer, although the cerebral part is also very important.  Otherwise, you become a performer-composer, which is like a cheap kind of composer.  You only think about what sounds big and fabulous, but you don’t have the depth.  On the other hand, one of the things that often inspires me is the capability of the performer that I’m writing the piece for.  For example, Gerard Schwarz and the 92nd Street Y New York Chamber Symphony is a fabulous orchestra.  They’re a relatively younger orchestra, and they are very, very good.

BD:   That way you can pretty much write what you want to, knowing that they will be able to technically accomplish it?

Sheng:   Yes.  That’s something which is a strong point.  Technically, they’re very good, and rhythmically they are impeccable.  Gerry would be able to put things together very quickly, wasting absolutely no time.  He would have a good rehearsal, with excellent rehearsal technique.  Also, for example, there is the piece I wrote for Peter Serkin.  I know he’s a virtuoso.  So, I have very much a performance group in my mind when I am writing a piece, which is also a very important factor as to whether I’m going to accept the commission.  The other decision is if I have the time to do it.  I need to know if the time will work out.  But I have several projects after this opera that I plan to do that I’m very excited about.

BD:   Do you try to balance vocal works and instrumental works, or are you leaning more heavily toward one or the other?

Sheng:   At this moment, I’m writing an opera, so it’s vocally an orchestra.

BD:   Then you wouldn’t accept a commission to write another chamber opera, or something like that right away?

Sheng:   I don’t know.  I haven’t had that offer, so I wouldn’t know.  But I’m excited writing for human voice.  When they play, I try to get all the instruments as close to the human voice as I can.  It’s almost as the human voice, but not quite.  When you’re really writing for the human voice, they have problems because it’s a human voice.  They’re not as flexible as the instruments, like a flute or clarinet or the piano.  However, there’s something very direct that touches the audience when the human sings.  I also worked for many years as a voice coach with singers, so that was a very important part of getting me into the opera writing.  And, as I said before about writing musically, opera could be dramatically different.  It varies with my way of writing.  Also, writing vocally, and for voice, is something that I have always dreamt to write.  I’m very excited with the current project.

BD:   Does being composer-in-residence with Lyric constrain you from accepting other things that you would like to do, such as instrumental works?

Sheng:   It is time-consuming, and at this moment I’m just writing for the opera.  I don’t have any room for anything else because I’ve got to finish the opera.  But besides that, there is nothing else.  It’s a positive point, because I learned so much about opera.  Hanging out in a world-class opera house is quite a privilege.

BD:   You have free run of the whole place?  You can come and go almost as you please in any corner of the opera house at any time?

Sheng:   Right, and with any questions that come up I’ll ask them, and all the experts are there to answer.  Lyric Opera is very accommodating.  They’re really very supportive to the composer.  I’m very happy there.  I’m very proud to be there.  I just hope I can write good operas, and that everything will be falling into place.  
I feel now that I’m a lot freer to write music.  I have thought of a lot of things that I want to do.  I just need time to get it done.
BD:   Are you going to continue to make your home here in the United States, or are there any thoughts of going back to China?

Sheng:   At this moment, no, but I’m very sad that I can’t go back to China.  Since the Tiananmen Square massacre last year, I was very outraged, and I’ve been outspoken about that.  So, I don’t think I can go back without having any second thoughts.  However, I hope the turmoil will end soon, which I think it will.  I would love to go back to China to do something, but I don’t know if I would settle down there, because now I have so many friends here, and I would miss this country very much.  Like I often say, China is my Motherland, and the United States is my Fatherland.  I’m caught in between, but I hope I can constantly visit China.  Because of my unique bi-cultural background, maybe I could serve as a bridge between the two cultures.

BD:   Like a liaison?

Sheng:   A liaison, yes, to do some kind of thing to help people in China to understand Western music culture a little better, and vice-versa.

BD:   What is your immigrant status here in the United States?

Sheng:   I’m a United States citizen.  I came as an immigrant, and then five years later I became a citizen.

BD:   That will influence where you stay, and what you choose to do.

Sheng:   Right.  I consider myself an American composer.  There’s no question.  I don’t know what other people think.  They probably think I’m a Chinese composer, but I do think I’m now an American.

BD:   You are an American composer with this unique special background!

Sheng:   Yes, American-Chinese probably.  I would never be considered as truly American.  For example, Bartók lived here, and Schönberg also lived here for many years.  Stravinsky lived here, but they would never be considered actually as American, although most of them became American citizens.

BD:   Yes.  It’s very difficult, but you have so much that you can bring to your music, and I hope you can always bring much of every facet of your background and imagination to every piece that you write.

Sheng:   I hope so, and that’s very important for me also to re-connect with the Chinese part of my background.  I am hoping that  I still get a chance to do so.  I have friends in China, and they sent me the new folk music that they collected.  There’s a research library here, and I can get materials, but it’s slightly different when you’re actually going there and collecting music, which I hope one day I’ll be able to do.  [Musing]  I hope it comes soon...

BD:   Have you been back in China since 1982?

Sheng:   No.

BD:   I predict that it will be very strange for you to go back as a visitor to your homeland.

Sheng:   Oh, it would be very strange.  Although my family is all living in the States, I’m homesick in the sense that I miss that part of me that I grew up with.

BD:   I would think you’d be very torn.

Sheng:   Yes, and especially now that I know the people, my countrymen, were actually suffering with the regime, by the dictatorship.  I am very angry with that.  If I know they are improving, that’s another prospect.

BD:   Do you think the Tiananmen Square incident is going to be a major setback, or just a minor blip?

Sheng:   That would be a major issue for the government.  I would not go back unless the Chinese government officially admitted that it was a mistake.

BD:   How much damage do you think that does to the people in China?  Is that a major thing or a small thing?

Sheng:   This is relatively a small scale, because what happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing was not known in the rest of the country.

BD:   So, Shanghai is blissfully ignorant?

Sheng:   Yes.  More people don’t even know about it.  I mean I have friends going back there who ask, “Did you actually see on TV the soldier shooting at the students?”  They just didn’t believe it, but in history, it is a major event because the demonstration was not only in Beijing.  It was in every major city in China.  So, it will be an important event in history to decide where China will be heading for the next century.

BD:   [Bringing the discussion back to the main topic]  Where is music heading these days?

Sheng:   That is always very closely related to where the political situation is heading, as you know.  First of all, the musicians need to understand Western culture.  They need more exchange programs.  With this kind of political regime, it will be very difficult.  Secondly, the freedom of creating in every art form is always very closely related to the political situation.  So, that would also be a problem at this moment at least.

sheng BD:   Even Verdi had to fight with the censors!

Sheng:   Right.  Verdi’s censor compares with the censor in China.  I remember during the Cultural Revolution, everything we did
even when you wrote a song to be performed in publichad to go through at least three levels of censorship.  You needed to pass three censorships, and then you would be allowed to perform it in public.

BD:   And that, of course, will just wring the life out of it completely.

Sheng:   Right!  Yes.  Most times they just killed the piece.  We had a slang saying, “Oh, the piece was killed,” which meant it was censored.

BD:   Well, it’s been fascinating chatting with you.  Thank you for the conversation.

Sheng:   Thank you.  It’s my pleasure to meet you.

A dozen years later, we met again and continued our conversation

BD:   About twelve years ago when we chatted, you were in the midst of the opera for Lyric.  Now you’ve done a lot of instrumental music, and are writing another opera.  This one is for Santa Fe?

Sheng:   Yes.

BD:   Is the opera ready?

Sheng:   I’ve finished it, but it’s not going to be ready until it’s performed.  [Both laugh]  When a composer finishes a piece, it’s only about fifty percent complete.  The other fifty percent is the performers, singers, conductors, orchestras, and directors.

BD:   Is it the same when it’s an opera as it is for, say, a chamber work with just two or three players?

Sheng:   It’s the same thing!  Sometimes I perform my own music, but I generally think the other fifty percent is to rely on the performer.  They can make the piece sound really terrific, or they can also make it piece sound really terrible.  We have had both experiences.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that most of the performances are really terrific?

Sheng:   Yes.  I have been very lucky, but opera is something that if I have the courage to venture into should be pretty good.   I don’t think I should write more than one opera every ten years.

BD:   An opera a decade?

Sheng:   [Laughs]  Yes.

BD:   When you were preparing the opera here for Chicago, did that also launch you into the world of instrumental music for the next few years?

Sheng:   That too, but also most importantly, that experience of three years with the Lyric got my feet wet on the ways of writing music for the theater.  That’s a very different ball game in terms of a lot of things that you don’t really anticipate.  It’s very difficult to get it right first time.  A few geniuses do that, but most people, including geniuses like Verdi, for example, have that original success.  Nabucco was his third opera, and was his first hit, his first success.

BD:   Then another couple of operas went by before there was a big international success with Ernani.

Sheng:   Right, but before Nabucco, the first two works were complete failures.  Rarely do people get it right the very first time.  Compared with his later works, Nabucco is a charming and interesting work, but it’s not performed as regularly as the others.  Even for a genius like Verdi it took three tries, so the experience at the Lyric really set up the foundation for me to get my thoughts and understanding of what it takes for a composer to write for the theater.  As we know, opera is high drama, and grand theater, and for that type of music we learn what works in this context.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s come back to the new opera a little bit later.  You left the Lyric ten years ago, and have been writing instrumental music for major and lesser-known performers.  Has this been a gratifying time to do all of this?

Sheng:   Oh, yes.  It
s been terrific.  I left here and became the composer-in-residence at the Seattle Symphony for three years, and there I learned a lot about the orchestra and conducting.  I’m conducting a lot now, and those years of experience were very good.

BD:   Was a lot of that surprising, or did it follow naturally what you learned with working with an opera company?

Sheng:   It followed naturally.  You know, I studied with Bernstein as a conductor as well at the time I was studying with him as a composer, but I never deliberately developed that part, or worked for that.  I occasionally conducted, but now I more consciously want not only to do new music, and my music, but also traditional repertoire.  I’ve signed up with CAMI (Columbia Artists Management, Inc., the agency which represented many of the biggest names in classical music), and I’ll be conducting a lot more.  Being a composer/conductor, there is something interesting because certain things come easily, like trying to understand the piece.  I understand the music
not only my music, but other people’s musicand the traditional repertoire is a little bit easier because the understanding of the piece goes without saying.  It was supposed to be part of the composer’s repertoire as well, and then the performer/composer in the old days was the same person.  So, this is very good training.  Now we have more and more great composers who are also great conductorslike Esa-Pekka Salonen.  There are not a great many but more and more people are interested.  Robert Spano is also a composer.

BD:   So, you’re encouraging this idea of having the composer be the conductor, or the conductor be the composer?

Sheng:   Right.  It helps a great deal, and for those ten years, if I had not been writing operatic or theatrical music, then I would have been working mostly as a composer, or a performer, and doing both.
BD:   Perhaps this is a dangerous question, but is your instrumental music somehow inherently theatrical?

Sheng:   I think so.  Not all of the pieces, but some of them are.  The understanding of opera, and writing for opera, helped.  My music always had this element of drama in it.  Some pieces are more obvious than the others, but in terms of getting instrumental pieces written, I don’t think of them as drama.  I sometimes think of them in a dramatic sense because of the context, or because I just happen to like that idea.  But opera is something else.  You have a story-line with very specific images that you want and like to create.  Then there are the voices, and the words, and there is the theater and the lighting.  All of that helps you.  If everything clicks, there’s nothing like opera.  So that’s why every ten years it’s perhaps worth the trouble to try it, but it’s not something that I would like to do every day.

BD:   Are there, perhaps, some instrumental pieces that you’ve written along the way, that would fit very nicely into the new opera, or the next opera ten years hence?

Sheng:   Sometimes I use some motifs.  In Madame Mao, for instance, which I finished in 2003.  In the year 2000, I had a commission from Christoph Eschenbach for the NDR (North German Radio) Orchestra.  I wrote a piece in memory of the event of the Second World War in China called The Rape of Nanking [formerly known as the Nanjing Massacre].  It’s called Nanking! Nanking!  It also has a solo in the large orchestra, and there some very dramatic elements in that piece, as well as a big contrast.  I took some of the ideas from that, and put them into Madame Mao, just a little bit at the beginning.

BD:   Is it right that we expect something Chinese, or Chinese influenced, in all of your music?

Sheng:   Sometimes, even if I’m consciously trying not to do that, it will come out anyway.  I’m speaking English, but I have a Chinese accent, and I make mistakes.  I look Chinese, and there’s nothing I can do about it, so why not let it come out naturally?  In some pieces, it is because the story, or the subject matter was Chinese, and it shown in my music.  But some pieces are not so much.  I’m writing a work now for orchestra and soprano based on a short story of Hans Christian Andersen.  It
s not a fairy-tale, but a real beautiful poetic scoring.  So that’s nothing to do with China.  It has a little bit of Asia mentioned in the story, so we’ll see what happens, whether there’s some Chinese or not.  I’m quite excited about it.  [This would be The Phoenix, written for soprano Jane Eaglen.  Recording shown at right.]

BD:   Will it be a Chinese person looking at Hans Christian Andersen, or will it be just the way you look at it, having lived in the East and West?

Sheng:   I think it will be the latter.  It will be somebody that I might be and just come out.  When I write now, I don’t think too much about whether it has Eastern or Western elements.  I just write whatever excites me.  The fusion comes well when it’s connected deeply inside, rather than on the surface.  The deeper it goes, the better the fusion.  In my case, there’s an East and a West.  The more I understand both traditions, the better it all will come out, because it’s not just understanding the tradition, but it filters through me and is melded, and becomes a new hybrid.

BD:   Then you’re not trying to make a fusion, you’re just trying to make you?

Sheng:   Yes.  I try to make whatever I like.  It’s like different kinds of food.  You might like French food, or Chinese food, or German food, or Italian food.  It doesn’t matter what.  When you go to these different restaurants, as long as it’s good when you eat it, you don’t really think about it.  You don’t try to analyze it, or think that way.  You enjoy it when it tastes really good.  So, when I compose music I just have a good time.  I choose to write down the ideas and the thoughts that I feel are the best.

BD:   [Continuing the allusion]  Does your music taste good to the ear?

Sheng:   [Laughs]  That’s not for me to say.  I choose the best, and I try to do the best I can.

BD:   How do you choose?  You’re offered a lot of ideas and a lot of projects.  How do you decide if you will accept this, or turn that one down?

Sheng:   There are projects that really excite me, and that I would jump into.  Some are projects that I have always wanted to do but never got a chance.  Then I would jump in.  But it’s a selection of projects, and I write whatever I have some ideas about.

BD:   What about when you are choosing specific ideas for individual sections of each piece?

Sheng:   About certain passages, I always think about whether I can do better.  Can I have a better idea?  If it’s just sort of okay, I think up something that comes out even better.

BD:   Do you continue to mold it even through the rehearsal process?

Sheng:   Oh, constantly.  But after three or four sets of performances, it’s pretty much set.  If you fuss with it too much, it’s not good.  I would rather write a new piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Sheng:   Do you mean the purpose of writing music?

BD:   No, the purpose of music itself.

Sheng:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  Music reaches a sense in humans that no other form can reach.  It is a very special thing, and it’s an enjoyment and sensibility which you can’t really describe with words.  If you describe music by words, it could help the listener to have some kind of imagination.  Maybe sometimes it could even help the composer to start a piece.  But mostly, music is music.  If we talk about pure concert music, everybody’s imagination is very different when they listen to the same piece of music.  I get excited when I listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, and you get excited too, but it might not be for the same reason.  We might not be thinking of the same images in our heads when we listen to it.  That’s what it is.  If the composer, as a musician
or if I, in my own workcould make one listener happy, or touch one person after they listened to a piece, that’s pretty good.


BD:   I assume, though, you want to touch as many people as you can.

Sheng:   Yes, of course, but it’s not something that you want to aim for.  Just because we want to reach everybody doesn’t mean we should provide them with only with what they like.  You have to build on their music appreciation level, and then keep educating them by bringing something new.  If you only give them something they like, then you might be selling out a little bit.  On the other hand, if you give them something they don’t understand, or that they cannot fathom, that might go too far.  It’s a delicate balance.  You have to start by knowing who you’re talking to.  It’s like teaching.  I teach at the university, so when you walk into a class, the first thing you want to find is the students’ level.  Where are they?  What have they learned?  What classes have they taken?  That’s how I build up their knowledge and experience, and writing each piece is a little bit like that.

BD:   Do you have any specific audience in mind while you’re writing, or do you decide to just meet them once you have the piece written?

Sheng:   No, I have an audience in my mind.  Mostly, the first audience is me, and as an audience member I always imagine myself sitting in the audience listening to this piece.  I will ask myself if I would like it.  If I hear this for the first time, would I get excited?  Would the music really attract me, or make me want to stay, and not think that I’ve got to go?  It’s a lot to consider, and I tell this to my students.  Nowadays everybody is so busy.  Time is so short, and if I write a piece which takes twenty minutes, you are asking for their sole attention for that twenty minutes.  That’s a lot.  Not only that, they have to dress up, and pay for the ticket, and come in and sit in a rather uncomfortable chair.  You are going to offer something , and ask them to pay complete attention for twenty minutes, and that’s a lot!  So, you had better try to do something, after which they will feel it was really worth it.  [Both laugh]

BD:   When you get these commissions, and you know they’re due at certain dates, are there ever times when you don’t have the material ready, or you don’t have the thoughts and the creations?

Sheng:   [Laughs]  That happens all the time!

BD:   Then how do you get yourself going?

Sheng:   Sometimes, even if you have an idea, you still need the time to write it out.  For example, I had the thought of Madame Mao for ten years before I started writing.  I thought through a lot of problems about what the music should be, and what the drama should be.  Then, when I was actually writing, I never got stuck.  Of course, it was on and off for a long time, and sometimes I had to do other things, but whenever I had the hours and days that I was writing the piece, it just flowed out.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often.  It would be nice if it did, and maybe because I’m getting older I get stuck less.  You have to really think about the processes and ideas constantly, and solve most of the problems before you sit down at the piano to write.
BD:   When it’s mostly gelled in your head, are you doing more than just transcribing?
Sheng:   You find the right way to notate it.  I feel the piece first.  Whatever I’m writing, I will hear it, and I will try to hear it as much as possible, and as complete as possible.  Then, I will sit there and try to find the means to put it onto the paper.  That’s where craftsmanship or technique comes in.  You find the means to present your thoughts as accurately as possible.  You are not always successful.  Sometimes you just can’t think of the right way, or sometimes you find the wrong way, but you do your best.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   A number of your pieces have been recorded.  Are you pleased with those recordings, because they have a greater universality than a single performance?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with John Corigliano, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Joan Tower.]

Sheng:   Yes.  The recordings are good, but it goes back to your first question about fifty percent of the piece being on paper, and the other fifty percent being realized by the performers.  So, you’ve got to give them some room.  I try to be there for most of the first recordings so I can make comments.  But the composer’s interpretation is not necessarily the only one.  A good piece should be able to survive through more than one interpretation, and sometimes I do learn from players.  They may suggest to take a ritard, and they take a little time here and there, and it sounds terrific.  Later I may imitate that idea when it’s done again.  Composers know if the piece is a good piece, and the composer has a feeling about the piece, and knows how it should go.  But there must be a good interpretation, and I cannot believe that mine is the only one.

BD:   Do you look for first-rate performers?

Sheng:   Yes, the same way Beethoven did.  If he were alive now, he probably would say that his own way might not be the only one.  Stravinsky is another matter.  We have lots of his own recordings, and you may or may not like them, but his way is very sound.  It’s a good way.  He might not keep the right tempo that he wrote, but the character is always right, and it’s got the energy to put the ideas over.  But other people have done Stravinsky just as good as he did.

BD:   Does that gives you the courage to take his music and play with it a little bit, just as he played with it differently from the score?

Sheng:   Yes.

BD:   Do you want your music to be played differently from the score?

Sheng:   I don’t mind, if it’s reasonable, and if it works.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  Then how far is too far?

Sheng:   That depends on the situation.  Everything is about a structure.  If you make the structure sound, and then you do change the tempo, or do a rubato here and there, if it doesn’t break the flow that’s fine.

BD:   You’ve brought so much which is Chinese in you to us.  Is your music also going back to China?  Are you giving your music back to the Chinese people?

Sheng:   Yes, they do play it, but China doesn’t have the kind of quality of the Chicago Symphony.  Classical music is still a very young artform there, especially in terms of performances.

BD:   But does your music resonate with them differently than, say, a Beethoven symphony?

Sheng:   I would think so, and I would certainly hope so.  When I first conducted the National Symphony of China, it was a whole concert of my music, and it was surprising how much they liked it.  They didn’t know anything about it.  Some people came out of curiosity, some didn’t know what was going on, and some just came because they liked to hear the Symphony.  They just showed up and heard this new music.  They didn’t realize there was new music they could actually like and be touched by, and they really liked it.  After the first piece I played, the applause was very tentative and polite.  I wondered what was going on.  Didn’t they like this piece?  It was a terrific performance, and when that piece was played everywhere else, there was always a very good report.  So I thought maybe they don’t like it.  Then, when the second piece was played, they got a little warmer, and at the end they really were quite warm.  I didn’t understand this, but afterwards a critic came backstage, and told me that people there don’t do that.  They didn’t realize they’re not supposed to do that.  But there they came, and he said he liked it all very much.  I asked him why they didn’t like the first piece, and he said they didn’t know how to respond.  They really liked it, but they didn’t know it was new music.  By the second piece, they loosened up a little bit, and by the end, they don’t care any more.  They just responded.  So that was a nice feeling.


BD:   For your next concert, they would already know you a little bit, and know how to respond?

Sheng:   There’s a very small audience for classical music.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the audience getting bigger?

Sheng:   Eventually, yes.  The government has to pay more attention to the creative arts, and to build up orchestras.  Eventually it will happen.  Look at Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and Singapore, and Malaysia.  The governments made a decision to promote classical music, and they have good orchestras.  In China, they have few orchestras, and they are half-decent.  It’s getting there gradually, but for such a big country like China, they should have many great orchestras.

BD:   Exactly, and you’re a good advocate for it.

Sheng:   Well, I try!

BD:   When you have your music done in China, do you use your English name or your Chinese name?

Sheng:   They know me by my Chinese name.

BD:   I hope you have a great success with the new opera.  I assume that after this one, there will be more instrumental pieces and chamber works?

Sheng:   Yes.  [Laughs]  I’m not going to write another opera for a while.  I will wait and see what happens with this one, and hope other people will perform it.  I like to have a few pieces being played a lot, rather than a lot of pieces which nobody plays.

BD:   Have there been further performances of the opera you wrote for Chicago?

Sheng:   That was The Song of Majnun.  It was done in a concert performance by the San Francisco Symphony, and then the Houston Opera performed it and recorded it.  The Aspen Festival also performed it, so it has had a few pretty good performances.  For a first opera, I was thrilled.


BD:   Madame Mao is number two?

Sheng:   Actually, it
s the third!  The second one is called The Silver River, which is a chamber opera.  By then I had a lot more knowledge of writing for the theater, so it’s very effective.  It’s based on the Chinese legend, and has a mixture of different theater works in it.  There’s Chinese opera, and drama, and it has an actor.  There have been a lot of performances, and it was done at the Lincoln Center Festival last summer.

BD:   Are you able to keep track of all the performances of various pieces, or do you just get a report every few months, saying this was done and that was done?

Sheng:   Sometimes you get surprises.  People play your music and you don’t even know about it.

BD:   Are you glad about that?

Sheng:   I’m thrilled more than glad.  It’s just always nice, especially when they send you a tape.  Then you hear it, and if it’s a terrific performance you think,
Wow, that’s really nice!  There’s hope that in a hundred years from now, maybe somebody will play it again.

BD:   When you hear a tape, do you then get back to the performers and let them know that you enjoyed their performance?

Sheng:   Yes, I normally do that.  Even if the performance was not that good, I would be grateful.  There’s a story about Puccini which Toscanini told.  One day, the two of them were in the countryside in Italy, and he saw in the newspaper that some local little opera house was going to present La Bohème.  They bought tickets without telling them who they were.  When they showed up, according to Toscanini the orchestra was terrible, the set was terrible, the singers were terrible, everything was terrible.  The singer was screaming, and nothing was good.  He turned and looked at Puccini, who was sobbing and crying.  He felt so bad about this that he put his arm around Puccini.  He said,
“Maestro, are you okay? and Puccini said, Che bella musica!  [Such beautiful music!]  So, he was grateful even though the performers were terrible.

BD:   I hope that most of your performances are not terrible!

Sheng:   [Laughs]  We always hope that.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

Sheng:   Thank you.

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© 1990 & 2003 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on December 1, 1990, and June 7, 2003.  Portions of the first one were broadcast on WNIB six weeks later, and again in 1995 and 2000.  Copies of the un-edited audio of both have been placed in the Oral History of American Music at Yale University.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.