I became a musician due to a (political) coincident: the infamous Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76). In actuality, the revolution was a power struggle at the highest level within the Chinese Communist Party between Mao and his rivals—Mao was losing his grip of power and he needed to turn the country upside-down to regain the power, which he did, while turning the whole country into a turmoil for ten years.
[Makes me think of John Adams' opera Nixon In China]
One of the impetus of the Cultural Revolution was to abolish the education system. During the time, middle school was the highest education level one could receive, as high schools and universities were closed across the country. But a social problem persisted: what would you do with the millions of 15-year-olds who had no schools to go, and no jobs to work (the economy was bad)? Mao came up with a horrible solution—sending the young to the countryside, to the mountains for ‘re-education’ by the peasants. Everyone had to go and settle down at these rural places for manual labor (for the rest their lives), except if one had any talent in performing arts. This was because Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) was in charge of the propaganda sector for the party and she encouraged young to get into the ‘Mao Thought’ indoctrination.
Thanks to my parents’ insistence of my piano lessons before the revolution, now that little skill allowed me to avoid manual labor and become a ‘professional’ musician in eastern Tibet, a Province called Qinghai. So, at the age of 15 I was the best pianist in the province, though I knew had much to learn. At a remote place as such, I was allowed to do anything from piano to percussion, composition to conducting.
By the time the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was over and the universities reopened, for these young people (now in their early twenties) the only path to go back to big cities they had come from was to pass the exams and get into the universities. By then the only thing I could do was music, the mostly self-taught experience I had during my seven years in Tibet. And I received the highest score from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the oldest and finest in China.
What was the music like in Tibet? I read your thoughts about individual composers' voices, but / and are you able to trace any influences of Tibetan music in your own? How similar / different was / is Tibetan music to the music was that around where you lived until you went to Tibet?
The music over that region is very unique—a big melting pot of various folk and traditional music of northwestern China, Tibetan, Mongolia*. There is a folk music genre called Hua’er (Flowers) which is essentially love songs Qinghai is most famous for. I developed a keen love for the music, and studied and lived through the folk-music lives during much of my seven years there. The music of Qinghai remains one of my strongest inspirations of my works to this day.
At the conservatory, I was taught Chinese version of Western classical music (most of them I had to re-learn later when I moved to New York). But one valuable experience there was I systematically studied Chinese traditional music which is quite different from the music of Qinghai.
My passion for Chinese traditional and folk music expanded to pan-Asian music which later led to my fascination of the Silk Road music culture (I was the Artistic Advisor for YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Project when he first founded the organization [in 1998]).
Art can only prevail when it has the power to emotionally move the audience.
A music ensemble comprising morin khuurs aka horsehead fiddles + drum(s), performing at the Christmas fair at the English School of Mongolia, in the capital Ulaanbaatar on 26 Nov 2016. Rupert Cheeky was working there for 6 weeks between 23 Oct - 2nd Dec and filmed this 2+ min snippet.
As you could see, without the “Cultural Revolution” and Madame Mao (in 2004 I wrote an opera Madame Mao, to tell her tragic life story from a young actress to a monstress, vengeful political Vandada), I might not be in music, though I never regretted as I always loved it.
In fact, I feel very lucky that I could be a musician, not only being able to make a living but have gained a keen understanding and appreciation for this intricate art form. When I was living in Tibet, I could never have imagined that I would reach the proficiency level in music as I am now, even though I always feel of learning each day.
Being an artist, one has to be stubborn with what you believe. At times, life seems great and the world is smiling at you. But one has to be prepared for the raining day. How do you stay grounded to your mission? What is the most important thing in life? Success or happiness? Are these two related?
Music is definitely my all-time salvation. About twenty-five years ago, one summer I was misdiagnosed a fatal disease. The thought of dying in my thirties was so overwhelming that the only time I could effectively stop thinking about it was when I was composing or practicing.
I have a great fortune to study with Leonard Bernstein for five years, first as his student, then assistant. Without these experiences, I would not be nearly where I am now as a human being and as an artist. Bernstein was the most generous artist and teacher I have had. It is no accident that his music is now recognized as part of great American repertoire.
Perhaps one of the most admiring part about him as a composer was that he never bended himself to the so called ‘trend’. He held his beliefs firmly and stubbornly. Mahler used to say that if your music is still played fifty years after your death, you have made into history. Now thirty years after Bernstein’s passing, his music is proven a true winner. Was he a prophet or he just believed that art can only prevail when it has the power to emotionally move the audience? This was the most profound lesson I learned from him. I am lucky.
I feel an artist has a responsibility to the society which supports him/her. We all know that art is an important element for a great civilization; but what do you do as an artist in return? How is your work relevant to the time you live in everyday?
Even a simple event such as giving a concert to a live audience is a great responsibility. How do you make sure they (the audience) would feel your music is worth of their time and efforts (they have dressed up, bought the tickets, paid for the babysitter, parked their cars and have been sitting in these rather uncomfortable seats for a long time)? And you ask for their absolute attention for the next 15 minutes to listen to your work. How could you, if you fail them?
Years ago, when I was having my lesson with Leonard Bernstein to show him one of my recently finished works, he wrote down on the cover page of the score (which just received my first New York Times’s favorable review!): For whom it is written?
I have been contemplating this question for the last thirty-five years. Why did I write this work? What can one artist do in this (often crazy) world? Is art still relevant to people’s lives? I was often inspired by other art forms such as film, theater, or novel. When we see a movie, for example, we know from the start that this is a made-up story which has nothing to do with our lives, and the characters are hired actors. But we still emotionally go for it—laugh and cry with these characters. At the end, if we are emotionally moved by it, we say it is a great movie. But isn’t it kind of silly? Why do we so willingly allow this movie and story to take us in for an emotional ride?
But this is exactly the power of art: it has the power to take us for an emotional ride and makes us forget our existence for a few minutes. We thrive and learn, and we feel we have lived through the lives like the characters and we somehow become a better person.
Can music do that? Music is perhaps the most effective art form to touch and move emotions.
I, for one, am determined to at least try to do that in each work of mine, even I could just make the audience forget their existence for a few seconds through my work.
Of course, to achieve that, it takes experience, talent, patience and stubbornness. Nonetheless, we keep trying.
I've been interested in the cross pollination between Eastern (India, China, Japan, ...) and Western (Europe / USA) musicians, and what impact learning about / from musicians from the Other tradition had on composers' music. Could you tell us a bit about what musical styles / traditions you've learnt about, where, and who with, and what affect you think your musical education has had on your own music?
Ultimately, artists write according to their own esthetics which reflects their own cultural upbringing, education, the music they listen to, the language they speak, even the food they eat. This is not something they can artificially change even if they wanted to. Musicologists study the time a particular composer wrote a particular work, attempting to see the connection between the composer’s life at the time and the composition, which sometimes work other times fail. However, if you look at a composer’s life time oeuvre, the composer’s life experience always has everything to do the composer’s work.
But, there appears to be a lot of confusion between the so called ‘one’s own voice’ with the music styles. To me, a composer’s voice really has nothing to do with the style of his/her composition. The best example is Stravinsky who has gone through several stylistic changes in his life but, whenever you hear just a few seconds of any of his works, you would no doubt recognize it is ‘Igor’, be it in his early, middle or late periods.
So what is this ‘personal voice’? It’s the composer’s personality, the DNA which could only belong to this composer. Personality is quite different even between identical twins. When a composer can naturally express one’s personality, one’s innermost feelings, this composer is mature enough to call oneself a ‘master’ of his/her works.
Here the technique comes into play. Achieving a sophisticated technical level makes you free to express yourself. This is most obvious with performers, anyone knows. The same is with creative artists. A unique idea would not last long if you do not have the technique to articulate and convey it fully.
If one is lucky enough to achieve this perfect marriage between personally and technical perfection, it does not matter what and in which style one creates: the work would be terrific.
This pandemic has humbled just about everyone in the world (except a few US politicians?). It makes one think more deeply about the position of oneself in this world, about one’s life purpose. I am not sure if musical life will ever go back to the same as before Covid. But we must go on with our callings, and our work will be relevant to our society.
Opera is a quite different animal comparing to concert music. The structure of a concert music composition primarily relies on music/sound. But opera is a fusion of many art genres, foremost being the marriage of music and drama. In other words, the structure of music and drama should fit perfectly.
Thus an opera composer should have a deep understanding of drama. Verdi was a master of it; Puccini was, too, though a bit differently. However, opera is not a sing-through play. Also, not all great plays could be naturally adapted to opera. Hamlet is a great example; Verdi seriously looked into the possibility a few times but finally gave up, though his other operas based on Shakespeare plays were instant masterpieces.
Sometimes at my university I teach a course to prepare young composers for their operatic adventure. I usually ask the composers to first write a synopsis of their stories, usually using small forces (e.g. a string quartet) with a small cast of 2-5 singers total (Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti is a good model). We then discuss each one of them in class. By the end of the semester, most of the projects are quite excellent and could be produced effectively.