Cross-cultural characters

Special to The Times

The Chinese, who put great faith in almanacs and geomancers, often credit good fortune to the elements being in alignment. That belief may be hard to reconcile with our more rational times, but as a metaphor it helps explain a certain generation of Chinese-born composers living in America.

One would be hard-pressed to name a more resourceful, or diverse, group of composers today than Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi and Zhou Long -- a musical Gang of Four who grew up during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and were among the first class admitted when China’s conservatories reopened in 1978. By any measure of success -- commissions, performances, recordings and honors, or the sheer ability to provoke response, both positive and negative -- these composers have long been a force to be reckoned with.

The Orange County-based Pacific Symphony, in fact, plans to do considerable reckoning over the next month in its annual American Composers Festival, this year titled “Tradewinds From China.” Presenting seminal works as well as world premieres, the festival will be one of cultural immersion, with educational events putting orchestral and chamber works in relief against the other arts and against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution.

“There’s no question in my mind that the music we’ll be hearing is better heard and more intensely understood and experienced in the context of a festival,” says Pacific Symphony artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz. “You’ll have no trouble hearing this music as Chinese. But if you were to ask how it’s Chinese, that’s a more difficult question.”


The answer begins with the tumultuous times that these four composers -- as well as Shanghai-born Joan Huang, whose “Four Madrigals of Li Bai” will premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center next Sunday -- have in common. All were urban children born to “bad” families (who had either land or advanced educations) and, as a result, were relocated to remote parts of China during the peak of Communist reforms in the Cultural Revolution. If any good can be said to have come from that decade of state-sponsored madness, it was that members of a privileged generation gained a much more far-reaching sense of their own culture than they had before.

Tan recounts his days planting rice in the fields and nights conducting farmers in a makeshift orchestra of bamboo sticks and cooking pots. Sheng was shipped to Qinghai, near Tibet, as the pianist for a provincial song and dance troupe and spent his off hours collecting and transcribing local folk songs. Zhou and Chen were sent to a state-run farm and a labor camp, respectively, where life among the peasants in rural surroundings made profound impressions on them.

“I used my spare time to play violin for the farmers and soldiers in the country,” recalls Chen, who had been trained in Western repertory since age 4. “Only revolutionary songs were allowed, but I would play them with double stops and fast passages, like Paganini.” That was, she says, a big creative release at the time, but it was also a germinal moment for her future as a composer.

Columbia opens its doors

Experiences like that helped shape the careers of all four composers, but they reveal only half the story. An equally crucial chapter in the composers’ lives opened with their arrival in the U.S. Through the help of another composer, Chou Wen-Chung, then head of Columbia University’s graduate music program, the most promising composition students in China -- including Tan, Chen and Zhou from Beijing’s Central Conservatory -- were recruited to pursue their studies at Columbia. Sheng, a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory, had come to the States two years earlier with his family and later transferred to Columbia from Queens College. (Huang, also a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory, came to UCLA.)

Once they were in America, the distance from their homeland gave them the benefit of perspective. Just as James Joyce was never more Irish than after he left Dublin, the Chinese composers who had struggled so hard to learn Western ways now felt drawn once again to their roots. Chinese composers who settled elsewhere, such as Chen Qigang in France and Chen Xiaoyong in Germany, also gained perspective, but those in America were best positioned to take advantage of it. The Cold War between composers and audiences, as crystallized in composer Milton Babbitt’s essay title “Who Cares If You Listen?,” was already starting to thaw; technique was becoming less important than emotional communication; and not since the Soviet Union in its prime had a group of composers had so much to say.

From this point, the composers’ stories diverge rather sharply. Tan, whose reputation for bucking convention back in Beijing had already gotten his music branded “spiritual pollution” in the 1980s, soon immersed himself in New York’s Downtown school. “John Cage made a big impression,” he says. “When I first heard him playing with water, making noise on homemade instruments, I thought, ‘This was what I used to do in the countryside.’ ”

Sheng, for his part, took a more establishment route, acquiring mentors in a number of composers and conductors, notably Leonard Bernstein, whose informal tutorials he credits with helping him find his own compositional voice. “Mr. Bernstein refused to have anything to do with the academy,” he recalls. “I remember showing him a work I was proud of -- my first New York professional premiere -- and he asked me: ‘For whom did you write this? Yourself? The conductor? Your colleagues?’ And I couldn’t answer. I really didn’t know. Now, of course, the question is silly, but in the 1980s it wasn’t so easy to admit that you write for an audience.”


A couple of breakthroughs

In 1988, Sheng unquestionably found his audience with “H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76,” a poignant, bracing response to the Cultural Revolution that put not only him but his entire generation of Chinese-born composers on the map. Tan burst out of the experimental fringe into the mainstream in 1995 with “Ghost Opera,” a masterful mix of Western avant-garde and rural Chinese folk elements for string quartet and the four-stringed lute the pipa that brought to mind the shamanistic flavor of George Crumb. Sheng’s “H’un” and Tan’s Pipa Concerto (a later orchestral expansion of “Ghost Opera”) are on the Pacific Symphony’s program Monday night.

Falling somewhere between the extremes of Tan and Sheng, the profiles of husband and wife Zhou and Chen have risen steadily, if not as dramatically. Of the two, Chen is the more vibrant, often summoning up the vital essence of folk music in her works. Zhou’s music, by contrast, is subtle and considered, frequently inspired by literary sources. The Pacific Symphony’s program on March 10 and 11 will offer a good contrast of the two, with world premieres of Chen’s “Ballad, Dance and Fantasy” for cello and orchestra, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, and Zhou’s “Two Poems From Tang.”

“I’ve always thought Zhou Long was the most individual of all the Chinese composers,” says Lan Shui, music director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, who attended the Beijing conservatory at the same time as Zhou and has since commissioned and recorded orchestral works by both him and Chen. “Zhou is extremely poetic and reflective. Sometimes the orchestra has difficulty getting it. But if I say ‘Debussy,’ they know what to do. Not that it sounds like Debussy, but there’s a certain space and color and, although it’s purely orchestral, it’s like Wagner in the sense that it becomes a complete art form.”


“Many of these works will sound ‘Chinese’ to American ears,” says artistic advisor Horowitz, “but a Chinese audience will find them equally foreign.”

That’s partly because these Chinese have also become very different from their colleagues who either returned home or never left in the first place. It’s not merely their folk-based modernism that sets them apart -- Bartok’s music, after all, is available today to anyone with a Walkman -- but the ends to which they put it. Tan’s love of multimedia and his eagerness to use his own tradition to reach out to others reveal a multicultural perspective entirely at odds with life in China, where modernism is generally used for distinctly nationalistic purposes. Pieces like Sheng’s “H’un” and Chen’s “Ning,” a chamber piece inspired by the Japanese massacre of tens of thousands of Chinese in Nanjing in 1937 (it will be performed next Sunday), stand out as particularly Western memorials for a culture where short memories and hidden emotions have long been the best way to ensure survival. Sheng’s largest work is the indisputably Western opera “Madame Mao” -- with a controversial subject he would never have dared to touch in China and a title that even now would be anathema in the Chinese media.

For all their stylistic differences and well-known competitive instincts, these composers see many things eye to eye, particularly when it comes to their art as an expression of identity. “Chinese is my mother tongue, but English is my father tongue,” says Sheng, who like Tan uses English texts almost exclusively.

“In my music, there is Chinese blood and Chinese culture,” Chen concurs. “But I live in America and have studied Western music for so long that it has also become a big part of me.”


Like all new Americans, in other words, these music-makers had to form their own bridges between traditions. But fortunately, they’ve left all of us a soundtrack of the experience.


A CD selection

The following are notable recordings of music by Chinese-born composers now working in the U.S.


Chen Yi

“Sparkle” (CRI eXchange)

This aptly named chamber collection variously blends Western sonorities into Chinese forms and Chinese instruments within Western structure, all held together with irrepressible wit.

“Momentum” (BIS)


A trained violinist, Chen knows the orchestra from the inside out, and her deftness with folk materials similarly reflects her knowledge of China.

Bright Sheng

“H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76" (New World)

Sheng’s musical response to the Cultural Revolution hit audiences with a sociopolitical force rarely heard since Stalinist Russia, heralding the new Chinese generation.


Four Movements; String Quartet No. 3; Three Songs; String Quartet No. 4; “Silent Temple” (BIS)

Sheng fully justifies his label as the “Chinese Bartok” in these superb performances by the Shanghai Quartet, which illuminate the folk roots inherent within the modernist bombast.

“China Dreams”; “Nanking! Nanking!”; etc. (Naxos)

This superb midcareer retrospective by the Hong Kong Philharmonic balances Sheng’s old intensity with his more recent lyrical phase.


Tan Dun

“Ghost Opera” (Nonesuch)

Tan’s breakthrough piece, a masterful mix of Western avant-garde and Chinese ritual culture, takes the listener on a tour of his lifelong musical influences.

“Out of Peking Opera” (Ondine)


A corrective to the composer’s over-inflated works on Sony, this expands the structures and sonorities of the orchestra without sounding exaggerated.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Sony Classical)

Tan’s Oscar-winning soundtrack shows just how effective film music can be when atmosphere and structure remain in balance.

Zhou Long


“The Flowing Stream” (Delos)

A mixture of folk song arrangements and original compositions, this string quartet collection reveals cultural synthesis and musical refinement.


Festival in Orange County


“Tradewinds From China” is the fourth installment of the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival, which has previously been devoted to Copland, Dvorak and William Bolcom. It will comprise 14 events, including concerts, symposiums and demonstrations.

This year’s first concert, “Diary of a Revolution,” will take place Monday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and will feature Bright Sheng’s “H’un” as well as works by Tan Dun and Wu Zuquiang.

Another concert, “Tales From the Cave” -- next Sunday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center -- will include folk songs arranged by Chen Yi along with chamber works by Sheng, Chen and Zhou Long.

The main orchestral program, “The Great Yo-Yo Ma and Friends,” will be presented March 10 and 11 in Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall and will offer the premieres of two commissioned compositions: a cello concert by Chen featuring Ma and a new version of Long’s “Poems From Tang,” with solo parts for pipa, erhu, violin and cello.


Tickets for the concerts Monday and next Sunday are $40 and $30 and are also available as a two-concert package for $49 and $39. Tickets for the March 10 and 11 concerts start at $25.

For more information, call (714) 755-5799 or consult the orchestra’s website,

Smith is the New York correspondent for Britain’s Gramophone magazine and the Financial Times’ performing arts critic in Asia.