Climate-change-inspired concerto wins $100,000 award for composer Lei Liang

Composer Lei Liang, a UC San Diego professor, wins the 2020 Grawemeyer Award for music composition.


It’s been a banner week for acclaimed composer and UC San Diego music professor Lei Liang, who on Thanksgiving celebrated his 47th birthday and on Monday was named the 2020 winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

One of the highest honors in the contemporary music world, the Grawemeyers count such visionary composers as Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Györgi Ligeti and Toru Takemitsu among its previous recipients. Each honoree receives $100,000 to further their artistic quests.

Liang is receiving the Grawemeyer, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize for music, for his 15-movement concerto “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams.” It began in 2013 as an electronic music piece before being transformed into a solo piano work and, ultimately, a 30-minute orchestral opus that he likens to “painting” music “with a sonic brush.”


“A Thousand Mountains” was inspired by climate change and by Liang’s multidisciplinary work at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute as well as by a Chinese traditional landscape ink painting by Huang Binhong that was painted in 1953, after Binhong went blind.

Under the auspices of the Qualcomm Institute, Liang has collaborated with an array of top scientists, data experts, oceanographers, climate researchers, robotic engineers, cultural engineers and audio specialists.

“I’ve got a lot to be grateful for,” said Liang, who in 2018 was named the institute’s inaugural Research Artist-in-Residence, following his three-year tenure as its first Composer-in-Residence.

“I am humbled, but it also makes me think more about who I choose to be my companions and collaborators in my creative life,” said the Chinese-born American composer. “My collaborators at UCSD — including (2020 Grammy Award nominee) Susan Narucki, Steven Schick, Mark Dresser and Aleck Karis — have transformed every project I’ve worked on with them. And with them and my colleagues at the Qualcomm Institute, we can dream together. That’s the kind of company and collaborators that will keep me going. It’s a great reward for our team.”

“A Thousand Mountains” is alternately hushed and animated, contemplative and surprising, as it explores a musical and dynamic landscape that reflects the composer’s passion for new artistic vistas and his deep respect for the musical traditions that preceded him.

“Liang’s piece, which explores a huge range of emotions and ends with both hope and ambiguity, has a forceful, convincing arc and wonderful orchestral colors,” Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition Director Marc Satterwhite said in a statement issued Monday by the University of Louisville, where the Grawemeyers are headquartered.


“Like some of our other winners, he challenges people inside and outside the field of music to ponder important things, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.”

‘A generous friend and brilliant colleague’

Contrabass master Mark Dresser, for whom Liang composed the 2014 chamber concerto “Luminous,” regards working with Liang as one of his “greatest collaborative pleasures” of the past 15 years.

“Liang is such a big-hearted, generous friend and brilliant colleague,” Dresser, also a music professor at UCSD, said on Monday. “His music has such a broad musical and emotional range, both looking forward and embracing the past all at once. I am so happy for him.”

Liang’s other honors include a 2015 Koussevitzky Foundation Award, the 2011 Rome Prize, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2008 Aaron Copland Award and a 2006 George Arthur Knight Prize from Harvard. He was a 2015 Pulitzer finalist for “Xiaoxiang,” his concerto for saxophone and orchestra, for which he teamed with the musicians of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conductor Gil Rose and saxophonist Chien-Kwan Lin.

The orchestra, Rose and Lin also are featured on “A Thousand Mountains,” which received its world premiere and (so far) only performance in Boston on April 21, 2018, and was recorded a few days later for an album that was released by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s BMOP Sound record label. It was commissioned by Jebediah Foundation New Music Commissions and Robert Emery, who — Liang proudly noted — has now commissioned three works by him.


In the liner notes to the album, Liang writes: “ ‘A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams’ meditates on the loss of landscapes of cultural and spiritual dimensions. The work implies an intention to preserve and resurrect parallel landscapes — both spiritual and physical — and sustain a place where we and our children can belong.

“Using a sonic brush, I paint an inner journey: A landscape emerges out of darkness, illuminated by an artist’s inner vision; distant contours, shapes, hints of color, and emptiness. As the viewer draws closer and closer to the landscape, lines and human presence begin to emerge, sounds to resonate, until we become one with each of its brushstrokes and ink splashes, with its every breath. The mountains are breathing, singing and roaring. The landscape vibrates, pulsates and dances; it takes flight; it stirs, swells, rises, grinds, surges, stretches and blooms; trembling, jolting and collapsing, it breaks into fragments. ... Rain — drops and drops of rain — returns, to heal the landscape in ruin. A prayer, a resurrection, the rain brings life back to the landscapes, and it regains its gentle heartbeat.”

Liang was born in Tianjin, China, and grew up in Beijing, where he began composing at age 6. He was still in high school when he moved to the U.S. The composer lives in Carmel Valley with his wife, harpsichordist and fellow UCSD music faculty member Takae Ohnishi, and their 10-year-old son, Albert, who has inspired several of his father’s compositions.

Discussing “A Thousand Mountains” , Liang credited the inspiration for that “gentle heartbeat” to his son. Albert also inspired Liang’s 2009 composition, “Verge,” which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and also drew from the music of Mongolia.

“Albert was born in 2009 and I used his heartbeat, through ultrasound, for ‘Verge’s’ motif and tempo,” Liang explained. “His little heart was beating at 168 beats a minute and that was the tempo for part of the piece. And I used his name to make melodies and harmonies; I call it a little musical amulet.”

His son also proved instrumental in inspiring Liang’s more recent solo piano piece, “The Moon Is Following Us,” which was preceded by the electronic music piece “Hearing Landscapes” and followed by the orchestral work “A Thousand Mountains.” Together, they form a fascinating musical trilogy of sorts.

“‘The Moon’ was the second stage of our multiphase project that led to this orchestra piece, ‘A Thousand Mountains,’” Liang said. “When I was appointed Composer-in-Residence at Qualcomm Institute, I wanted to use the opportunity to think about important issues and experimentation, so I challenged myself to first create a set of electronic pieces called ‘Hearing Landscapes.’


“After I completed that project, I challenged myself to transform what I learned in that process for a purely acoustic instrument, the piano. I didn’t allow myself to touch the inside of the piano (for additional musical options); it was just straightforward keyboard. There was so much electronics and (use of ) computers and robotics in ‘Hearing Landscapes,’ so my thinking with ‘The Moon Is Following Us’ was: How could I go back to just acoustic piano, which is also a fantastic machine?’ I challenged myself to create a work that would reflect on that (high-tech) experience through the 88 keys of the piano.

“That provided the foundation for my orchestral composition, which allowed me to rethink the instrumentation and orchestration. I took my time. My interest has always been to reinvent the orchestra, by itself, as it is, rather than add to it. It really needed to be an orchestral piece.”

The sound of silence

For part of the all-electronic “Hearing Landscapes,” Liang and his collaborators at the Qualcomm Institute recorded the sound of quartzite plates, which are made of nonfoliated metamorphic rocks that were originally pure quartz sands.

“I found that sound to be so beautiful,” Liang said.

“We used a computer to analyze the harmonic spectrum of the sound, and a section of the music in ‘Hearing Landscapes’ is based on the harmonics of the plates. Another section makes direct reference to the landscape of the environment. These are some ways my harmonic language and my way of making music was transformed by my experiences at Qualcomm Institute.”

He chuckled.

“On the other hand,” Liang observed, “I have to remind myself that writing (orchestral) music inspired by electronics, or by paintings, shouldn’t constrain my imagination for the medium I’m working in. A painting might look very interesting, but if we just try to translate a painting to music, it might not be very interesting. The music has to live by its own imagination and sound.”


Another key element in Liang’s “A Thousand Mountains” is his recurring use of silence to create dynamic contrast and enable his listeners to pause and reflect on what they have heard and what might be coming next.

“Yes,” he said. “One use is the meditative, reflective phase, which I sometimes describe as containers. Silence sometimes can function as erasers in music and, other times, as containers. Silence can contain memory, history and lots of contemplation. And, also, I would say the piece was inspired by a Chinese landscape painting with interesting views of empty space.

“This painter, Huang Binhong, once made a comment that one has to use white — in this case, emptiness — and black, meaning brushstrokes. So in this way, the use of silence is as important as the sound. I’ve been a student of traditional Chinese painting and this is a very important aspect of these landscapes that I tried to learn. I did feel like I was painting the music when I composed this piece. At least, that was my inspiration.”

Binhong died in 1965, decades before climate change became part of our everyday vernacular. How does his painting from decades ago correspond to the dangers now posed by climate change that also inspired “A Thousand Mountains”?

“Well, Chinese traditional culture was very rich in [Binhong’s] early years,” Liang replied. “And we [China] went through transformation and a lot of challenges, and our cultural and spiritual home was being destroyed both by outside forces and by ourselves. I only need to cite the [Chinese] revolution [of 1949] to depict that kind of self-destruction. It was unprecedented in the long history of China.

“And, not long after that, [UCSD founder] Roger Revelle and his collaborators discovered the connection between human activity and global warming. We know what has happened since then, in the decades of human irresponsibility and the greater and greater threat to our planet. Because of my very loose relationship with scientists and our initial collaborations at the Qualcomm Institute, I started working on other projects dealing with the oceans, the coral reefs, the Arctic. We see this parallel, in the physical and spiritual world, simultaneously.


“That’s how I see the connections and why we must do what we are doing and join forces. I can’t tell you how proud I am, most of all, of my team members at Qualcomm Institute. If anything, this [Grawemeyer Award] is a reward — or an acknowledgment — for all these talented people sharing a mission together. It’s been transformative for many of us.”

Whatever the inspiration or tools Liang uses, creating music that both challenges and rewards his listeners is an imperative for him in all his work.

“When I was at the end of my college years at the New England Conservatory of Music, right before I went to Harvard for graduate studies, I made a dictum for myself that I compose not only for music majors but also for music lovers. That is what I wanted myself to do as a communicator,” he recalled.

“To tell a story, you have to invite people to come in and discover with you, instead of just talking to your colleagues and music experts.”

The next area performance of a work by Liang will take place March 4 at UCSD’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, where Spanish pianist Ricardo Descalzo will perform Liang’s 1996 composition, “Garden Eight.” Liang, who has been teaching at UCSD since 2007, has yet to be approached by the San Diego Symphony but would welcome such an opportunity.

“That is something I hope could happen,” said Liang, who is friends with some of the symphony’s members.


“I love the orchestra’s musicians. And their new conductor, Rafael Payare, is very exciting. San Diego is the place to be for new ideas, and I’d love to have a partnership with the symphony.”