Tremors of a Memory Chord & More Music, Secrets, Stories
Dear Lei Liang,
A Child Prodigy who not only kept up the tempo, but intensified it through the years with a long list of achievements, acknowledgement, prizes, awards, and even a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music. What is your secret? Thank you! Your question reminds me of an episode in Kung Fu Panda, which is my six-year-old son’s favorite movie. In the episode, the hero’s father, a goose, revealed to the panda that the secret to his “secret ingredient noodle soup” is nothing.
I hope you won’t be disappointed that I haven’t figured out the secret yet. But there is a simple routine I follow: get up early every morning, trying not to wake up anyone and begin composing. I treat every note as if it is the last note I will ever write. I leave my work behind when I step out of the office so my family doesn't have to bear the anxiety with me – that’s probably the hardest part!
What is the path that brought you to the final round of the Pulitzer Prize in addition to other high level achievements and well deserved recognition?
It wasn’t all that smooth. When I first started my studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, I survived on only one dollar a day for food, and often I could afford just one meal a day. People can hardly believe it, but it’s true, because I know it too well.
For awhile, I waited tables in a restaurant with illegal immigrants from China. Since I couldn't afford the required black shoes, I wore an old pair someone gave me that didn’t fit. And I returned home with blood on my feet every night.
There were a couple times I almost quit my musical career. But my teacher and mentor Robert Cogan changed my mind. Every time I think about this, I still feel incredibly grateful to him.
All of these difficult experiences affected me in a profound and positive way. For example, my work with illegal Chinese immigrants became an inspiration for my recent participation in the chamber opera Cuatro Corridos commissioned by soprano Susan Narucki. The work deals with human trafficking. I was especially passionate and emotional about writing this piece because of my earlier personal contacts with illegal immigrants.
In 1989, you made it to the exclusive ten member list of “Person of the Year” by the Beijing Qingnianbao—Beijing Youth Daily. In 1990, you leave your family in China to become a high school student in the US going on to earn your Bachelor and Master degrees from the New England Conservatory and PhD from Harvard. What was that like?
I was and still am always “hungry” – terribly hungry for new music, for old music, for books, for recordings, for knowledge, for experiments.
When I studied in China in the 80s, there was no open-shelve library. To borrow a book in China, at that time, was always a hassle. The available books were usually not good.
Can you imagine how excited and inspired I was when I first came to America, and roamed in the open-shelve library at UT Austin? I can still feel the excitement. That deep sense of “hunger” or “poverty” never left me, and it still drives me everyday.
The list of your composition teachers reads like a who's who list of the most renowned contemporary composers. What is the best advice you have received from your favorite teachers?
I had the fortune to study with many inspiring composers.
My first important teacher was Robert Cogan. I studied with him for about six years at the New England Conservatory. I still regard him as an important mentor. He told me when I first started taking lessons from him, “a composer should grow like a tree.” I was very moved by this image. It made me realize that there is no shortcut to becoming a composer. In fact, one should avoid shortcuts in order to have deep roots and develop one’s music in a substantial and resourceful way.
I also loved my first lesson with Chaya Czernowin who asked me a very important question, “Why are you so obsessed with beauty?” She made me become more mindful of my motivations, and learn to challenge my own habits and assumptions.
Perhaps inspired by Chaya Czernowin’s way of thinking, I always strive to be my best enemy, making as many productive obstacles as possible for myself!
Your scholarly work focuses on extensive research with the aim of preserving the traditional Asian music. A few words to capture the essence of traditional Asian music?
I love Mongolian music, and the music of Ch’in or guqin. These styles of music are created in a different time and space. But they are perhaps the closest comparison to how we breathe.
It’s easy for us to forget how beautiful, how subtle, how urgent, and how musical a simple breath can be. Listening to this music will bring back that awareness.
Are there any other Chinese American artists with whom you keep in touch or whose work you appreciate even if you do not know them personally?
I love the works of Sarah Sze and Xu Bing. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting these wonderful artists personally. But I follow their works closely and have experienced them in different spaces. I greatly admire them.
What are some upcoming projects you're looking forward to in the next few months? Any long term goals?
I am working on a set of electronic compositions that are used to annotate the magical landscapes of Huang Binhong, one of my favorite painters. My music reflects a journey through his ink paintings.
I am also working on an orchestra piece inspired by the idea of “landscape.” I want to use this orchestra work to develop techniques borrowed from ink paintings.
There are a few chamber works in the making, and a full-length opera after that. It will take a few years to finish all of these works.