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Composer Portraits: Lei Liang

Born in 1972, Lei Liang came to the United States in 1990 to study composition at the New England Conservatory, and from there went on to complete the doctoral program at Harvard. On the faculty at University of California, San Diego since 2009, he has also taught at other major institutions, in this country and in China. From his long presence here, since he was 17, he is thoroughly at home in western culture, but he has at the same time engaged in research into Chinese and Mongolian musical traditions. The creative result is often music that does not sound specifically Chinese – or specifically western – at all, but sensitively combines ways of thinking that come from one sphere or the other. He breathes, so to say, from both his lungs.

Milestones in his already considerable output include Verge for eighteen strings (2009), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic; Xiaoxiang (2009, revised 2014), a saxophone concerto that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year; and the Lakescape series (2012-), whose latest installment has its premiere tonight. Besides being a remarkable and productive composer, he also writes cogently and directly about his ideas. From here, therefore, the platform is his. 

Introduction by Paul Griffiths


Experiences and Concepts

1993: While in college in Boston, I became very close to the Beijing Opera master Ni Qiu-ping (1905-1995), who taught me a phrase that summarized the aesthetic ideal of Chinese opera: “No sound is not sung, no movement is not danced.” All sound has the potential to be musically expressive.

1996: The renowned Mongolian scholar Mr. Wulalji took me to Nei Mongol. A throat singer visited us and we sat around a table. Without any preparation, they started singing two long chants – two different melodies, along with a drone, that together intertwined beautifully. It was a magical moment, and made me wonder, up to the present day: Is it possible to create a polyphony that evolves organically from the materials and principles of this music?

1997: I studied the guqin (an ancient seven-stringed zither) with Rulan Chao Pian, who once interrupted me when I was practicing to say: “The color is inaccurate.” This seemingly minute detail touches on a principal aspect of traditional Chinese guqin music: the melodies are composed not only of pitches but also of colors. Later on, I developed a technique of “one-note polyphony” to systematically explore this subtle idea.

1999: Having been interested in Mahayana Buddhism for a number of years, I went to a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York to study meditation. One evening, while walking alone by the side of the lake, I caught the sight of a “V” shape floating and extending on the surface of the water. It was a beaver taking a swim under the moon. This image gave me insight into my relationship with silence: underneath the music I write is a profoundly deep silence upon which I seek to inscribe my signature through sound.

2001: When I first encountered the music of the Mongolian fiddle player Serashi (1887-1968), it was a deeply moving experience. He plays well-known melodies, yet without sweetening the tunes; instead, he finds the “truth” of each note and brings out the vitality, the vastness of space, and the profound loneliness it contains. As he said, “You must put the entire weight of your whole life into every single note you play.” I regard him as my ideal teacher and audience. I devoted four years to rediscovering and producing a recording of his performances, and I have dedicated pieces to him.

I discovered my own compositional voice in a work for a solo instrument (Garden Eight, 1996). Since then, my thoughts have followed a single trajectory in parallel ways, based on my belief that composing is a way to free oneself from the artificial confines of cultural identity, a means to challenge perceived borders and convenient labels. To this end, I developed a few core concepts, each building on the richness of resources that cross historical, cultural, technological, and disciplinary boundaries. Some examples:

One-Note Polyphony: Each note is conceived as a kernel, or container, of various musical dimensions. My interest lies in the potential for perceptible timbral transformation through instrumental re-synthesis.

Shadows: I am fascinated by the dialectical relationship between musical voices found in the traditional heterophonic music of Mongolia and Japan, where functions of principal line and accompaniment can be exchanged, and often not synchronously. Lines can move not only in unison, but also individually like rivers with diverging currents in an ocean. I call the secondary line, with ever-changing functions, the “shadow,” and I apply this idea to other parameters, creating “melodic shadows,” “harmonic shadows,” “timbral shadows,” and “rhythmic shadows.”

Breathing: Melodic flows might seem free and unpredictable, yet they must also appear urgent and inevitable. In this respect, they closely resemble the subtle processes of breathing. Breathing, as a psychophysical experience, may be described as the constant expansion and contraction of time, or as a sensation of pre-industrial time, even “timeless time.” It is an experience we rarely pay attention to, yet a short moment without it can easily put us at the verge of death. Can a piece breathe slowly and deeply, like an old tree in the winter? Can music capture this urgency in time? Can such subtle processes be quantified in the finest detail?

Transformation: A sound is a living entity, its latent dynamism and hidden forces mirror an individual’s adaptation in a complex and ever-changing world. How can music expose and explore the phenomena of gradual and radical transformation? How can it celebrate the essence of existence – the driving energies and the vitality of change? How can it reflect the diversity and depth of human experience?

Ascension for brass quintet and percussion (2008)
In this work, which lasts about eleven minutes, I try to enact two imaginary rituals that are opposite in nature. One is peaceful and contemplative, like a sacred prayer. It builds on harmonies that ascend gradually in quarter-tone steps; hence the title. This central section is framed by a different kind of ritual that is full of wild energy and exuberance.

Serashi Fragments for string quartet (2005)
Playing for seven minutes, Serashi Fragments is a tribute to Serashi (1887-1968), the Mongolian player of the chaorer (an ancient two-string fiddle). It is not in any sense an imitation of his performance style or the music of Mongolia, although an allusion appears briefly in the middle of the piece. The notes sol–la–si (G–A–B) appear in various forms as musical inscriptions of the artist’s name.

Lakescape V for baritone, trumpet, trombone, and bass clarinet (2016)
Out of the experience mentioned above, of seeing a beaver swimming on a lake under the moon, came a series of works, the first for soprano, piano and percussion (2012), the second for three percussionists (2013), the third for one or two violins or violas (2014), the fourth for an ensemble of Chinese instruments (2014). In Lakescape V, the tranquility in the earlier pieces is disturbed by showers of “phonetic particles” taken from two poems by Wai-lim Yip (in both English and Chinese; the English texts are printed below) as the piece traverses different states of mind. The work was commissioned by Miller Theatre, and is dedicated to loadbang. It has a duration of eleven minutes.

a shaft of sunlight
cuts the room
in halves
giving darkness
a body
and prepares a stage
for a bottle
and two bowls
to assume
their graceful
                        out of darkness
                        we fly

Luminous, a chamber concerto for contrabass (2014)
Luminous was inspired by Mark Dresser’s uniquely powerful musical expressions and innovative techniques created for the contrabass. The instrument’s rich spectra embody “voices” that encompass extreme opposites – lightness and darkness, angels and ghosts, paradise and inferno – unified by a singular vibrating body.

The composition explores these voices in a few large sections, starting with bowing on one string that produces multiphonics, double-stop bowing, and pizzicati. It concludes with the threading technique invented by Mark Dresser that allows the performer to bow multiple strings simultaneously. The last section is subtitled “The Answer Questioned” as a homage to Charles Ives and György Kurtág. Altogether, the piece plays for about twenty minutes.

Program Notes by Lei Liang