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Touched by tragedy at Tiananmen Square - In creating his music, Lei Liang still draws on what he saw

By James Chute (test)

From the Friday, April 8, 2011 San Diego Union-Tribune (full article)

Composer Lei Liang has never forgotten the soldiers’ eyes, the blood on the street, his anguished friends.

“My school was not far from Tiananmen Square,” he said. “And I was there (protesting) every day for almost two months, my classmates and myself. It was a life-changing experience. I feel like everything I do today is motivated by that experience, by those two months.”

As it turned out, after literally wrestling with soldiers who were trying to enter the square, Liang had gone home the evening of June 3, 1989, exhausted, only a few hours before the shooting started in one of the pivotal events in modern Chinese history. To keep him from going back, his parents locked him in his room. But he returned in the morning and saw the residue of the violence.

“I saw the blood, the bullets, smoke everywhere …” recalled Liang, who was 16 at the time.

“When something you so passionately believed in is taken away overnight by violence, you start to think about what is the thing that guns cannot take away?”

Liang realized that one inviolate thing was his thoughts, and the way he extends his thoughts into the world — his music.

“Your way of thinking, your fantasies, your culture, your imagination, the things in your mind — those things cannot be taken away by violence,” Liang said. “So the best way to defeat violence is to cultivate that world, is to make that world so independent, so free, that it has the power to counter (violence). And that’s how I started on my path.”

That path soon took him from Beijing to Austin to Boston, and in 2007, to La Jolla, where Liang teaches composition in the University of California San Diego’s music department. A new compilation CD of his music on New World Records, “Milou,” was released last week, and his ever-growing stature as a composer is reflected by the dozens of ensembles that have performed his work, from the New York Philharmonic to the Shanghai Quartet.

“I’ve been greatly enriched by the UCSD environment,” said Liang. “I’ve felt like this is a place where I’m developing a lot and able to maintain my independence.”

Independence continues to be one of Liang’s core concerns, reflected in his extraordinary (or as The Washington Post put it, “far, far out of the ordinary”) music that in its inventiveness and originality confounds categorization.

“It’s true; I’m not a poster child for anything, for any type of music,” Liang said. “I love to learn from different things, so I have a lot of admiration for all kinds of music, all different kinds of orientations.” But Liang said his “motto” has been to say no to overt, readily identifiable influences in his music.

His music is most often located in the context of other contemporary Chinese composers (including Chen Yi, Bright Sheng and Tan Dun), but his music doesn’t sound Chinese. And it doesn’t necessarily sound Western either.

“I don’t even see myself only as an experimental composer, or a new music composer,” he said. “I’m just writing music. Because all these labels are kind of badges of laziness, at least for me.”
Playing with sounds

Liang, whose parents were musicologists, started piano lessons when he was 4; by the time he was 6, he was already composing, in part as a way to avoid practicing.

“My parents knew I was very bored by practicing,” he said. “But if I was making sound, it was OK. So I started making up pieces that sounded like the pieces I was supposed to practice. I didn’t know I was composing. It was like a playground where I could play with sounds.”

At one of his recitals, his pieces (which are still played in China) caught the attention of Rose Garrott, an American teaching English in Beijing. With her help, and assistance of family members already in the U.S. (greatuncle and greataunt David and Lillian Wong), Liang left China in 1990 to finish high school in Austin, Texas (where Garrott was doing graduate work).

“The first thing I did as soon as I left China and arrived in America was go to the library (at the University of Texas Austin),” Liang said. “I wanted to check as much as I could about what was not taught by the government. There’s the mainland China version of its history; I wanted to find out what the Taiwanese had to say, what the Tibetans had to say. And then I realized there was a lot more they didn’t teach me.”

As his education progressed, first at the New England Conservatory of Music and then at Harvard, he continued to explore the library, studying Chinese music, art, literature and philosophy, even hand-copying certain manuscripts.

“You can be born Chinese, but it doesn’t mean real membership in that cultural community,” he said. “I was born in a cultural and spiritual ‘ground zero’ (during the Cultural Revolution) after the worst political, social and cultural self-destruction in China’s long history. I grew up uprooted; I want to be re-rooted.”

At the same time, he distinguished himself as a composition student, examining, incorporating, and then often rejecting every new — and some old — musical trend and technique until he found his own voice.

“I was very inspired by a lot of new music I was hearing, but for me, something I still find very attractive is human warmth,” he said. “And I don’t encounter that very often in new music. I identify with (16th-century composer) Monteverdi’s idea about music: It’s the full expression of human passions.”

But it may be passion in its most subtle, refined form. In Kyoto, Japan, where he and his wife (Japanese harpsichordist Takae Ohnishi) occasionally visit, there’s a shop where all the items are made of bamboo, each crafted with uncommon care and attention.

“I’m holding this little cup made of bamboo, and it’s moving in my fingers a little bit because its so fragile,” he said. “And I can just really feel the person who made this. I’m almost holding their hand. It’s that kind of quality that I’m most vulnerable to.”

Listen carefully, and you can feel Liang in his music.

“I’m looking for music that seems to unfold memories in time, in the shadows, sort of like the moss on the ground of the temples in Kyoto,” he said. “That is the art of time. For me that is very, very important — to feel the thickness of time, to feel history is alive, it’s breathing underneath.”

Liang continues to study Chinese, and especially Mongolian, music, and write pieces that reflect those interests. But given his history, it’s inevitable that he also continues to write music that addresses what he saw and felt in China, where his parents continue to live and he occasionally visits.

“I’m still driven by that because I think it is even more pertinent today in China,” he said. “We might be a much richer country, but culturally and spiritually, where is our richness and our freedom? And that doesn’t always come with material wealth; it is harder to acquire.

“I think it’s very urgent for us to look at that. Basically, that’s what I’m doing.”

jim.chute@uniontrib.com visual-arts.uniontrib.com