FEATURE

An Operatic Blend of Cultures

When the Chinese-born composer Zhou Long won the Pulitzer in music this spring for his opera Madame White Snake, he established himself not only as a prominent composer, but — in his mind — as an American.

by Stacey Kors Published Summer 2011
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Chou Wen-Chung ’54GSAS had already been at Columbia for nearly 25 years when he established the U.S.-China Arts Exchange in 1978. The Chinese-born composer and Columbia music professor saw the potential presented by the end of the Cultural Revolution and began traveling to China, giving lectures at the country’s top conservatories, meeting cultural and political leaders, and establishing the relationships that would eventually allow him to bring students back to Columbia to study.

Peter Tantsits as Xu Xian and Ying Huang as his wife, Madame White Snake, in the Opera Boston production. / Photo: Clive Grainger“After the Chinese government reopened the universities, there were so many talented students to select from,” says Chou, now an 88-year-old professor emeritus. “My idea was to try to bring out as many as possible and to let them experience cultural life in the United States. Bright Chinese teenagers were just waiting.”

Not just teenagers. Zhou was a student in his mid-20s when Chou gave a master class at the Central Conservatory. “Although I didn’t meet him until years later,” Zhou recalls, “I felt I had found my mentor.”

By 1985, Zhou was 32 and working as a professional composer when he sent some scores and cassettes of his chamber work to Chou. With Chou’s encouragement, Zhou applied and was admitted to Columbia’s DMA (doctor of musical arts) program. His wife, the violinist and composer Chen Yi ’93GSAS, whom he met while at the conservatory, followed one year later.

Zhou struggled with the transition. He spent most of his time studying English, but had such difficulty learning the language that Chou managed to have the language qualification for his doctoral degree waived. Zhou was also so “confused” by New York City’s cultural diversity and varied musical offerings that he shut down creatively, unable to compose for the first two years he lived there. “It was a huge shock coming from a closed country,” he says. “It was not just American culture. New York is an international, cosmopolitan city. It was everything together. I needed time to digest it all.”

Zhou was equally unprepared for the musical environmentat Columbia.

“In China, we didn’t know what was happening in the States,” he says. “We heard some impressionism, some Debussy. But we didn’t learn about living 20th-century composers and couldn’t access the scores and recordings.” Columbia emphasized a highly modernist compositional style at odds with Zhou’s tonal approach. “I had been writing tonally from the start,” he says. “I got the sense that I couldn’t stay in tonality at Columbia, and initially it was difficult for me to make the turn. I wanted to defend my compositional background. I started to feel ashamed of anything I wrote in a tonal style, because I thought it wouldn’t be accepted.”

When he did compose again, Zhou entered what he calls his Buddhist period, creating music that explores Buddhism’s inherently dualistic precepts, such as being and nothingness, concentration of thought and expansion of consciousness. In the nine-and-a-half-minute-long chamber work Dhyana, for example, complex pitches and dense, disjointed rhythms relax and open up into slower, simpler, sonic spaciousness; scattered, worldly thoughts coalesce into a focused serenity. While the spiritual significance of this period, which ran roughly from 1987 to 1994, shouldn’t be overlooked, Zhou stresses that his reasons for pursuing Buddhist philosophies were more practical than religious. “I was frustrated, I was aimless, and I felt I got lost,” he says. “For me, it was a creative turning point. I had to really clean up my mind. I thought that Buddhism could help me to concentrate, to focus, to think quietly about what I was doing here and aiming for.”

During that time, Zhou began to move away from tonality and experiment with free atonality, marrying contemporary Western musical theory with traditional Chinese instruments and subjects.

Once he heard and studied more contemporary music, he says, “It was like I’d jumped out of a box. I felt as if I had more freedom, more choices. I spent so much time at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center listening to 20th-century Western music intensively and studying scores. I was fascinated by George Crumb and his graphic scores, so I would go to a corner and look for other irregularly sized, photocopied scores. I knew they would be interesting.”

In 1985, Zhou joined the ensemble Music from China and became its music director. He expanded the repertoire of the New York–based group — formed to present concerts of traditional Chinese music in the U.S. — to include contemporary Chinese works in Eastern and Western musical languages. His work with the group was well received: In 1999, ASCAP presented Zhou with its Adventurous Programming Award.

Since he came to America, Zhou’s music has been shaped by the question of cultural identity. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, which honored him with its Arts and Letters Award in Music in 2003, stated that “unlike many composers of today working between cultures, Zhou Long has found a plausible, rigorous, and legitimate way of consolidating compositional methods and techniques that allow him to express brilliantly both his experiences as a composer of Western music and his considerable knowledge of his native China.”

That’s significant, especially given that Zhou’s Chinese American colleagues Tan Dun ’93GSAS and Bright Sheng ’93GSAS had by that time made a more visible impact on the classical-music scene. Tan won an Oscar and a Grammy for his soundtrack to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, and in 1999 Bright was commissioned by President Bill Clinton to compose a work honoring the visiting Chinese premier Zhu Rongji.

“Out of the whole group that came here from China, Zhou Long has been the hardest to follow,” says Ken Smith, Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times. “If you lay all of these composers’ pieces end-to-end, you can really see a musical progression that corresponds to major changes in their lives — when they went to conservatory in China and then in the U.S. But Zhou’s changes are not that pronounced. He was the most Western of the group when he was in China. In many ways, his pieces from China don’t sound much different from his pieces today. You can anticipate the mature composer in those early works.”

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, critics began comparing Zhou, Tan, Bright, and Chen Yi. But according to Ken Smith, this first generation of post–Cultural Revolution composers — all of whom attended Columbia at the same time, studied with Chou, received their doctorates in the same year, and worked to blend Eastern and Western musical languages in their compositions — couldn’t have been more different from each other.

“They came from different corners of China, and, once they hit the ground in New York, they went in different directions,” says Smith. “That said, there are few moments in history where you can trace a change in musical life back to one particular class the way you can with theirs.”

Zhou’s former classmates had already written several Chinese American hybrids, most notably Tan’s The First Emperor, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, and Bright’s Madame Mao, which was performed at the Santa Fe Opera in 2003. Zhou doesn’t begrudge his colleagues’ success, but he does tire of being regularly asked about them, even during interviews about his own opera. “I am low-key,” he says. “I don’t have a manager. I don’t have a publicist. When I won the Pulitzer, the press once again wanted to put me in this group. I told them I’ve never been in any circle. I just work on my own, and work quietly. I don’t even have a particular style. I don’t reject anything: I look at everything equally.”

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