The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Chinese-American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long talks about blending Western and Eastern music in “The Future of Fire, which the UW Wind Ensemble and Concert Choir will perform Saturday night in a FREE concert. | February 23, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

On Saturday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble will perform “Circa Now,” a FREE concert of works by living composers, three of whom will be present at the performance.

The program includes “Fanfare for the Uncommon Man” by UW composer John Stevens (below), who was commissioned to honor Marvin Rabin, the founder of WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras) and who will conduct the work. 

Also on the program are “Concerto for percussion” by Michael Udow, with percussion soloist Anthony Di Sanza; “The Future of Fire” by Zhou Long (below), the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner in music for his opera “Madame White Snake,” with the UW Concert Choir; and “Cosmosis” by Susan Botti, with soprano soloist Mimmi Fulmer and the women of the Concert Choir.  Scott Teeple is the conductor of the Wind Ensemble.

A pre-concert discussion with Stevens, Udow and Zhou will take place at 7:15 p.m.

Zhou Long recently gave an emailed Q&A to The Ear:

Can you introduce yourself briefly to readers?

I am Zhou Long and currently a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC). I was born into an artistic family and began piano lessons at an early age. During the Cultural Revolution , I was sent to a rural state farm, where the bleak landscape with roaring winds and ferocious wild fires made a profound and lasting impression.

I resumed my musical training in 1973, studying composition, music theory, and conducting, as well as Chinese traditional music. In 1977, I enrolled in the first composition class at the reopened Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Following graduation in 1983, I was appointed composer-in-residence with the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra of China.

I travelled to the United States in 1985 under a fellowship to attend Columbia University, where I studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards, receiving a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993.

My creative vision has resulted in a new music that stretches Western instruments eastward and Chinese instruments westward, achieving an exciting and fertile common ground.

Briefly, what should listeners pay attention to and know about “The Future of Fire” and about the meaning of the title?

Memories of my years in the countryside surface again in “The Future of Fire” (2001, rev. 2003). With melodic material taken from a Shaanxi love song, it is a brief symphonic anthem vibrantly depicts my memories of farmers burning off dried grass to prepare the land for planting, but losing control of the flame to the passing wind — a vivid, if charitable, metaphor for the Cultural Revolution (below).

Although a mixed chorus is featured in the recording singing the piece’s text-less vocalise, I have also suggested using a children’s chorus to emphasize the piece’s dedication to “the powerful energy of the younger generation and the passionate hope for peace in the new millennium.”

How has winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 changed your life? Has it helped get your music performed more often?

The prize might have been a sign of things to come, but mostly I feel my works finally have been accepted. I’ve lived here for almost 30 years, and have been entirely working to blend the cultures. I think that I carefully combined Western and Eastern cultures, and that I did it well. I don’t want the opera “Madame White Snake” (at bottom) that won the Pulitzer Prize to taste like wine and beer mixed together. You can’t ever say that you have the right or perfect result, but I believe in what I did.

The Pulitzer gave me more confidence. It’s a quintessentially American award. That it could be offered not only to American-born composers, but also to a composer who immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen, really means something to me. I would say, for a composer’s career there’s no ending, you have no ceiling. You don’t talk about everything when you reach the top.

So far, I feel honored by this recognition. But it doesn’t guarantee you will continue to write good music and it doesn’t guarantee you will get more opportunities. The prize does not provide opportunities. That is provided by pure recognition and the recognition is respect.

What are your current and future projects and plans?

Recently, I have just completed The New York New Music Ensemble (below) commissioned work “Cloud Earth,” for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet in B-flat, percussion, piano, violin and cello, to be premiered on April 16, 2012 for its 35th Anniversary Celebration, at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City.

I will also start a Portland State University commission, a solo piano piece for Prof. Susan Chan to be premiered at UMKC Musica Nova Concert in April 2012. My new projects, including a major work “Beijing Wind,” a 40-minute symphonic suite, commissioned by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, to be premiered in 2013.

A lot of Chinese, and other Asian, composers such as Bright Sheng and Tan Dun are working within the tradition of Western classical music. What do you see as the effects of such an ethnic mixing or blending, and what do you see happening in the future of classical music both here and in Asia?

I think that makes sense for me as a composer who works here in the States. It’s international and metropolitan, and inviting to the multicultural society here. For the quarter century I’ve been living in the States, I think that’s my goal — to meld the Western and Eastern cultures together.

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