Composers are often depicted as almost other-worldly beings, tortured geniuses trapped in their own worlds who must toil around the clock sleeplessly in search of musical inspiration and perfection.
And while he might admit to sometimes getting lost in another world, Bright Sheng Zongliang, the Chinese-American composer extraordinaire whose works have been performed by most of the world’s major orchestras, does his best to dispel any notion of round-the-clock toiling. “I can’t compose more than four hours a day. That’s my maximum. Beyond that, I would get very tired and my mind [would be] numb,” says Shanghai-born Sheng, 61, a professor in composition at the University of Michigan.
That might seem to some like an enviably short working day, but it hasn’t affected Sheng’s productivity. His CV reads like a who’s who of the orchestral world. Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, the New York Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Tokyo Philharmonic and the China National Symphony are just a few of the more high-profile performers of his work. He is the New York City Ballet’s first composer-in-residence and in 1999 was commissioned by the White House to compose a piece to welcome Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) to a state dinner hosted by President Bill Clinton.
More recently, in 2011, he founded the art appreciation initiative the Intimacy of Creativity at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Yet despite such a high-brow background, Sheng is adamant that true inspiration comes from seemingly trivial acts of life, such as cooking and cycling.
“Composing is not something that can be done only on a piano or over musical scores. To me, it can be done anytime, anywhere, even on a bicycle,” he says.
“What you actually put on the score sheet are often ideas already in your head. You notate the music but that’s only 50 per cent done, the other half is in the hands of the performers,” he adds, quoting a dictum of the UST initiative: “Music is not set in stone, but has to be performed and realised.”
He recalls how his latest opera, Dream of the Red Chamber, which premiered in San Francisco in September to critical acclaim and will be staged at next year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, transported him into the world of the Chinese classics for two years.
“There were deadlines, which I didn’t miss, but that was the least of the pressure. The real challenge was to get inspired in the music writing and keep the deadline,” he says, adding there were times he became absent-minded due to “the other world” he lived in.
It was exercise and cooking that relieved him of the pressure and added fun to his life.
Exercise, especially cycling, he says, helps energise the mind, and works particularly well either prior to a performance or after a long flight.
“I exercise in the morning when there is a major concert in the evening because it’s energising and that’s what I need,” he says. These workouts take place chiefly on the treadmills in his New York apartment and in the basement of his Michigan house.
“Oftentimes I have a class to teach in the morning after arriving on a long flight the previous night. There is nothing better to stay awake than biking to the campus from home – it is a good ten miles and takes 50 minutes of peddling. That keeps me energised for the whole day.”
To him, cycling comes naturally – it was his means of transport in China for the first 27 years of his life before he left to study in the United States in 1982.
Seven of those years in China were spent in Qinghai (青海), the yellow earth plateau in northwest China, where Sheng as a city boy from Shanghai lived with the peasants during the Cultural Revolution.
“It was very poor there but that’s where I had my first encounter with the indigenous Chinese folk music, right on the route of the ancient silk road,” recalls Sheng, an adviser to cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
“Those were my formative years and I self-taught a lot of things, including playing the piano sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven on musical scores sent by my uncle in Hong Kong.”
Indeed, DIY-methods have become something of a modus operandi, not only for Sheng, but also for his family. “My wife is also a composer with a doctorate degree but now she is a composer in my residence, taking care of our six-year old girl Fayfay,” he laughs.
Whatever the household task, whether it’s mowing the lawn or fixing electrical appliances, the Sheng family does it all themselves. But nothing comes closer to composition than cooking.
“The late Leonard Bernstein, my teacher during the last five years of his life, once said: ‘good composers should always be good cooks’. I find it very true in my case because I like to improvise and reinvent a recipe or something I taste in a restaurant that I find interesting,” says Sheng.
Profiteroles, a French cream puff dessert, are a case in point.
“The French really know the right way to serve [profiteroles] with the steamy hot chocolate pouring over the pastry on a soup plate. But the Americans always do it the wrong way. So I invented my own recipe and gave it a new presentation with a blueberry on top of a mint leaf over the dark chocolate and I named it ‘Iceberg in the Black Sea’.”
The renowned German conductor Christoph Eschenbach, apparently not a dessert person, was sufficiently intrigued by the name that he dropped his usual exception to try out Sheng’s creation. That was just one of many of Sheng’s culinary victories – and he’s had quite a few, given that the conductors Valery Gergiev, Leonard Slatkin, Gerald Schwarz and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma are among the other musical luminaries to have sampled his home cooking.
Similar to his composing, Sheng’s cooking requires an intense, if relatively brief, few hours.
“I like to entertain, and cooking, like composing, requires a lot of focus,” he says. “Both are about producing something from nothing.” ■