“It’s a burden to be an Asian-American composer these days,” Lei Liang says, good naturedly joking about the weight of expectation that goes hand-in-hand with being a part of such a high-profile cultural group within classical music. Following in the footsteps of composers such as Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Bright Sheng, and Chou Wen-chung, Liang was able to learn a great deal through their example, but he has also felt a particular need to find his own way and develop a voice uniquely his own.
He also has had to be cautious. “Although it’s a privilege to be able to inherit certain traditions from Asia,” he acknowledges that “it’s also a danger because for Asian composers, Asian traditions can be a prison. At the same time, as much as I love traditional, contemporary Western music, it can be a prison as well. In my case, I try to use my Asian background to liberate myself from a Western prison, and use my Western training to liberate myself from certain habits I have.”
It’s a method that he has relied upon as he has created an extensive catalog of chamber, orchestral, and choral works as well as music for stage and film.
Born in China in 1972, Liang grew up in Beijing, where he drew attention for his piano playing and compositional skill at an early age. He emigrated to the U.S. when he was just 17 years old, spurred by his experiences as a participant in the Tiananmen Square protests. Once in the States, he earned degrees at the New England Conservatory and Harvard University.
Coming of age after the Cultural Revolution, he says it was only after arriving in America that he was able to truly discover China’s history and construct a fuller picture of his cultural heritage for himself. He also remembers being shocked to discover the diversity of global musical culture. He says, “That’s something that I never had exposure to before, and it really opened my mind. It’s almost as important as new music for me. When you hear music that can be made out of all these things, you hear that music is such an endless world. There is so much possibility in making expressive things out of sound.”
In his own work, Liang began exploring what that variety of sound had to offer. There were the timbres and folk songs tied to his personal cultural heritage, which he continued to study through his interest in the preservation of traditional Asian music. But he was also sonically inspired by personal interactions with the sounds of the natural world that immediately surrounded him in Boston. He was comfortable exploring noise, and also fascinated by the power of silence.
These days, those points of inspiration continue to direct him. He has also found that he likes to work inside certain set limitations. “This is also something I learned from Asian music,” he explains. “Oftentimes an artist’s creativity is evaluated not by how many new things they can create but rather by how much power they have in transforming something preexisting. I limit myself to just a few pitches, for example. On the one hand, there’s a unifying force that brings all these things together, like a very tiny seed—one note, or just three notes. But on the other hand, I try to counterbalance that with a lot of different surfaces and explore the potential for such limited material to generate many different possible manifestations.”
These self-constructed puzzles artfully play out in many ways across his compositions, from the one-note polyphony of works such as Brush-Stroke for small orchestra to the unusual emphasis on breathing and the framing of silences in pieces such as Memories of Xiaoxiang for alto saxophone and 4-track tape. He explains, “I like extremely fast, extremely slow. I also like extremely varied surfaces and extremely limited materials. For me, only extreme things can be interesting.”
A bit of Liang’s professional restraint seems to melt away for a moment with this confession. “I like to see how far I can go,” he admits.