Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (梁雷, b. Nov. 28, 1972, Tianjin) is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. He received his first piano lessons at the age of four, and began composing at age six. His piano teacher Zhou Guang-ren encouraged him to compose without formal training. He received several awards in China for composition and piano performance during childhood, including three honors in the Xinghai National Piano Music Competition (special distinction, 1984; Third Prize, 1987; Second Prize, 1988), where his early piano music has been in the mandatory repertoire since 1984, and Second Prize for piano performance in the Jing-Jin-Sui competition (1988). In 1989, Beijing Qingnianbao—Beijing Youth Daily—named him one of its ten “Persons of the Year.”
In 1990, Liang left his family for the USA as a high school student. He studied piano with William Race in Austin, Texas before shifting his focus to composition. He received degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music (BM & MM, both with academic honors and distinction in performance) and Harvard University (PhD). His composition teachers include Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Robert Cogan, Chaya Czernowin, Mario Davidovsky, Joshua Fineberg, Elliott Gyger, Lee Hyla and Bernard Rands. In addition, he had masterclasses with Magnus Lindberg, James Tenney, and Chinary Ung at Harvard, and with Georg Friedrich Haas, Toshio Hosokawa and Wolfgang Mitterer at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt.
Lei Liang received the George Whitefield Chadwick Medal—the honor the New England Conservatory bestows upon its most outstanding graduates—as well as the Tourjée Alumni Scholarship Award (both in 1996). He was a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow (2002-4), and received a grant from the Milton Fund at Harvard University (2001), a Heinrich Strobel Foundation bursary from the South West German Radio Experimentalstudio (2004), a Meet the Composer/MetLife Creative Connections Grant (2007), a Fondazione William Walton Residency Award (2008), an Aaron Copland Award (2008), ASCAPLUS Award (2008) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2009). He is the recipient of the Elliott Carter Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (2011), and the Alpert/Ragdale Prize in Music Composition (2012). He received an honorable mention in the Aliénor Awards harpsichord composition competition (2004, for Some Empty Thoughts of a Person from Edo), the George Arthur Knight Prize from Harvard University (2006, for Serashi Fragments) and was a finalist for the Thailand International Composition Competition for Saxophone (2006, for Parallel Gardens).
Lei Liang’s music is published exclusively by Schott Music Corporation (New York). His early piano music appears in numerous anthologies of contemporary Chinese piano music published by Huayue Music Press and Renmin Yinyue Chubanshe—People’s Music Press (Beijing). His recordings are released on Spektral, GM, Einstein, Encounter, Opal and Telarc Records. A portrait CD of his works was released on Mode Records in 2009, funded in part through a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc. His 3rd portrait CD was released on New World Records in 2011, funded in part through grants from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and Alice Ditson Fund of Columbia University. His 4th portrait disc “Verge/Tremors of a Memory Chord” was released on Naxos International and his latest monographic disc “Bamboo Lights” was released on Bridge Records in July, 2014.
What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?
It must have been when I was about 14, when my parents took me to live in a village in the suburbs of Beijing. The village was far away from the city, and I recall vividly walking one night in the hills under a full moon. It was so quiet, only the sound of wind blowing the grass and leaves all around me. Watching the dark contours of mountains under the moonlight, l felt I heard an incredibly intense music – the inner sound of nature. It was a magical and transformative experience. When I close my eyes and think about that moment, I still can hear the sound and feel the enormous power from the mountains and winds.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?
I was inspired by Cage and Feldman early on when I started college at the New England Conservatory of Music. Later on, many more composers became important influences – so many that it is very difficult to count. I would say though that Monteverdi and the Mongolian musician Serashi are two very special artists for me. The latter once told his students that “you must put the weight of your entire life into every note you play.” That has become a motto for myself.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?
I have a young son. The demand of raising a kid, taking care of family while fulfilling my teaching responsibilities has been enormous, so I adapted a working schedule that can best ensure undivided concentration when I compose. I get up at 4am each day. Before my son wakes up, I can count on a couple hours of quality composing time. I embrace everything to aid my composition – using computer in parallel to hand-written notes and sketches. I like to use different methods to complement each other, “fight” with one another, “liberate” each other, because each method in itself can be a “prison” that I strive to find escape.
Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.
I will share a piece about my son and my admiration for Mongolian music. The piece “Verge” was written on the verge of the birth of my son Albert, and I used his name as the basic pitch material for the piece. His heartbeat also makes an appearance in the music. Below is a link to the live performance by the New York Philharmonic who commissioned the work. It was conducted by Magnus Lindberg.