Biography of Bright Sheng, U-M professor and composer

July 21, 2003
Contact: umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Composer Bright Sheng, who joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1995. grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 when young people were sent to farms to become “reeducated” by the peasants. Those who had some talent in the performing arts—Madame Mao’s pet project—were exempt from this rule. Sheng, from the age of four, studied piano with his mother, until the Revolution. “The Red Guards took our piano away. I didn’t miss it, though. I thought, well, now I don’t have to practice. But one day I heard a piano playing on the radio, and I got music-sick. I sneaked into the junior high classroom one day to play the school piano. The teacher locked it up every day, so I would break it open.”

Revolution. Mao feared people who knew too much. When we kids reached 16, we had no educational prospects and no jobs. Obviously we were becoming a social problem, so Mao said, ‘Go to the country to be reeducated by the peasants.’ Only professional artists who were protected by Mao’s wife could escape working as a peasant, so I decided to audition on piano, and my piano kept me from becoming a farmer.”

His talent allowed Sheng to work as a pianist and percussionist in a folk music and dance troupe in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan border. Over time, his musical pursuits expanded to include arranging and conducting.Seven years in Qinghai taught Sheng two life-shaping lessons. Because he knew as much about piano as anyone around him, he was forced to become self taught by watching and listening to other artists when he visited cities, and “to rasp quickly whatever they were doing that might be helpful to me as a musician.”

Secondly, because of the remoteness of the Qinghai province and the resulting scarcity of performance venues, Sheng turned his attention to regional folk music, little realizing how great a part it would one day play in his life.

In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution, universities reopened and Sheng was accepted into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he received a bachelor’s degree in music composition.

Sheng arrived in New York in 1982 full of potential and promise but with empty pockets. He earned a master’s degree from Queens College, CUNY, and a doctorate from Columbia University. Leonard Bernstein was among his teachers in New York, along with George Perle, Hugo Weisgall, Mario Davidovsky, Chou Wneg-Chung, and Jack Beeson. “An important part of what I understood about composing comes from the five years I spent studying with Leonard Bernstein,” Sheng says. he was doing you could do too. He set me up with a way of thinking in music composition that benefits every minute of my life.”

As a product, or victim, of the Cultural Revolution, Sheng has intense feelings about that history. His 1988 orchestral piece, “H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976” is drawn from those oppressive years and depicts the crimes and losses inflicted by the Cultural Revolution. This work won the composer more than positive critical reviews and is just one of his more than 50 major works. The influence of this time in history comes to the surface once again in “Madame Mao.”

Sheng returns regularly to China where his music is now performed. But he has said that he still feels some bitterness about the Revolution.

And where does that name “Bright” come from. Sheng says his name in Chinese is Sheng Zong-Liang, with the family name first. “My first names means something like ‘bright lights.’ I once read a book that referred to an Englishman named Mr. Bright, so I thought if might be good to be known as Bright Sheng where people speak English. I did not know the connotation of smartness at the time.”