About this Recording
8.559610 - SHENG, Bright: Phoenix (The) / Red Silk Dance / Tibetan Swing / H'un (Lacerations) (Sheng, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Bright Sheng (b.1955)
Red Silk Dance • Tibetan Swing • The Phoenix • H’un (Lacerations)


Composer Bright Sheng’s music frequently takes as its subject the opportunity of influence. His aesthetic connects the seemingly incongruous cultures of East and West, pulling together his own Chinese heritage and his American training. In choosing the phoenix as the emblem of music (see track 3), Sheng offers insight into his muse. Known by many names, Bennu (ancient Egypt), Fenghuang (Chinese mythology), and Zhar-Ptitsa (the “Firebird” of Russian folklore), the legendary “holy swan of songs” sings across boundaries of culture, time, and place. Sheng’s phoenix, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the fable, is born under the Tree of Knowledge as a resplendent spiritual guide for all humanity, flying in the company of both kings and coal-miners and bringing hope to the world. In the art of the composer, music emboldens just this boundless spiritual force, at once intellectually concrete and emotionally inexplicable. Like the phoenix, Sheng’s music uses beauty, colorful in timbre and powerful in conception, as a vision of a better world, one that transgresses boundaries and engages emotion to connect people to a singular humanity. For Sheng, music is sometimes consumed in the flames of its own passion; music can heal the soul.

Sheng’s Red Silk Dance (1999) similarly explores artistic tributaries and connections. Historically, the Silk Road connected nations and cultures, facilitating trade in silk, saffron, rubies, porcelain, and other luxuries. Rather than a single commercial highway, the “road” was really a web of trade routes linking China to Rome. Ideas and technologies were also exchanged, making possible the ancient civilizations of India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, China, and Rome. A capriccio for solo piano and orchestra, Red Silk Dance sounds no specific narrative, but offers emotional impressions of the excitement, dangers, failures, and triumphs that both tested and inspired Silk Road traders: the listener can almost feel the sting of a desert dust storm, see the wonder of a night sky, or confront a band of marauding thieves.

Red Silk Dance opens with a percussive duet for piano and timpani reminiscent of the athletic foot stomping of male Tibetan dancers. Sheng captures the physical impact of the dance by requiring hard wooden mallets for the drums and accented parallel octaves in the piano. Brass outbursts along with brief lyrical melodies in the winds punctuate the duo and propel the pianist to ever faster passage-work. A slow, central interlude features the soloist’s delicate commentary on a lone Asian-inspired flute melody, gently enveloped in an atmosphere of muted strings. The brass intervene to sound a violent threat to this tranquility, which recovers only to be challenged again, forcing a flight into the angular leaps and percussive writing of the opening, culminating in climactic sweeping glissandos by the pianist. Taken as a whole, Red Silk Dance suggests not only the heroism of these traders, but that the glory of Chinese culture, and indeed all the world’s civilizations, comes not from isolation, but exchange.

Written three years later, Tibetan Swing (2002) also draws upon the driving dance rhythms of the Central Asian plateau. Though born in Shanghai, Sheng survived China’s Cultural Revolution with his artistry intact by working as a pianist and percussionist in a folk-music troupe in the remote province of Qinghai, bordering Tibet and infused with its culture. Sheng returned to the region in 2000 during a sabbatical from the University of Michigan to follow up on his early research into China’s folk-music traditions. The trip proved inspiring. As his memoirs explain: “Qinghai was like a second homeland. I arrived when I was fifteen. It was here that I made up my mind to be a musician. It was here that I first kissed a girl. And it was in the mountains of Qinghai that I first tasted the beauty of the folk-songs that remain the inspiration for my works.”

Sheng’s impulse to feature the sounds of Tibetan dance extends back to his Seven Tunes Heard in China for solo violoncello written for Yo-Yo Ma in 1995, and includes his trio Tibetan Dance (2000) for clarinet, violin, and piano (recorded on Naxos 8.570601). Set for full orchestra, Tibetan Swing offers the composer’s most elaborate treatment of the idea. Rather than to jazz, the title refers to the long decorative sleeves of the Tibetan women’s dance costumes, which frequently brush the ground and “swing” into the air to create flashing patterns of motion. The characteristic Tibetan dance beat of two eighth notes plus a quarter is first heard in the opening percussion feature (played on bongos, congas, and bass drum struck with hands alone). A percussionist himself, Sheng eschews the subsidiary role too often given to percussion parts, that of simply punctuating and reinforcing other instruments. In Sheng’s works, percussionists play featured roles and frequently introduce important motifs as is the case here.

Contrabasses and bassoons pick up the expanding motif as the dance becomes louder and more energetic. A silent grand pause sets up an ornamented pentatonic melody in the winds. Soon brass join the full orchestra in sounding the primary rhythm and the strings dance away, as the power of the music continues to increase. Sheng uses brass flutter tonguing to add raw energy to the musical argument. Sliding glissandos in the trombones further enhance a savage climax, their tones evoking rag-dun “temple horns,” straight trumpet-like instruments ranging from three to twenty feet long that are used by some sects of Tibetan monks in chanting. Another pause introduces a new circling pentatonic tune in the winds and harp. The strings reintroduce the basic dance motive and it slowly fades away, setting up a sweeping orchestral close.

Written for soprano and orchestra, The Phoenix (2004) is a work of celebration. A co-commission, it marks both the centennial of the Seattle Symphony as well as the 200th birthday of the beloved Danish writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen. Describing his first encounter with the text, Sheng writes:

Growing up in China, I read almost all of his fairy tales, popular in their Chinese translation. However, while perusing Andersen’s works this time, I came upon a prose text called “The Bird Phoenix” with which I was not familiar. I was attracted not only to the beautiful and beguiling narrative, but also moved by the profundity and the grandiose portrayal of the mystical bird…I found Andersen’s interpretation…illuminating in that it went far beyond the traditional understanding of the legend. He had transformed the celebrated bird into the muse of all artistic creation—a bird of epic proportion and majestic inspiration, and the muse of all peoples.

Although The Phoenix reveals Sheng’s penchant for emotionally charged vocal writing with leaps and chromaticism that tests even the best singers (what soprano Shana Blake Hill said was “one of the greatest challenges” of her career), there is none of the Asian American rhetoric typical of his style. The music here is a vehicle for text expression, in gestures of large sweep and specific detail. When the phoenix’s nest burns, the music sparks with speed and energy. High notes in the soprano mark important words, while other words inspire onomatopoeic gestures in which melody mimics meaning. In the opening measures, for example, the word “bloomed” expands over increasingly wide intervals, while words such as “resplendent,” “arises,” “chattering,” “perfume” and “soars” receive special musical depiction.

Sheng evokes the Middle Eastern setting of the tale by featuring the octatonic scale in the opening wind passagework and whenever “Arabia” is mentioned. Similarly, a reference to the “Hindu girl” invites an Indian-inspired interlude using an ornamented, sitar-like melody accompanied by a string drone. Invoking the “Marseillaise” leads to an extended quote of the French national tune. The soft closing offers an exquisite treatment, especially of the final word “music” intoned using a perfect fifth, which leads to a rare (in Sheng’s musical language) full triad. Yet this traditional chord offers little sense of harmonic resolution. While the soft dynamic and slow tempo here suggest repose, the word “music” remains active and very much alive.

It is almost ironic that Sheng’s poem Hu’n (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966–1976 closes the disk, as it is with this piece that the composer’s international career begins. Composed in 1988 (just after Sheng became an American citizen), H’un was taken on tour by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic in 1993, thus introducing the composer to audiences throughout the United States and Europe. Although completely abstract and atonal, the work remains surprisingly accessible and is emotionally devastating in effect. In Chinese, the word “H’un” has multiple meanings, including not only “lacerations” but “wounds,” “scars,” “traces,” “marks,” and “vestiges.” The autobiographical work that Sheng calls “an angry and grieving cry of historical experience,” declares the human toll of China’s Cultural Revolution, initiated by Mao Zedong in 1966 and halted only by his death a decade later. As Sheng writes:

[The] “Cultural Revolution” in China [was] the calamitous consequence of the cruel power struggle within the highest level of the Chinese Communist Party. It was the most tragic time in recent Chinese history: a time of violence, madness, and chaos, and a time that ultimately woke the consciousness of the Chinese people…Thousands of people died and millions of survivors are still paying the price…I was one of the millions who were the witnesses, victims, and survivors…

Mao mobilized China’s youth as the Red Guards to eradicate the nation’s “bourgeois” elements. The traditional and foreign were erased, including Confucian texts and foreign music. Sheng had begun piano lessons at the age of five, but the family’s piano and his father’s record collection (which included Western music) was confiscated. Sheng kept practicing by sneaking into the locked piano rooms of his junior high school. His mother, an engineer, also suffered. It was not until 1978, after the terror had passed, that the young composer could enter Shanghai Conservatory and begin formal music study. H’un recounts the emotional journey of this time.

According to the composer’s own analysis in Perspectives of New Music (Vol. 33:1/2, 1995), the entire piece is constructed from the opening cello motif of a half-step introduced by repeated sixteenth notes. The half-step (the gesture sounded by any two adjacent keys on the piano) is a powerful choice: it is the smallest, most dissonant interval in Western music (think of the opening theme to the movie Jaws). Although Sheng had sketched more traditional melodies, he discarded them when they “turned out to be too beautiful.” Initially, this two-note motif is extroverted, angry and violent, often ranging expressively across the octave as a minor ninth. By the end of the piece, however, this narrowest of musical ideas is suffocating in its intensity.

H’un falls into two parts: a violent battle and its devastated aftermath. It is music of extremes: of volume, of register, of motion and then stasis. The composer forces his players to create brutal, ugly sounds, often forbidding the use of vibrato to emphasize the raw anger and ruin of his expression. The emotional climax of the piece comes at the end of the second half, where the violins and basses play fortissimo at the top and bottom of their registers. Although playing their loudest, the strings are muted—an effect Sheng likens to screaming while being choked. Soon afterwards, a pair of clarinets provides a powerful, but exhausted echo of the battle’s half-step cry and the piece ends in extended silence.

All but unnoticed, however, was a small and very faint ray of hope—a full step in the first clarinet all but hidden by dissonance against its pair. Fleeting and obscured, nevertheless the possibility of redemption glimmers.

Mark Clague
Assistant Professor of Musicology, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance



The Phoenix
Inspired and based on a short story by Hans Christian Andersen
English words adapted by Bright Sheng

In the Garden of Eden, under the Tree of Knowledge, bloomed a rosebush. Here in the first blossom, a bird was born—her flight was as swift as the flashing of light, and her plumage was as ravishing as her enchanting songs.

Yet when Eve plucked the apple from the Tree, and she and Adam were expelled from Paradise by the angel’s flaming sword, a spark fell into the bird’s nest, setting it ablaze. The bird perished in the flames, but from one red hot egg deep inside the nest, there fluttered aloft a new bird—the one and only Phoenix! The legend tells us that she dwells in Arabia and every hundred years she sets afire her own nest and dies. But each time from the glittering egg, arises a new Phoenix, dashing into the world.

She hovers around us, swift as light, sweet in song and resplendent in color. When a mother sits by her baby’s cradle, the bird rests on the pillow and her bright wings form a glory around the baby’s head. She flies through the houses of the poor and brings rays of sunshine, leaving behind the perfume of violets. The Phoenix is not only seen in Arabia. No, she soars through the glimmer of the northern lights across the icy plains of Lapland. She dances among the yellow flowers in the short summers of Greenland. And in the shape of a moth, she flies over the hymns of the miners beneath the copper mountains of Fahlun and coal mines of England. On a leaf of a lotus, floats down the sacred waters of the Ganges and brightens the eyes of the Hindu Girl.

The bird Phoenix! Do you not know her? The bird of Paradise, the holy swan of songs! On the Thespian cart, she flapped her filthy black wings, disguised as a chattering raven. Her red swan beak glided across the Icelandic harp. And she flew through the halls of songfest in Wartburg. She sang the Marseillaise and you kissed the beautiful feather as it fell from her wing.

She came in the splendor of Paradise. The Phoenix, the holy swan of songs, reborn each century, created in flames to perish in flames! Your golden-rimmed portrait hangs in the palaces of the kings, but you yourself, lost and lonely, wing around only in the legend: the Phoenix of Arabia.

In the Garden of Eden, under the Tree of Knowledge, you were born. When the first rose blossomed, God kissed you and called you your rightful name—music.

Red Silk Dance was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for pianist Emanuel Ax and had its première 6 January 2000 at Symphony Hall in Boston with Robert Spano conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Emanuel Ax, to whom the work is dedicated.

Tibetan Swing was co-commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, for the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, and the Singapore Symphony, for the celebration of the opening of its new concert hall in 2002. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.

The Phoenix for Soprano and Orchestra was co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. It was written for soprano Jane Eaglen and for both orchestras. The work was premiered on 5 February 2004 in Seattle by Jane Eaglen and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. It is dedicated to Jeff Sanderson and Mich Matthews.

H’un was commissioned by the 92nd Street Y for the New York Chamber Symphony and was premiered by that ensemble on 16 April 16 1988 under the direction of Gerard Schwarz, to whom the work is dedicated.

Close the window