Shao Zheng is one of Kansas City's most esteemed classical music composers. Not only has his work premiered all around the world, he is the recipient of the 2015 Seattle Symphony' s Celebrate Asia! Composition Competition, only the most recent in a long list of national and international honors. Originally from China, Zheng was drawn to the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music due to the rigor and quality of the program and is currently in his second year as a doctoral student. We are very fortunate to share an interview with Shao Zheng about his work and life in Kansas City, along with samples of his work and recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
Hello! My name is Shao Zheng, originally from Tianjin, a populous city on the northeast coast of China. I am now living in Kansas City, and I am in my second year doctoral program of music composition in University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of music and dance. I also did my master’s degree in UMKC, so I have been here for more than four years. I am now doing my doctoral degree, so the typical day for me is just going to school, taking classes, and doing homework and compositions, and also attending public performance of my own music premiere all around the world.
You’re originally from China. How did you come to study music composition at UMKC?
When I was in college, a composition major undergraduate student in Tianjin Conservatory of Music (China), I attended a lecture presented by Dr. Chen Yi and Dr. Zhou Long from United States. That’s when I first heard about UMKC, and I was thinking maybe I could come to UMKC to pursue the higher degrees of composition-master’s and doctoral. Dr. Chen told me that I had to be very competent of my compositions if I want to come here, so after that, I worked very hard on composition knowledge, skills, and composed pieces with both quality and quantity. I did it finally!
Tell us about winning Seattle Symphony’s Celebrate Asia! Composition Competition. What is involved with this honor?
The Celebrate Asia! Composition Competition is sponsored by Seattle Symphony. Its program featuring a themed celebration of the Pacific Northwest’s Asian communities with a special emphasis on Korean and Chinese music and culture. The composition competition requires a short orchestral piece related to or inspired by Asian culture, or anything about Asia. There is no limitation to the composer candidate, only the music must be related to or inspired by Asian culture.
My orchestra piece Bai Chuan Fu Hai, named by my wife, literally “hundreds of rivers go into the ocean”, and it is inspired by the ancient philosopher Zhu xi, who said, “hundreds of rivers go into the ocean, but the ocean does not overflow”, according to chapter two of his book Zhu Zi’s Words. At the beginning of the music, I use multiple themes and instruments to refer to the bitty streams and little tributaries; with free micro-counterpoint to depict the process of the streams flowing; using rapidly crescendo to describe the little streams finally converge to rivers with monstrous waves and loud noises. At the end of the piece, the music diminuendo after the surging theme which symbolizes the peaceful and vast sight of the ocean surface, echoes the sentence “the ocean does not overflow”.
Seattle Symphony will perform the piece in Celebrate Asia! Concert on the thirty-first day of January, 2016.
Delve a little into your own process of composing. What may surprise a listener of your music about how you create it? What tools do you use?
This is a very difficult question for me to answer. In a word, I have a strong will to compose music with both intense Chinese culture influences and my own unique personality. To achieve this goal is extremely difficult! The traditional Asian music is very well-known for its emphasis on the subtlety of melodic variations, this is quite true, but the harmony in the melodic scale may be hugely different by nations. For example, Chinese traditional music scales have an atmosphere of happiness, harmonious, cheerful mood, but on the other side, the Japanese music scales have feelings of mysterious, meditative, and even a little sorrowful and somewhat sad mood which is hard to talk about.
As for me, the melody writing is my main emphasis of my composition, with some modern techniques I use, and some of my compositions are highly polyphonic and virtuosic. I am also a skilled pianist, so I also composed a lot of piano music for both solo piano and piano concerto with orchestra with a stunning virtuosic fingers technique.
When did you realize you first wanted to be a composer? What were your earliest compositions like?
I start learning piano when I was very young, about 4 years old, so my first compositions are all improvised on the piano without written down. I remember when I was in high school, I improvised lots of piano music on the piano-maybe more than 100 pieces. During that time, I was thinking I can be a professional composer, not only a pianist, so I choose composition major after high school. Until now, I have composed many music in every genres, for chamber ensemble, orchestral, instrumental and voice.
How has living in Kansas City (or America for that matter) influenced your work?
I like Kansas City so much, not only because its beautiful landscape, the weather, the architectures, but also the people living there who are very nice and easy-going. I also met my cute wife here, which makes me feel much happier than my life before. All of these makes me feels great and happy every day so that I always feel creative of composing music.
Zheng's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout
Although I am a music major student, I still learn something new about music history every time by re-reading this book. This book is very well-organized, and covers the music history from the ancient time to twenty-first century, which is very helpful for music major students.
Art & fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland
The book is not as thick as the music history book, so it is very easy to read. If you are a musician, you will like this book!
Plato’s Phaedo by Plato
I am very interested in ancient philosophy, both Eastern and Western. For the western part, Plato’s Phaedo is the book I like to read most. It’s not easy to read, but it will definitely rewards you the knowledge you want to know.
Beethoven Symphonies nos. 4&7 (DVD, 2004)
Carlos Kleiber is a great Beethoven music conductor. I think this DVD also contains the rehearsal time by Kleiber, which is very interesting. Beethoven’s symphonies 4 and 7 are my favorite pieces, so I strongly recommend this DVD.
The Rite of Spring, Fireworks, Firebird Suite Music by Igor Stravinsky
Stravinsky is one of my favorite composers in the twentieth century, and his most famous pieces are included in this small CD, which worth listening to more than once.