IT was like a journey back home for Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang, whose works were played at the Shanghai Symphony Hall last Friday as the opening of this year’s Shanghai Spring International Music Festival.
The concert, titled “Story of China,” comprised solely of Ye’s well-known works. Among them were “Mount Emei” that speaks of the beautiful natural scenery and Buddhist philosophy; “Song of Sorrow and Comfort” inspired by Li Shutong’s poems, “Start Light,” part of 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony; and “Light of the Himalaya” about the Tibetan culture.
And there was also Ye’s latest symphony suite “Dunhuang” which was influenced by the frescoes in the Mogao Grottoes in northwest China’s Gansu Province.
“It was the first time that a concert dedicated strictly to my works had been held in Shanghai,” says the 62-year-old composer. “I felt much like a journey back home. It was a very pleasant one, and a great honor to me.”
Ye was born in Guangdong Province but grew up in Shanghai. He went to the United States for further studies and returned to work in Beijing.
His work took him to several regions in China, and he attributed much of his accomplishments in music to his rich travelogue.
Ye started playing the piano with his musician father at the early age of four, but he did not enjoy a smooth start to his musical career.
His father, Ye Chunzhi, composed a lot of music for Hong Kong films. He joined the Communist Party of China in 1954, but his musical career took a dive.
It was not until 20 years later that the father managed to revive his career when he joined the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1978.
Ye Xiaogang spent most of his childhood at a house on Shaanxi Road in Shanghai, and watched his father sell off all valuables one after another to support the family — except for the piano.
After graduating from middle school, the young Ye worked as a farmer and then at a factory for six years.
“My job then was to shape iron sheet with a hammer. I often hit my hand by mistake, even on the piano-playing fingers,” he recalls.
But the pain never crushed his interest in music and his pursuit of a professional musical career that he firmly believed was the only way to alter his life.
Only allowed to go home every weekend, Ye kept practicing the piano at least two hours on Saturday nights and eight hours on Sundays. But his attempts to join various art troupes were all rejected because of his father’s “political” identity.
“Life was never happy but only suffering all those years. My family was humiliated repeatedly during the ‘culture revolution’ (1966-76). I had to queue up before dawn just to buy some vegetable for the family,” says Ye.
His childhood experiences led to the creation of “The Last Paradise” in 1993 in which death was the end of pain and the start of new journey.
Things took a turn for the better in 1978 when the then 23-year-old Ye was enrolled in the Central Conservatory of Music. Though he was keen on learning piano, his mother convinced him to consider composing as a career.
His talent was quickly discovered along with his equally talented classmates Tan Dun, Qu Xiaosong and Guo Wenjing.
Ye’s first concert was at the conservatory at the age of 26, with simple stage setting, no performance fee or high-price tickets. Many of the works that he presented then were related to poems he was fond of.
“Everybody was there for nothing but pure music,” says Ye. “The sky was blue, the eyes clear, white clouds floated in the sky and melodies rippled in my heart.”
Though materially poor, Ye considered the years spent at the conservatory a spiritually pleasant part of his life.
Like many young talents at the time, Ye chose to go abroad to fine tune his skills. He enrolled himself at the Eastman School of Music in the US with full scholarship in 1987. There, he expanded his repertoire to include compositions for dance, chamber music, symphony and film scores.
Despite winning accolades like the Heritage Prize for Excellence in Creative in Music, Ye returned to China in 1994.
“I am a very practical man. I was 40 at the time, and I saw the miserable life of some Chinese professors there who were in their 50s and 60s,” says Ye. “As a minority (in the US), very few Chinese musicians would have the opportunities to realize their dreams. That’s not what I wanted. I could not change the fact, but I could change my path.”
On his return, Ye got down to task. He started composing for opera, dance, movies and TV series. He got increasingly interested in Western-style works featuring Chinese culture such as “The Silence of the Sakyamuni,” “Mountain Ghost” and “Namtso” (The Sky Lake).
He was so interested in Tibetan culture that he composed seven works on the lakes there, and he is working on two more.
“I am familiar with Western-style composition and I was always interested in my own culture, including regional customs, traditional philosophies, literatures and religions,” says Ye. “I combined them in my own way — telling the stories of China in a Western language. It also helps in spreading the work more widely.”
Ye was never opposed to composing for “assigned themes.” He composed for the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Air Force, as well as for Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, and for the Great Wall.
“I like these assignments as they provided me the chance to discover a place and people well,” says Ye. Before writing tunes, Ye would visit the places, talk with local people and feel their rhythm.
“Many regions in China have very distinctive features that can be presented in music, such as qinqiang in Shanxi Opera and soft-tones in Suzhou dialects. You have to be precise in grasping the essence of each region,” Ye notes.
“Of course, composing for overseas commissions is much more easier as it only has to be ‘Chinese’ rather than any precise region or features. Yet, I like challenges,” he adds.
Having spent his formative days in Shanghai, Ye plans to create more compositions for Shanghai before 2021.
“Shanghai used to be a very important art center in China, valued as a must stop for stars in the last century. But it seems to be gradually overshadowed by Beijing. There are very few musical works in Shanghai dialect, which is a pity,” says Ye. “I hope I can change that.”