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Q&A with Visiting Artist Lei Liang

08/05/2024

Q&A with Visiting Artist Lei Liang The acclaimed composer discusses his collaboration with Boston Conservatory, his work as a research artist, and what it means to listen creatively.

By

Sarah Godcher Murphy

May 7, 2024

Boston Conservatory visiting artist Lei Liang

Bill Wadman

Creative listening is at the core of composer Lei Liang's work. His 2018 composition A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams imagined the sonic world of a Chinese landscape painting; and his most recent piece for orchestra, Six Seasons, stemmed from a partnership with oceanographers who captured the sounds of seasonal ice forming on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. These field recordings provide invaluable data to research scientists; but to a composer with an ear for metaphor, they are the sound of ice being born -and a wellspring of musical inspiration that Liang is now sharing with students at Boston Conservatory through a new venture known as Lei Lab@Berklee.

Liang is a research artist and chancellor's distinguished professor of music at University of California San Diego, where he founded the original Lei Lab in 2023 with support from Berklee Trustee and Boston Conservatory Legacy Trustee Snow (Dan) Qin. Affiliated with the university's Qualcomm Institute, the laboratory explores the inevitable convergence of arts and science, combining Liang's compositional prowess with state-of-the-art research practices and a relentless curiosity about the natural world.

Lei Lab@Berklee will bring Liang to Boston Conservatory's campus as a visiting artist for five consecutive academic years. He will teach private lessons and seminars with composition students, coach contemporary classical music ensembles, and cocurate the school's annual New Music Festival. This new partnership (once again supported by Qin) also will result in two newly commissioned compositions.

During his spring 2024 residency, Liang worked with students of Associate Professor Sarah Brady (a longtime friend and frequent collaborator), workshopping two of his compositions and coaching students through improvisation exercises based on the same Arctic Ocean sounds that inspired Six Seasons. At the heart of contemporary music is collaboration with living composers, Brady says. The students really felt the essence of what a collaboration can be with Lei, who treated them as creative equals and with such beautiful respect.

Liang is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Rome Prize winner, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, and a recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2023 by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, with Brady as principal flutist.

During your visit to campus, you coached Sarah Brady's contemporary ensemble on two of your compositions. Could you tell me more about them?

One is an earlier piece that is very meaningful to me, called Lake, which is inspired by a meditation retreat that I participated in. It's a very soulful piece that helped me to understand my relationship with sound and silence. It's like a little mirror; I need to revisit this piece from time to time, almost like to face myself again. The idea came when I was walking around a lake in early spring. There was a V shape on the lake, and I didn't realize what it was until I saw a beaver swimming in the water. What was so moving for me was that I understood that the lake itself is silence. When the beaver swims on it, leaving a mark-that's a sonic signature. As a composer and a performer, that's how you inscribe your sonic signature: on silence.

As a composer and a performer, that's how you inscribe your sonic signature: on silence.

-Lei Liang

The other piece is one of my newest works, called Six Seasons. The piece came out of my collaboration with oceanographers at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I have worked with geologists, oceanographers, engineers, and software developers to create new ways to listen and to make music in the larger context of issues that are challenging all of us across the globe. Six Seasons comes from the Inuit's way of thinking of the calendar. There are six seasons, marked by the sounds of the changing environment-such as the footsteps of the polar bear signifying the beginning of a new season.

You were inspired by the primary importance of listening as opposed to the usual, astronomical way of marking the seasons?

Exactly. Listening is actually a very important part of the awareness that makes us understand the passing of time in nature. And, the sounds that I'm bringing with me during my visit [to Boston Conservatory] are the work of my team in collaboration with the oceanographers, which includes recordings captured by hydrophones placed 300 meters below the sea surface in the Arctic, at places completely inaccessible to humans until now. That includes a lot of ice sounds-all different kinds of ice formations and movements-and the birth of ice. We have sounds that capture the ice being born, when the open water starts to freeze in October.

That must be amazing. What does it sound like?

Oh, it's the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. It's incredible, and what's important is that because of the collaborative nature of our work, we are not only interested in the sounds for sounds' sake; we are actually inspired by the information that comes with the sound, through the eyes of oceanographers.

When you're using field recordings to inspire musical composition, do you attempt to mimic specific sounds on the instruments-perhaps using extended technique? Or is the inspiration more thematic?

All of the above. Artists-probably just by intuition-they want to mimic, but there's a lot more important information embedded in this. The traditional con
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