Before he was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer redefining Chinese contemporary music, Zhou Long was just another kid who hated piano. Born to a vocal-teacher mother in 1953, the Beijing native grew up listening to Puccini arias, German lieder
(art songs) and French art songs, all the while resisting her efforts to make him a pianist. ‘I loved music,’ he says. ‘But I hated practising.’ By the time he was seven, she had given up, but she did leave him with some valuable advice. ‘She always said the greatest musician is the composer.’
But before he could test her theory, he found himself on a truck heading to the Russian border as part of the Cultural Revolution’s urban relocation programme. ‘The Beijing official told us there were big houses and a movie theatre, but it was all a lie,’ he says. Instead, the truck pulled up in pouring rain to a field with a tent. ‘The driver said “That’s your home,”’ he recalls. ‘The girls started crying and wouldn’t get out of the truck. They cried for weeks.’ There was no time for tears, however; snow was on the way and these urban teenagers now had to build their own shelter. ‘It was like survival training,’ he says.
After driving a tractor for three years, a back injury allowed Zhou to transfer to Hebei province as a member of the Zhangjiakou Song and Dance Troupe. Here he played accordion, conducted, orchestrated music, arranged the lights and pulled the curtains. In the meantime he commuted to Beijing and secretly studied with his mother’s composer colleagues until 1977, when the university system officially reopened. Zhou edged out thousands of hopefuls for one of 30 coveted spots in what became the most elite musical class in China’s history, and included Tan Dun, Chen Yi (now Zhou’s wife), Ye Xiaogang, Guo Wenjing and other ‘godparents’ of Chinese contemporary music.
But resources were still lacking; the library was only partially opened, and housing was incomplete – the entire class lived in a tent. No matter. ‘We treasured everything we had,’ he says. ‘We studied hard, we worked together, and we criticised [and supported] each other.’ He contrasts this to the new generation. ‘They have everything they want, and they have no fear.’ He also admits they have better training and possibly more talent: ‘For us, some composers had never touched a piano before, but for them, over 80 percent have perfect pitch. They are the best, and the future is theirs.’
What they do lack, according to Zhou, is life experience and taste. ‘They mostly look to pop music; they’re doing film soundtracks. They’re crazy about making money,’ he says. ‘Chinese composers have to look to Chinese culture and traditional music. That will give them a unique language, a unique voice. That’s very important. I’ve been living in the US for 30 years, but even now, groups or orchestras want my tradition, my voice.’
Zhou’s latest makes its world premier this month as part of the Beijing Music Festival. Dedicated to his wife and based on Qu Yuan’s ancient poem Jiu Ge (Nine Songs – or Nine Odes, which Zhou feels is ‘more poetic’), the massive work is a 70-minute, 11-movement vocal composition for soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone, each of whom sing a number of roles. ‘It’s like Homer, it’s a huge poem,’ he says. ‘There have been many interpretations [of this story] in modern dance, sculpture, theatre and symphonic poems. Most are about ritual and ceremony, but to me the poem is full of love – love to God, to people, to the beauty of the mountains and the rivers of the country.’ And it might just show China’s up-and-coming composers how to dream big.