Bright Sheng

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Bright Sheng (Chinese: 盛宗亮 pinyin: Shèng Zōngliàng) is a Chinese-American composer, pianist, music teacher and conductor born on December 6, 1955 in Shanghai, China. Before moving to the United States in 1982, he studied the piano at the age of four from his mother. He graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory and went on to continue his education at Queens College and Columbia University. In 1995, he became a part of the faculty at the University of Michigan. Sheng has since then earned many honors for his music and compositions.[1]

Most of Sheng's musical career has followed the path of mixing Western cultures and Asian cultures into his pieces, leading his music to be performed in both Asia and the United States, as well as around the world.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai, China on December 6, 1955. His mother had been his first piano teacher, having started learning at the age of four.[1] When the Cultural Revolution began, his home's piano was taken away by the Red Guards. Sheng went back to playing a year later, using his school's since he didn't have one at home. Shortly thereafter, he decided to play piano for the rest of his life, although he didn't believe that he could become a musician since his family had no history of music.[3]

Sheng was sent to Qinghai Province, China, which used to be a part of Tibet, and stayed there for seven years. He became a performer, playing the piano and percussion to not only perform,[3] but to study and collect folk music.[1] He also began to compose his own music.[3]

Because Sheng had to teach himself how to play musical instruments and learn music theory to play, Qinghai folk music became and continues to be a strong inspiration in his compositions today. He used Tibetan folk music from Qinghai as a basis for his opera The Song of Majnun.[3]

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, he got admitted into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he learned both Chinese classical and traditional music.[3] There, Sheng earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition.[1]

Sheng left China in 1982 and joined his family in the United States, where he had to re-learn different elements of music to adjust to the Western style of music. In New York, he attended Queens College to earn his Master of Arts degree in 1984 and Columbia University to earn his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993.[1] Some of his teachers included George Perle and Hugo Weisgall at Queens College and Chou Wen-chung, Jack Beeson, and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University,[2] as well as Leonard Bernstein.[3]


Sheng served as a composer-in-residence for the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1989 to 1992, the Seattle Symphony from 1992 to 1995, and as an artistic director for the Wet Ink Festival hosted by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1993.[1] He also taught at the University of Washington for a year[3] and joined the composition department at the University of Michigan in 1995, as associate professor of music.[1][2]

He was involved in the Silk Road Project, a music project that stretches across different nations and cultures. It was named after the silk trade because the Silk Road is the oldest trade route between ancient Rome and China.[3]

To prepare, he went on a field research trip along the Silk Road regions in China, tracing their musical culture to collect folk songs and historical materials. Sheng had also wanted to write a research article to document the composition, gain the help from a graduate student, as well as lecturing on American music.[3]


Sheng's honors include the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (1990), the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Award (1990), the Rockefeller Award (1991), the MacArthur Foundation Fellowships (2001), MacDowell Colony Fellowships (1985, 1988),[citation needed] a Kennedy Center Award (1995), and an ASCAP Concert Music Award (2002).[1]

His orchestral composition H’un (‘Lacerations’), which premiered with the New York Chamber Symphony in 1988 and was a memorial to the Cultural Revolution in China, was awarded the first runner-up for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. Two years later in 1991, his piece Four Movements for Piano Trio was also awarded first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.[3]



  • The Song of Majnun (1992)
  • The Silver River (1997)
  • Madame Mao (2003)
  • Dream of the Red Chamber (2016)


Composition Instrument Year
3 Etudes Flute 1982
3 Pieces Violin, Piano 1986
H'un ['Lacerations'] Orchestra 1988
My Song Piano 1989
4 Movements Piano Trio 1990
The Stream Flows Violin 1990
Concertino Clarinet, String Quartet 1993
String Quartet No. 3 String Quartet 1993
7 Short Yadhtrib Variations Bassoon 1994
China Dreams Orchestra 1995
7 Tunes Heard in China Cello 1995
Spring Dreams Voice, Chinese Orchestra 1997
2 Poems Chinese Orchestra 1998
Flute Moon Solo Flute, Harp, Piano, Percussion, Strings 1999
Red Silk Dance Piano, Orchestra 1999
3 Songs Pipa, Voice 1999
Nanking! Nanking! Pipa, Orchestra 2000
String Quartet No. 4 'Silent Temple' String Quartet 2000
Distant Birthday Bells Piano 2001
Tibetan Dance Clarinet, Violin, Piano 2001
Tibetan Swing Orchestra 2002
The Song and Dance of Tears Violin, Voice, Pipa, Sheng, Orchestra 2003
Sweet May Again String Bass, Piano 2007
Northern Lights Cello, Piano 2009
Hot Pepper Violin, Marimba 2010
Melodies of a Flute Flute/Alto flute, Violin, Cello, Marimba, Suspended Cymbals 2011


  • Three Chinese Poems (1982-1992) for piano
  • Three Poems from the Sung Dynasty (1985) for soprano, orchestra
    • Revised as Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty
  • Three Chinese Love Songs (1988) for soprano, viola, piano
  • Two Folk Songs from Qinghai (1989) for chorus, orchestra
  • may I feel, said he 'Opera in 7 minutes' (1996) for soprano, tenor, four-handed piano
  • Phoenix (2004) for soprano, orchestra

Musical style[edit]

At the beginning of his musical career, Sheng started out by making simplistic pieces of Chinese-Western mixtures since he had been exposed early on to both traditional Chinese music and ‘mainstream’ Western music. As his career continued, he found ways to incorporate traditional Chinese methods of music with modern music from Western influences. For nearly his whole composing career, Sheng has represented the Chinese culture he came from with the Western culture he moved to. As a result, Sheng's following has expanded from Asia and the United States to a global one.[2]

His first opera, The Song of Majnun, was written in 1992 and looked at the tensions among the styles of Chinese, Tibetan, and European music. It was based on an Islamic story but used Tibetan folk melodies.[1]

H’un (‘Lacerations’), Sheng's composition for orchestra, was written as a remembrance of the Cultural Revolution. The piece premiered in 1988 and was performed by the New York Chamber Symphony.[1]

Sheng's method of incorporating Chinese and Western methods together has been criticized and questioned. Even he himself had concerns about whether the two musical elements could be put together in a meaningful way. Some of the teachers he had advised him not to mix the two forms and to do one or another.[2]

It wasn't until speaking with his mentor Leonard Bernstein, who supported his methods to mix the two musical elements, that Sheng believed his way of composing music has become, in a way, a "new language".[2]

While still young in China, Sheng studied the history that made up Chinese music in three forms: classical, folk, and theatrical. He also looked at the history of Western music, closely studying the musical styles of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as the music of other composers and his teachers.[2]

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók is one of Sheng's greatest influences. Sheng believes that his music fits within two of the ways Bartók believed folk music can be used in composition: imitating the melody in the folkloric style and writing not deliberately in the style of folk music but with its flavor.[3]

In 1996, Sheng traveled back to his home country of China after fourteen years to compose Spring Dreams, commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma. While there, he got accustomed again to the instruments used in China and Chinese musical thinking.[1]

Sheng admits that his creative process is not constant. Inspiration can come after hearing a couple of notes on the television programs, researching for his next pieces, or dreaming about the music.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Weihua, Zhang (2001). "Sheng, Bright". Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online (Oxford Music Online). doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.42546. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Chang, Peter (2007). "Bright Sheng's music: An expression of cross-cultural experience—illustrated through the motivic, contrapuntal and tonal treatment of the Chinese folk song The Stream Flows". Contemporary Music Review. 26 (5–6): 619–633. doi:10.1080/07494460701653044. S2CID 192023564.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "An Interview with Bright Sheng". Journal of the International Institute. 7 (1). 1999-10-01. ISSN 1558-741X.

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