Chinese-American composer Zhou Tian (pronounced “Joh Tee-en”) was born in 1981 in China. He came to the United States in his late teens to study at the Curtis Institute, Juilliard, and USC. His teachers included the composers Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Rouse. Today, having composed many orchestral and chamber works, he is associate professor of composition at Michigan State University College of Music, as well as Artist-in-Residence at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
His newest orchestral work, Gift, was commissioned by the Shanghai Symphony, which premiered in Shanghai in September 2019. The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Long Yu, will give the piece its U.S. premiere at NYC’s Lincoln Center on January 28, 2020 at a Lunar New Year concert, which will also feature music by George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue; see our interview with pianist Haochen Zhang); Chen Gang and He Zhanhao; and South Korean composer Texu Kim.
Prof. Zhou agreed to speak with us about his career in advance of the upcoming Lunar New Year concert.
One reviewer used the phrase “a prime example of 21st-century global multiculturalism” to describe your music. You’ve written a piece (“Rise”) commissioned by American orchestras to honor U.S. veterans, and another (“Transcend”) commemorating America’s Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1859 thanks in large part to the efforts of Chinese laborers. Your works also take inspiration from traditional Chinese culture and arts. Do you see yourself as exemplifying multiculturalism through the arts? As deliberately fostering it? Both?
I’d say that multiculturalism in my music came quite naturally from my experience as a person, as opposed to something deliberately fostered. I came of age in a new China marked by economic reforms, shortly after the country opened up shop basically for the first time to the rest of the world in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Growing up, I experienced firsthand this rush of new ideas, including all kinds of western music that people were prohibited from even listening to just a few years before. Finally, you can carry an album of The Rolling Stones and a score of Rite of Spring without getting into trouble.
Dad was a composer of commercialized music (think a Chinese version of SNL; he was the music producer for those types of shows) so I grew up practicing Beethoven on piano as well as playing/arranging jazz and pop tunes with my dad.
My teachers, when I arrived in America to study at the Curtis Institute and Juilliard, were all “American symphonists” with music heritage from Barber and William Schuman, all of which have had great influences on my music.
So creatively and stylistically, music for me always means a mosaic of cultures. When composing, I just let that be naturally expressed. I guess I genuinely love all kinds of music and music from different cultures, and that gets reflected in my work.
You’ve explained that the title of “The Gift” comes from an ancient Chinese poem that refers to “music as a gift of decency.” Does that reflect how you see music in general, a a gift? In what way(s)? And did you have that idea in mind when you composed the music, or did you give it that title after it was completed?
It doesn’t always happen, but for “Gift” I had the title down before the first note! In philosophy, I do see music as a beautiful gift to us, because I see it as an ultimate language, by which everyone can communicate regardless of who you are.
Now, to me, classical music is not a particular style. It’s a platform, a ritual in our culture. Think about it: When I was a little kid in China, I went to a concert given by the Philadelphia Orchestra (one of the first orchestras to ever visit China). I just remember that I was fascinated by this ritualistic experience: You go to the concert hall, get seated, and the orchestra sits, and then the conductor comes out, then: MUSIC for two hours. There’s no talking during the concert, no intro, no images. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. No story or stories to tell; each audience member can imagine on their own. And it’s all being realized live and right in front you.
To me, that’s classical music. It’s the best representation of the concept that music is a universal language.
Your Concerto for Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy Award. Did this make a difference for you professionally in terms of exposure to American critics and audiences?
Not gonna lie – it did make a very positive difference to me professionally, and I’m extremely grateful for the recognition. The piece, Concerto for Orchestra, was largely an American production – commissioned, premiered and recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Louis Langrée – and I’ve been working in this country for the last 20 years.
What the Grammy nomination brought me that was so wonderful was the international exposure, including opportunities in China. One might be surprised that, as someone from China, this would be the case, but that’s the reality.
What has it been like working with the Shanghai Symphony as Artist-in-Residence? I know this involves a number of performances of your works. Does it also include teaching?
It has been a fantastic collaboration. SSO is a wonderful orchestra and organization, both in terms of the musicianship on stage and the professionalism off the stage. For a living composer to have nine pieces featured with this orchestra in a season, conducted by Music Director Long Yu as well as renowned guest artists such as Jaap Van Zweden and Ion Marin, is a dream come true.
There is an educational aspect to the residency, as I’m also the “ambassador” for the orchestra’s Young Composers Workshop. I will work with composers between 16 and 21 later this year.
Listeners have been hearing your piece “Trade Winds” performed by the well-known chorus Chanticleer at their concerts this winter. Would you tell us a little about that piece?
“Trade Winds” is a song cycle about traveling. It was set to three poems from three poets of three different continents: “Trade Winds” by John Masefield (English, 1878-1967), “Fortuitousness” by Zhimo Xu (Chinese, 1897-1931), and “Strange how we can walk” by Seth Michelson (American, born 1978). The piece finds common ground in the poems, and forms an overarching concept of travel and finding new love. I see it as a cycle of warmth and chicness – a little frequent traveler’s musical reflection.
You studied at Juilliard, among other schools. How does it feel to be presenting a new piece for the first time in the U.S. right here in NYC?
It’s very exciting to bring “Gift” to New York for the first time, to be performed by none other than the New York Philharmonic! I love and miss the city.
Is there anything new you’re working on now that you could tell us something about?
I’m working on my second violin concerto, which was commissioned by the 2020 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition as the designated new work for contestants. If my first violin concerto could be described as an unabashed love letter to the violin, the second would be a reflection of my obsession with the instrument’s lyricism and infinite colors.
I’m also writing a work for wind ensemble, commissioned by a consortium of 12 leading American university ensembles.
Tickets for the Lunar New Year concert Jan. 28, featuring the U.S. premiere of Zhou’s “Gift,” are available online.