Composer Lei Liang’s “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams” is many things. It’s Liang’s largest orchestral work to date, commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. It’s a meditation on global warming, cultural destruction, and renewal. It’s a “love letter to the world,” to hear Liang describe it. And, the University of Louisville announced Monday morning, it’s the winner of the 2020 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.
With its winner’s purse of $100,000, the award is among the world’s most generous prizes for music.
While writing the piece, the Chinese-born American composer was consumed by thoughts of climate change and the future his young son might inherit. “What is the world going to be like for him, with human indifference and selfishness and greed?” Liang said in a phone interview. “The second half of the piece ... it’s kind of a prayer. The raindrops return after the collapse to rescue, or to resurrect, the pulse — nature’s heartbeat. That’s what I’m praying, that our world can actually survive this for the next generation.”
For Liang, 47, who studied at both New England Conservatory and Harvard University, “A Thousand Mountains...” is also the most recent realization of his love for the landscape ink paintings of Chinese artist Huang Binhong (1865–1955). This decades-long fascination has led the composer on a world-spanning journey through museums, libraries, private collections, and the cutting-edge laboratories of the University of California, San Diego, where he teaches.
Because resources on Binhong were limited in post-Cultural Revolution China, where Liang grew up, he didn’t discover the artist until he arrived in Boston as a teenager. Here, Liang taught himself traditional Chinese characters and pored through the first open-stack libraries he’d ever seen to re-assemble his “cultural and spiritual heritage," he explained.
“I was fascinated by the truth in [Huang Binhong]’s writings and his paintings,” he said. “I kind of describe him as a candle, in my mind …. Huang Binhong became a spiritual companion who guided me in the research of Chinese traditional aesthetics.”
At UCSD’s Qualcomm Institute, where he’s research artist in residence, Liang and a team of scientists collaborated to capture extremely high-resolution images of Binhong’s paintings. He then composed an electroacoustic piece, “Hearing Landscapes,” using the sounds of the image — sometimes as minute as individual brush hairs — rendered through audio software.
Though “A Thousand Mountains…” doesn’t contain any of those earlier electronic materials, that project laid essential groundwork for the award-winning piece, transforming the way he wrote for orchestra. So when he learned that he’d won, he said, “I was so proud of my team ... I had an enormous sense of joy for these collaborators.”
Set up at the University of Louisville in 1984 by Kentucky industrialist Charles Grawemeyer, the Grawemeyer Award utilizes a unique judging process; the final committee of judges is made up of people outside the professional music world, with the intention that the winning piece will be understandable to a broad audience. Awards are also presented in political science, education, religion, and psychology.
In a statement provided by the university, music award director Marc Satterwhite praised the piece’s “forceful, convincing arc and wonderful orchestral colors” as well as the social message of the piece. “[Liang] challenges people inside and outside the field of music to ponder important things, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so,” Satterwhite said.
“He tried to write a piece that had a whole world in it, and I think he succeeded,” BMOP director Gil Rose commented over the phone. “A Thousand Mountains…”, which was underwritten by the Massachusetts-based Jebediah Foundation, is the second Grawemeyer winner in three years commissioned by BMOP, following Andrew Norman’s “Play,” which took the honor in 2017.
Rose, a fervent advocate for modern orchestral music, said he was thrilled at the Grawemeyer Award’s recognition of large-scale pieces. “So much new music commissioning is small pieces, or shorter pieces. We really have an objective to commission more substantial pieces, and Jebediah helped us with several of those,” Rose said. “Painting on a bigger canvas gets composers to do an important exercise that they don’t get to do as much as they used to.”
A recording of “A Thousand Mountains..." has been released through BMOP’s in-house label, BMOP/sound, and is available on major streaming platforms. The recording also includes Liang’s concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra, “Xiaoxiang,” a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.