The University Record, October 29, 2001

Music professor Bright Sheng receives MacArthur award

By Dana Fair
News and Information Services

Bright Sheng, composer and professor of music, is one of 23 individuals to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation award. Sheng will receive $500,000 over five years of “no strings attached” support.

Merging diverse musical customs in works that transcend convention, Sheng develops Asian themes and drama within Western music forms. The resulting creative compositions that blend East and West styles are distinct and elegant, and explore powerful emotional experiences. An acclaimed conductor and pianist, he also serves as an adviser to the Silk Road Project—an international program that identifies, archives and interprets Far Eastern musical traditions.

“This is a splendid honor,” said School of Music Dean Karen Wolff. “Bright Sheng has established himself as one of America’s foremost composers. It is a source of great pride that he is a member of the U-M School of Music faculty. Not only have his compositional efforts been recognized internationally, but he also has served as one of the preeminent teachers of young and upcoming musicians.

Sheng’s compositions draw from his experiences while growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The upheaval in his home country took a great personal toll—his grandparents were forced to do hard labor and eventually committed suicide. Sheng was sent from his home in Beijing to be “re-educated” in a rural village, and the Red Guard confiscated his family’s piano. Ironically, notes Sheng, he probably would not have become a musician without the Cultural Revolution. His then-fledgling piano talents helped him escape a career as a farmer: taking advantage of state funding for young musicians, he gained valuable training. For Sheng, the energy that repression clogged up had found its outlet.

Since arriving in the U.S. in 1982, Sheng has developed compositions that are fresh characterizations crossing musical and cultural traditions. His vast array of works include: The Song of Majnun, an opera, which in one act, revisits an Asian tale of star-crossed lovers; Flute Moon, which reworks a classic Chinese art song from the 13th century; and Nanking! Nanking! a lamentation on World War II atrocities suffered by the Chinese.

Affiliated with the U-M since 1995, Sheng has been commissioned by and performed at orchestras and opera houses in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Japan, Russia, Great Britain and Germany, and will present a full-length opera at the Sante Fe Opera in 2003. His national honors and recognitions include a Guggenheim Fellowship.

And what about his first name? Sheng’s Chinese first name, Liang, loosely translates as “bright lights.” He once read a book that had a character named Mr. Bright, so he decided to use that as his English first name—but he insists he did not know that “bright” also means “smart.”

The MacArthur Fellowship, which is presented by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (one of the largest private philanthropic foundations in the United States), is a five year grant to individuals who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work in their respective fields. The program selects individuals of all ages and from all fields, offering recipients flexibility to pursue their work without reporting requirements. In addition to this year’s $500,000 stipend, Fellows are offered health insurance during the five-years of their fellowship.

Including today’s group, a total of 611 Fellows have been named since the program began in 1981. Among current U-M faculty who are Fellowship winners are Profs. Susan Alcock, Kun-Liang Guan, Vonnie McLoyd, Thylias Moss, Henry T. Wright, John Holland, Alice Fulton, Rebecca J. Scott, Ruth Behar and Robert Axelrod.