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Ye Xiaogang: Composing the Life

Regarded as one of the leading contemporary Chinese composers, Ye Xiaogang's life is not always as beautiful as his music.


The setbacks started when he was a boy. Ye learned to play the piano at the age of 4 with his composer father, who wrote many musical scores for films. But the "cultural revolution" began soon after. His father was persecuted and tried to commit suicide when Ye was only 11. In those days, suicide was considered a betrayal.


"I witnessed my father being carried away from our house. The 200-meter-long lane was crowded with people gloating. It was a scorching summer afternoon in Shanghai, but their despising eyes made me feel cold."


Ye's father was sent to a farm to work. Ye Xiaogang had to work in another farm for a year before entering a factory where he worked for six years until he was 22.


"My colleagues in the workshops were friendly and helped me a lot, but I could not play the piano any more. I turned to reading and the only books I had were Lu Xun's (a famous Chinese author who died in 1936). I was fascinated by his short stories." 


Ye added: "No matter how hard I worked on the farm or factory, I always believed that I did not belong there. I never left music but just waited for opportunities." He dreamed of becoming a pianist.


When the decade of turmoil ended, Ye resumed playing his piano.


He practised hard every day but life played a little joke on him when he applied to the Central Conservatory of Music in 1978; the institute did not recruit piano students that year and Ye had to choose the composition department which was unfamiliar to him.


Ye's mother Shuiying Ho, who used to be a singer, encouraged him to make the decision. "She said as a pianist I would always play other's music, but if I was a composer, I would create music for instrumentalists," Ye said.


Thanks to his talent, Ye adapted himself to composition quickly and was soon acclaimed one of the "Four Talents" of the conservatory along with Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing and Qu Xiaosong.


In 1980, he studied in Professor Alexander Goehr's class at Cambridge University and received a full scholarship from the Eastman School of Music in the US in 1987 to further his studies.


Ye's international career took off. He composed symphonies, chamber music and ballets, participated in many festivals and won various prizes.


In 1995, soon after he became the first Chinese musician contracted to Schott Music, the prestigious German publishing house, in its 225 years' history, Ye returned to China. He believed his roots, inspiration and essential ingredients for creation were in China.


China's flourishing cultural scene and booming economy helped him soon ride the crest of success but problems followed too.


His ex-wife, a young rising actress who had lived with Ye in the US for some seven years, asked for divorce and their US-born daughter was left with him.


As a leading composer in China, Ye was appointed to a number of positions in both academic and social organizations.


His name has also become increasingly connected with film and TV music that classical composers seldom work on.


All these have made some people doubt his abilities as a serious "composer."


"People pay more attention to film and TV music because there is more media exposure of these works than my classical pieces," he said.


"I never stop composing symphonies or concertos but most of them are commissioned by foreign orchestras or festivals and not played in China very often," he said.


"I cannot say I am Mozart, but I really feel I was born with a genius for creating music. Film or TV producers come to me because I compose well and fast. When I score melodies, it feels like I am turning on a tap. Being productive does not mean being non-artistic."


(chinaculture October 13, 2006)

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