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Bright Sheng along the Silk Road in northwest China (2000).
Photograph from Bright Sheng Papers, Box 20, Slides. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

As a composer writing Western classical music coming from a non-Western musical context, Bright Sheng has looked to other composers in similar situations for inspiration and ways of working. Sheng notes that he has been particularly influenced by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok:

"Bartok saw the folk music's inherent beauty. To him, folk music was not a novelty but just as good as "high" art and he demonstrated that through his works. ... Bartok believed that there were three ways you could use folk music in composition. One is that you can use the folk melody with accompaniment. The second is that you could write in imitation of the folk melody - in the folkloric style. The third is that you don't deliberately write in folk music style but your music comes out with the flavor of folk music.

By then you have the spirit of folk music in your blood. ... My music falls somewhere between the last two steps, having gone through the first one. For instance, in the piano concerto I am working on now, I do not use any folk material or even try to imitate a folk melody. Most of the time, I do not even use the Chinese scale, the pentatonic scale. But hopefully it will sound like me, a Chinese born musician who is now living in the United States."
~Bright Sheng, interview, The Journal of the International Institute, Fall 1999.

Village peasants performing dolang mukam in Makit (Xinjiang province, northwest China) (2000).
[Photograph from Bright Sheng Papers, Box 20, Slides. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.]

Sheng's own connection to folk music dates back from his youth spent in the remote northwestern provinces of China. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, high schools and colleges were closed and young people were sent out to rural areas in order to work with the peasants. While the Cultural Revolution caused widespread devastation, performing artists were spared some of its worst effects due to the idiosyncrasies of Jiang Qing, Madam Mao.

During the seven years Sheng spent performing in Qinghai province, he took it upon himself to learn about the region and study and collect the folk music of the people:

"In addition to "regular" Chinese, the province is home to Tibetans, Chinese Muslims, Mongolians and even some Russian Cossacks. ... The ethnic backgrounds of the people were rich, but the people were poor. ... Their only entertainment was singing folk songs. One of the categories of folk song in Qinghai is called the hua'er, or flower, song. I got a chance to study them very well.

Each group there has its own folk songs in its own language, but everyone sang the flower songs in the provincial dialect of Chinese ... the songs were a jelling point for the different ethnic groups. They all lived close to each other; there was no ethnic tension or fighting at all before the recent Tibet conflict. In some of my compositions I use the melodic style of the flower songs. In my opera Song of Majnun, two of the main themes are based on Qinghai Tibetan motifs."
~Bright Sheng, interview, Michigan Today, Fall 1998.

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