‘Broken Ink” is the puzzling name of a 2013 composition by Chinese-born Zhou Tian to be played at the final concert of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s current season, set for Sunday, May 7.
Zhou tends to christen his pieces with titles that read like riddles. But once the puzzle is solved, the listener’s imagination is free to find meanings in the music that reach beyond merely hearing the sounds.
Born in China, the composer likes to follow a Chinese pattern in the usage of his name. The family name comes first; the given name follows. The name Zhou Tian is pronounced “JOH TEE-en,” and he likes to be known by his family name. His wife, Mingzhao Zhou, to the contrary, prefers her given name first. The marriage accommodates the difference of opinion. The couple lives in Michigan. Husband Zhou Tian is on the faculty of the Michigan State University College of Music in East Lansing. Wife Mingzhao Zhou is a violinist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
During a recent interview, Zhou says “Broken Ink” is a tribute to poets of China’s Song dynasty (960-1279). For starters, the thing to remember is that Chinese is a tonal language, where the pitch of a word affects the meaning. Chinese poetry is not simply recited; it has melody. However, since there was no system of notation in the Song period (960 to 1279), guidance about performing Song poetry has disappeared; in other words the connection is broken. As a shortcut, Zhou calls a system of notating pieces “ink.” So a tribute to poetry written roughly 1,000 years ago becomes “Broken Ink.”
A batch of public PSO events surrounds the concert. As a PSO guest from May 3 to 7, Zhou is present in the entire array of programs. In addition he works directly with PSO musicians and with children in local schools.
Composer Zhou joins PSO artistic director Rossen Milanov and calligrapher Wang Xiaoyong at the Princeton Public Library for a PSO Soundtrack presentation called “Exploring ‘Broken Ink’ — compositional influences and Chinese calligraphy” on Wednesday, May 3. A performance of Zhou’s “Red Trees, Wrinkled Cliffs” takes place in the Princeton University Art Museum on Saturday, May 6. The program repeats in the Monroe Library on Monday, May 8, after Zhou’s departure.
The PSO’s full concert on Sunday, May 7, at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium includes the U.S. premiere of “Broken Ink” along with two other works. A post-concert reception open to all those attending the concert takes place in the Art Museum.
The theme of the May 7 concert is “Metamorphosis.” Zhou’s contemporary evocation of traditional Chinese poetry in “Broken Ink” takes its place alongside Claude Debussy’s “La Mer,” which consists of Balinese sources in an impressionist style, and Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” a 20th-century consideration of the 19th-century romantic composer’s music. The PSO’s Milanov conducts.
In “Broken Ink” Zhou accesses five poems written roughly 1,000 years ago. “The title suggests half of the story,” he says. The titles of the poems are “Hearing the Sound of the Rain and Bell,” “Watching the Tidal Bore,” “The Drizzling and the Plum Season,” “The Mighty River Runs Eastward,” and “Listening to the Land.”
“Broken Ink” is for a western symphony orchestra,” Zhou says. “It uses western instruments. My approach has always been that it is possible to deliver the flavor of a different culture through western instruments.” As proof of music’s ability to show varying origins, he states, “Gershwin is recognizable; Russian composers are recognizable.” To give music a Chinese flavor Zhou uses a pentatonic scale (the pitches of only the black notes of a piano), Chinese melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, and Chinese timbre (qualities of sound that distinguish one instrument from another.)
Turning to his chamber music quartet “Red Trees, Wrinkled Cliffs” for guitar, violin, viola, and cello, Zhou says, “The piece was inspired by the mountains and cliffs in Sichuan. When I visited Sichuan, where my wife comes from, the trees looked reddish under a certain light. I intended to make this a little vague or poetic. It’s a title where listeners provide their own interpretations. With 100 people, there will be 100 versions.”
Zhou believes the special sound of the piece is due to the presence of the guitar. “The guitar is free compared to classical instruments,” he says. “The title reflects the ensemble’s sense of poignancy, which is based on the presence of the guitar.”
Zhou delights in the ability of musicians to arrive at different interpretations of his music. “It’s beautiful to see different musicians have different views of a piece,” he says. “I welcome people finding things that I didn’t know were there. If performers don’t put their heart and soul into a piece, it won’t be an effective performance. Playing a piece is a collaboration beyond words. It’s a two-way stream. [Composers and performers] learn from each other.”
Composers and performers approach a score differently, says Zhou. “As a composer I go from my vision to the score. I think ‘What will the [performers] do?’ The performers go from the score to the vision. They’re archeologists. They ask, ‘What was the composer thinking?’”
This visit to the PSO is Zhou’s second. His earlier one was in October, 2012, when the PSO opened its season with the U.S. premiere of his “Grand Canal Symphonic Suite,” commissioned by the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles to promote the Grand Canal of China as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The northern terminus of the Grand Canal is Beijing; its southern terminus is Hangzhou, the city where Zhou was born.
A delegation from the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles accompanied Zhou on his PSO visit in 2012. Another accompanies the composer here in 2017. Calligrapher Wang Xiaoyong, who participates in PSO’s May 3 Sound Tracks program, is a member of the Federation.
Zhou feels a camaraderie with members of the PSO. Reflecting on his previous visit, he says, “They understand my intentions. They can see what I want beyond the score. That makes things easier than starting from scratch. There’s no need to break the ice. We just go straight to making music.”
Born in Hangzhou, China in 1981, Zhou has a violinist father and a music-loving mother who works in a bank. He describes his father as “a commercial composer/songwriter who encouraged me to play and appreciate jazz, pop, and world music while still practicing Bach and Beethoven; and American pioneers and symphonists, from Gershwin to Barber, to my teachers such as Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Rouse.”
Zhou’s first instrument was violin. He switched to piano when he was seven. Accepted at age 13 to preparatory school for the musically gifted associated with the Shanghai Conservatory, Zhou calls that part of his education “a vigorous program,” and says, “I practiced six hours day on piano to prepare.” While he was at the school he turned toward composition.
“The decision of choosing composition as my career came when my first string quartet premiered in 2000,” Zhou says. “After that I realized I can write something that I genuinely like and have other people appreciate it as well. I was 18 years old.”
Attracted by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, Zhou came to Philadelphia for a week to audition and interview. “My first day at Curtis, [pianist] Gary Graffman was having coffee in the lobby. You could hear Hilary Hahn practicing violin. And Lang Lang was working at the piano. You could see CD covers right in front of you in that tiny space!” Zhou’s studies at Curtis began in 2001.
During his stay in Philadelphia, Curtis commissioned Zhou’s “Red Trees and Wrinkled Cliffs,” one of the PSO presentations. The piece has been played in more than 20 major cities throughout the world.
After Curtis, Zhou studied at New York’s Juilliard School and earned a doctorate at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. The transition to the United States was not difficult for him, he says. “It was no shock. I was quite well prepared culturally. I loved American films and TV. I was pleasantly surprised to see how Americans embrace people from other countries. Now I’m a citizen. It’s been a beautiful journey from my arrival until now.”
Following a stint as assistant professor at Colgate University in New York State, Zhou moved to Michigan State University College of Music in East Lansing in 2016.
Although Zhou’s wife is a professional violinist, he rarely seeks her advice when he creates new compositions. “I try to compose by myself,” he says. “Sometimes I ask her technical questions about playing violin. But she only hears the complete new work at the premiere.”
The Zhous’ first child, daughter Sophie, was born three weeks before our interview. Zhou is convinced that she is musical. “When my wife was pregnant, I tapped a rhythm on her belly,” he says. “And I heard the same rhythm tapped back. So I repeated it for my wife.”
Exploring ‘Broken Ink’ — compositional influences and Chinese calligraphy, Princeton Symphony Orchestra Sound Tracks, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton.Wednesday, May 3, 7 p.m. Free.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, May 6, 6 p.m. $10. Also at Monroe Library, Monday, May 8, 1 p.m.
Metamorphosis, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Pre-concert talk Sunday, May 7, 3 p.m., concert 4 p.m., and post-concert reception at Princeton University Art Museum. $25 to $82. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.