I was captivated by Grawemeyer Award winner Lei Liang’s “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams” when Gil Rose of the Boston Modern Orchestra  Project performed it at Carnegie Hall. Again in Ojai, California, Lei Liang caught my attention with “Vis-a-Vis,” a lively dialogue between Wu Man on pipa and Steven Schick on a variety of percussive instruments. The musicians at first feel each other out; excitement grows as they challenge each other and end up as friends. Who made this music? I drove to San Diego to chat with the composer: a remarkable man, modest and searching.  

VAN: Why do you listen to the sounds of nature and then create music with them? 

Lei Liang: Critical issues surround us. Listening is the first step to creating a work that will move listeners toward reflection on the environmental crisis, for instance. When we play something that could have been created without listening to our environment, we cannot claim that this is a response to climate change. Yo-Yo Ma brings his cello to play a Bach Suite in a national park and the music is beautiful, but it has nothing to do with the environment. It is simply using the environment as a self-benefiting backdrop. This is a very exploitative way of looking at nature. 

We should be able to listen critically to nature’s sounds. The language nature speaks might be very foreign. We are trained to listen to counterpoint, harmony and melody. It’s almost like looking for the perfect triangle, a geometric shape. Yes, nature might offer a perfect triangle, but nature itself is so much more complex, with so many other shapes that are endlessly interesting.

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Your music includes a huge array of frequencies. How do you create them?

First we listen and let nature speak to us. This involves several steps. My team at Lei Lab, a group of scientists and musicians, is able to hear nature because we have captured data that are beyond our hearing range. A HARP—high-frequency acoustic recording package—can capture the new three B’s: beluga whales, bowhead whales, and blue whales.

I’ve worked with Dr. Joshua Jones of Scripps Institution of Oceanography for six years. He compares the data to a jar of tea leaves.To transform those tea leaves into a tasty cup of tea, you need artistry, so it’s no longer simply data but an experience. 

The frequencies come to us at 200,000 Hz, way beyond the human range. The human ear can only hear up to 20,000 Hz. Yet these “inaudible” sounds are vital to the marine animals who live in the ocean. Through new technology, we can hear what we could not hear. Suppose we are color blind and then technology lets us actually see color. Now with technology we can make the sound of silence audible.

Do you see yourself as opening the door to a new world—one which was previously silent—through your compositions?

Our experience of the world is mysterious. I am not content with camouflaging our lack of understanding by projecting a superficial sonic impression. I want to take a more challenging path, marrying the leap of the imagination with scientific research [and creating] something that is technically sound and innovative so that we can be very specific about it. Does a red light have sound? Does an element in an X-ray analysis have sound?

I’ve spent 11 years working with collaborators. Scientists gravitate to listening, just as composers and musicians are rediscovering what listening can mean and how relevant listening is for human inquiry and knowledge. We have barely scratched the surface

Do you find that your interpretation of ice is different from Icelandic composers like Anna Thorvaldsdottir or Nico Muhly, who’s American but has spent a lot of time in Iceland?Are you listening differently than they do?

Our approach is fundamentally different. I would be very surprised if there is an overlap with [those] composers. What makes our approach special for me is that I am very drawn to the material. 

If we stand on the beach and look at the ice from the surface, that’s one perspective. We can also hear the ice 300 meters below it. We can hear it for a few days, a few weeks, but we can also hear it for years. People who grew up in Michigan have heard ice all their lives. Ice is a very powerful part of their memory, ice cracking and ridging… 

What I have done with my team is to study sound that has been recorded for consecutive years. We study the ice from the first day it is born, through ice storms and ridging, and [analyze its] internal pressure. These are sounds you can’t hear unless you are aided by technology. We go through hundreds and hundreds of hours of recorded data. Then we hear open water when the ice has melted away. 

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In addition, there is data which can help us understand what we are hearing. My collaborators think of ice in terms of temperature and air pressure. As a composer, my way of thinking about ice might be limited to textures and densities. I have to struggle with a vocabulary. The lexicon is misleading. You’re trying to use words to describe a different kind of music; it’s not enough. That’s why working with scientists is so exciting. When oceanographers listen to the ice, they hear the temperature and air pressure. They hear forces on a particular wavelength. The resulting sound is a manifestation of the forces behind movements. 

I bring in musicians and we sit with the oceanographers and we listen together. The performers play their instruments and they have a whole new vocabulary for their interpretive effort. That is a very different kind of music-making altogether, right?  

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There is a lot of deep listening practice that may involve listening for long stretches of time. 

What I do is quite different. My passion is not just about listening to nature. That is merely a starting point. What I present to my collaborators or audiences eventually is not just a replica of nature. The ice I present is not the ice you hear in the Arctic. It’s the ice that we—me and my collaborators—research, study, filter. We articulate it, highlight it and then animate it. So it’s the result of our work. This is not a replica of the natural landscape. This is our idealized landscape.

Do you become a marine animal?

I learn from them. Marine animals teach us how to listen. They don’t just sit in office chairs. They’re constantly mobile. They have different purposes: Hearing each other is what creates their sociability. That is the only way they know they belong to a community. They are mostly invisible to each other, so hearing is how they feel connected.

Sound, in the words of my collaborator Joshua Jones, illuminates the ocean for these marine mammals. Echolocation is the way they see and touch. Their environmental sound is so important for them. I am constantly reminded that we humans see images easily. We have to know much more about the potential of listening. Marine mammals [allow] us to rediscover what is in us that we have not recognized and cultivated. 

How do you communicate to instrumentalists when you are not present?

My notation has to be efficient. I’ve learned from years of experience. I think of musicians as my collaborators. They are fellow travelers who are very intelligent, inquisitive and imaginative. I probably never met most of my collaborators.

A few things I do are unique. I use “temperature” as a direction. I just finished a piece last week, and I used the phrase “icy cold.” When you read that, you can imagine the dynamic for yourself: pianissimo or fortissimo, very fast or very slow. Either way, it becomes icy cold for you as a performer. All you have to do is make the listener feel cold, however you do it. I try to provide the musical context and then let the performer be part of this creative endeavor. 

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Your opera “Cuatro Corridos” is about human trafficking. What drew you to that material?  

My colleagues, the singer Susan Narucki and the guitarist Pablo Gomez, and I felt there were important things going on here [in San Diego]—not just that people are living in the most beautiful place on earth. Susan and I realized that there was a story about human trafficking. Undocumented workers are being doubly exploited—by gangsters from Mexico and employers in the U.S. That was the immediate prompt for a touching story. 

I have a special connection to undocumented workers. In Boston, I was a waiter at a restaurant in Harvard Square. At Harvard, Chinese students are known for their academic successes. They are the patrons of the restaurant. You hear zero about the workers, the invisible Chinese, who come from Boston’s Chinatown. They told me stories when we became friends.

To leave China, they had to go through incredible hardships and abuse. One waiter had led a revolt, when the smugglers on the ship they were traveling on were going to leave them on an island in the middle of the Pacific. This waiter had led the rebellion against the smugglers so everyone could survive. I felt compelled to tell these stories. 

When you tell these stories, what enables you to reach an audience?  

Sound is incredibly powerful. Through sound, we can be drawn into an experience almost instantaneously. There is a Tibetan Buddhist phrase: “With one sound you can go straight to paradise.” It’s much more than intellectualization. It’s more than pitch. It’s more than rhythm and pattern and colors. It’s all of the memories that we attach to a sound. 

Sound brings us to a recognition of experience almost immediately. We hear the sound of our mother. We recognize the sounds even from our mother’s womb. In this particular piece, I used sound to tell the story. The story is told with sound, not words, because sound is a direct experience. With one sound, you can evoke feelings of loneliness, anxiety, anger, sadness. 

Have you ever turned down a commission?

[Laughs.] I do that quite often. A certain mindset is not right for me. If they’re looking for something that is going to be sandwiched in a program or a filler [piece], for a concert program to celebrate Chinese New Year: No. It’s not about prestige. It’s about what I have to do right now. From human trafficking to the integration of science and music—I want to invest my time in what’s important. 

Does helping people listen differently make them feel differently about the world around them? 

I am a Christian by faith and a Buddhist by practice. But we are listening to sound in an enclosed space, a sacred space which is man-made. Music is written in an enclosed space and listened to in one. A sacred place is far from the worries of life. We’re making music in crisis mode, but I still feel wondrous and inspired. I want to hear much more about that incredible world: about the world speaking to us and the ocean communicating to us. That’s where I’m at. It’s taking our planet as our sanctuary. ¶

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Susan Hall is an award-winning feature and documentary film writer and producer who failed as a pianist studying with Adele Marcus. She has published books on race in Alabama, an MLB baseball team, the...