Bright Sheng's 'The Phoenix'

The work is solitary and demanding, the muse is elusive, and the pay is usually dismal.

Composers usually describe their work as a calling, not a job. They compose because it is the only possible response to the voices and sounds they hear in their heads.

Chinese-born composer Bright Sheng, whose "The Phoenix" will premiere in Benaroya Hall this Thursday as part of the Seattle Symphony's centennial celebration, emerges from his studio long enough to tell us about the composition process for this 18-minute work for orchestra and soprano Jane Eaglen.

How it started: With a conversation between Sheng and symphony music director Gerard Schwarz, nearly two years ago. Schwarz wanted to premiere new works by important American composers for the orchestra's centennial season in 2003-04.

The project takes shape: Schwarz located sponsors, Jeff Sanderson and Mich Mathews, who agreed to underwrite the commission. Schwarz and Sheng decided on a soloist for the new work — Eaglen, an internationally renowned opera star who now makes her home in Seattle.

"I am a big fan," Sheng confesses. "I heard her at the Met two seasons ago with 'Tristan.' Wow! She is such a great singer. I've also heard her CDs, and I wrote the music with her abilities in mind. She has a huge sound that can ride right over an orchestra, but she also has a great deal of agility."

Enter the Danes: If you're writing a vocal/orchestral piece, you need a text. Sheng looked at poetry of several cultures but didn't find what he wanted. He then received a request from the Danish National Radio Symphony for a 2005 commission to celebrate the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. The timing would have made the creation of two separate major pieces awkward.

"I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if I can find a good text from Andersen, and make it a joint commission? That way, the premiere could be in Seattle and the Danish orchestra would have the European premiere. I brought the idea to Jerry (Schwarz) and to Denmark, and they both liked it."

Sheng will conduct the European premiere of "The Phoenix." The Danes will take the work on a tour of Asia, with a Danish soprano as soloist.

Finding the text: Looking through the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Sheng discovered a short story called "The Bird Phoenix."

"I didn't know it before," he says. "It's just one page in the original Danish, the story of the bird who perishes and is reborn. Andersen took that idea and elaborated on it, so it is not just a bird of Arabia but all over the world."

The first two English translations Sheng read were "not very good," and he struggled to find the best approach to the text. Finally, he decided to do it himself.

"I thought maybe I could do an English adaptation, to take the idea and write my own version. I got a Danish-English dictionary, and the help of two friends from Denmark who are musicians. Finally I came up with my own version."

Writing the music: "I wanted to showcase Jane Eaglen's voice, and also to show in music the way Andersen made the Phoenix legend international. I've been very involved in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, collecting and studying East Asian materials — they're not like Chinese music. I would say the score is pentatonic (using a scale that sounds like playing only the black notes on a piano keyboard), and it has some dramatic moments.

"My music is tonal in the sense that it has a tonic center, a beginning and an end. But it is not conventional harmony: I don't write triads (chords that form the basis of tonal music). My philosophy of being a composer is that there are so many styles and techniques in our arsenal that add to the range of expression — dissonance as well as consonance, which should be able to coexist in the same piece."

How he does it: "Well, a deadline helps," jokes Sheng. "It actually took me since last August to write 'The Phoenix,' and it came rather fast because I had the sketches already, in my head and written down.

"Normally, I hear the music first — the sound in my head, and then I hear it more and more. Each time, I hear it more concretely, and I hear the instruments.

"In this case, where there is a text, I actually sketch the structure of the music around the text — where there would be a slow section or a loud section, where there would be an interlude. It's very exciting when everything comes together."

Concert premiere

"The Phoenix" premieres at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Benaroya Hall, with Gerard Schwarz conducting. A repeat performance is set for 8 p.m. Saturday; the program also includes Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony (No. 3) and Busoni's "Turandot" Suite. For tickets, call 206-215-4747 or visit
About the artist

Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai and studied piano with his mother from age 4. He immigrated to the United States and pursued graduate studies at Queens College and Columbia University. A protégé of Leonard Bernstein, he orchestrated the late composer-conductor's last major work, "Arias and Barcarolles."

Sheng's works have been performed by most major American orchestras. Among those to commission his compositions are the New York Philharmonic, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From 1992 to 1994, Sheng served as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony.

For the past nine years, Sheng has taught composition and music theory at the University of Michigan.