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A composer who immigrated to the United States as a teenager in the aftermath of social unrest in China, has won the University of Louisville’s 2020 Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition for A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams, a work for orchestra premiered in 2018.

Lei Liang, 47, has lived in the United States since 1990 and is currently a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego; he’s also a research-artist-in-residence at Qualcomm Institute, an interdisciplinary research institute where Liang works with scientists to develop a “sonification” of coral reefs.

A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams is inspired by the landscapes of 20th century Chinese landscape artist Huang Binhong, but reaches deeper to explore ecological and spiritual destruction and our relationship with nature. The winning 35-minute work creates an aural landscape with sometimes imperceptible sounds, to the most expansive music an orchestra can produce. Large swaths of sparse textures are punctuated with dark reminders of our changing climate, and delicate reminders of healing and resurrection.

“When creating the work, I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually,” Liang said, underscoring his ideas that music can do more, “to sustain a place where we and our children can belong.”

The instruments and players of the orchestra are not always used as they are intended, but for the sounds they are capable of producing. Musicians whisper consonants in rapid succession, brass players speak into their horns, the harpist slides a protractor across the strings, and string players scratch and tap their instruments to create a vast sonic palette. Liang “paints” with the instruments and sounds of the traditional orchestra (and close to 60 percussion instruments), like Binhong, using a range of musical brushstrokes to create texture.

Liang’s preoccupation with Binhong stretches back 25 years to his early college days, and this winning work is the third in a series inspired by the artist, preceded by a set of electronic pieces and a work for piano. Through the Qualcomm Institute and the California Institute of Information Technology, where Liang was composer-in-residence from 2014-2016, scientists used multispectral imaging on 12 rare paintings of Binhong to capture minutiae, from stray fibers to tiny brush strokes, revealing the artists’ creative process with comprehensive detail. Liang returned to the Qualcomm Institute in 2018 as its first Research Artist-in-Residence.

“We dream together about what we can do with these artworks,” Liang says about the connection between a scientific approach to understanding the Binhong landscapes and the creative expression of his music, “[to] not only to preserve them but understanding through this process about our own heritage more deeply, more precisely, and more imaginatively, and perhaps in this process help to create a better world together.”

Lei Liang was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang, and has been awarded a Rome Prize, an Aaron Copland Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Liang’s next project, already underway, is another collaboration with scientists who are studying the arctic. The musical result will be a string quartet.

A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams was premiered and recorded by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and conducted by Gil Rose on their own label BMOP Sound.

The annual $100,000 Grawemeyer prize rewards outstanding ideas in music, and also world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

Daniel Gilliam is the weekday afternoon host (1-3pm) on 90.5 WUOL Classical Louisville, and director of radio for Louisville Public Media.