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            Art is inescapably rooted in the experience of the artist—nationality, ethnicity, life events, gender, and much more—all contribute to the unique and personal perspectives that we value in the artistic vision. Today, our times—especially since the encounter of Western Europe with “orientalism” during the nineteenth century—have engendered closer and more vital connections with musical traditions from the entire globe. 

            Perhaps, no more striking of this phenomenon is the musical cross-fertilization wrought by our country’s engagement with China, its culture, and its musicians who have come to us.  After the end of the “Cultural Revolution” and the subsequent loosening of its onerous restrictions, there has been a small migration of talented, imaginative, and highly successful composers to the US.  Zhou Tian is exemplary of these folks; he was born in Hangzhou to a musical family—his father was a commercial composer.  Trained as a classical pianist, he pursued a variety of musical interests, including arranging and jazz.  After coming to this country he studied at Curtis, Juilliard, and the University of Southern California—receiving his DMA at the latter institution.  The list of major awards and honors this young composer has already received, as well as the number of major commissions from important musical organizations is impressive.  2018-19 marks the première of not only Transcend, but also works commissioned by the Texas Music Educators Association, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian, and the Shanghai Symphony.  He is indeed a busy young artist.

            Transcend is a musical commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.  In May 1869, after seven years of monumental effort by thousands of laborers, at Promontory Point in northern Utah the nation was finally linked by rail from east to west across the continent.  It was one of the greatest construction projects in our nation’s history.  In a personal note, this writer was privileged to participate in the centennial celebration at Promontory Point in 1969—dressed in his Civil War uniform—and still wears his “Golden Spike” lapel pin, awarded for participation.

            Commissioned by the Reno Philharmonic, and twelve other American symphony orchestras, Transcend is inspired by the national commitment, engineering prowess, and, perhaps, most of all, the human sacrifice and labor that made it all possible.  The workforce included thousands of Irish immigrants (who worked for the Union Pacific, working westward from Omaha), and yet more thousands of Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific, starting in Sacramento.   The task of the Chinese was formidable, for unlike the Union Pacific, moving across the flat expanse of the Great Plains, the Central Pacific faced the herculean task of boring through the high Sierra Mountains at a snail’s pace, with much loss of life.  Only recently has their sacrifice become more widely appreciated, including a newly published book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain by Gordon Chang.  Zhou Tian’s composition is in part a tribute to the sacrifice of his countrymen.  Zhou writes that he was moved “.  .  . to tell a musical story, to celebrate human perseverance, to pay tribute to my own cultural heritage.”

            Transcend was given its world première by the Reno Philharmonic in April of 2019.  It consists of three movements, “Pulse,” “Promise,” and “D-O-N-E.”  “Pulse” opens quietly in the string section, with a tranquil invocation of the deserts of Nevada and Utah—a somewhat welcome relief, after the travail of the Sierra Nevada.  But, the music gradually grows in intensity, and a frenetic pace ensues that features crashing, thumping percussion outbursts, which the composer compares to dynamite blasts:  man versus nature.  While the second movement is an eloquent, serene affair, it opens with a dramatic trumpet solo, accompanied by the percussion.  But, it goes on to feature meditative woodwind solos, and incorporates traditional Chinese musical elements.  In the finale, Zhou, has cunningly based its driving rhythmic motive on the exact rhythm of the letters of the Morse code message (DONE) that was sent out to a breathless nation upon the driving of the Golden Spike.  The rhythm of the Morse code message is first heard in the solo trumpet, and soon is passed all around the orchestra as the climax of the ending arrives.

            The work is a well-crafted, evocative, and thoroughly entertaining tribute to an era when our nation built monumental things—even in times of great national stress. And, in a larger sense it is a long overdue tribute to the Chinese who were so essential to its success.  In the words of the Stanford University historian, Gordon Chang, “The labor of the Railroad Chinese is the purchase of, and the irrefutable claim to, American place and identity.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan