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From Farm Accordion to Pulitzer Prize: Zhou Long’s Big Win

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"I've totally lost my voice," composer Zhou Long told WQXR on Tuesday, just 24 hours after becoming the first Chinese-born artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. “This totally surprised me.”

Zhou’s winning opera, "Madame White Snake," was commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival and had its world premiere on February 26, 2010 at the Opera Boston. This week, the work was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music.

“I was taking a nap, having worked late to meet my deadline,” Zhou said in a raspy, interview-worn voice.

“Chen Yi woke me up," the composer said of his wife, renowned composer Chen Yi. "I had so many missed calls. Then I saw the news on the Internet. I was overwhelmed.”

Some of those missed calls were from China, where news of Zhou’s prize is in the media. “They heard the news everywhere,” Zhou said of family members in China. The composer is an American citizen and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It’s all over the busses, the taxis.”

Since his mid-1980s arrival in New York to pursue his doctorate in music at Columbia University, Zhou has pushed his musical boundaries.

"He was sending cassettes of his music to me in the 1980s," said host of WNYC's Soundcheck, John Schaefer. "That's how far back this goes."

From peppering the mailboxes of influential tastemakers, to receiving the Pulitzer Prize, Chinese-born composer Zhou Long has come a long way.

“From a very young age I was interested in engineering, model cars, handy kinds of things,” Zhou said. The composer’s mother was a classically trained pianist, and Zhou studied the piano as a child. But everything was interrupted by the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, which he spent largely on a state farm in northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

“If the Cultural Revolution had not happened, I probably would have entered engineering school,” the composer said.

As the country fell into ever greater revolutionary fervor, Zhou drove a tractor, grew beans and wheat and carried 200 pounds of produce each day. To improve moral, he taught himself to play revolutionary songs-- the only music allowed-- on an accordion he brought.

When the country’s prestigious Central Conservatory of Music reopened in 1977, Zhou returned to Beijing to enroll in the school’s first composition class.

Shortly after graduating, the composer traveled to the U.S. on a scholarship to Columbia University, where he completed his doctoral studies in music. It was during that time that Zhou began sending out examples of his work to discerning listeners like John Schaefer.

"I thought, 'I have not heard anything like this before,'" Schaefer said, recalling his first experiences listening to Zhou's music in the 1980s.

To date, Zhou has received fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, in addition to recording grants from the Cary Trust and the Copland Fund for Music. In 2003, he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“I'm really happy that [the Pulitzer Prize went] to Zhou Long, who's music is the least flashy but most thoroughly considered of the "Gang of Four," [which includes] Bright Sheng, Tan Dun and Chen Yi,” commented Ken Smith, a classical music critic and Chinese music authority, by email.

Yet Smith cautions it is the music that deserves the award. "The production (which of course is not awarded the prize) was alarmingly bad,” Smith’s message continued. “I hope that the award will signal a life beyond its first visual conception.”

The legend of Madame White Snake, a tale of a snake-turned-woman who wreaks havoc, is a story ingrained in Chinese mythology.

When asked what his plans are now, Zhou laughed. “In these few days, I’ll use my broken voice to talk to people like you,” he said, referring to the many interviews he is currently conducting. “Then I’ll get back to my work. I’m only halfway done with a commission for the Beijing Modern Music Festival. I don’t want to miss my deadline.”