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Singing the Chinese Blues

Liu Sola (

Liu Sola (

NEW YORK, May 1, 2001 - Composer and novelist Liu Sola spoke with the Asia Society in advance of the Asia Society's May 9, 2001 concert Crossovers: Sola and Friends.

You’re well known as a novelist in China. I think it’s really interesting that someone who has this other life as a writer composes songs that are made up of abstract sounds rather than words. How does your writing inform your music? Why do you choose to use sounds rather than words in your music when words compose the bulk of your literary life?

I’m not trained as a professional writer but I am trained as a professional musician and composer. I’ve been looking for a musical style for a long time. It’s harder for me to achieve my musical style than it is to achieve my writing style. I was educated in China and I learned only about classical music composition. No one ever introduced me to blues and jazz. In China, folk music is mostly used for propaganda. Classical music is also a mainstream thing. That’s all we know about music. Somehow there was something I needed that I couldn’t find in China. Even after I studied classical music, I just didn’t feel right. It was more simple to explain in writing so people immediately understood my writing and got excited about it. I was still searching for my musical style. I left China and came to the States and heard blues for the first time. That changed my life. It has taken more than ten years to really find my musical style since then.

How were you first exposed to blues and jazz?

The first time I heard blues was in Chicago in 1987, the first time I came to the States. It was a shock. I decided that this is something I have to study. I never heard about it before 1987. There was nothing about blues in China.

Is that still true today?

In China today there is still more interest in Western mainstream culture. Everything written in history books is about classical music. People still think blues music and jazz music is not mainstream. But it’s a slow process. There is a Chinese jazz festival now. I think it takes time to put in people’s mind that the most beautiful soul music is from the US. For me, I went in this direction and it took me a long time to find my style.

What is it about blues and jazz in particular that attracts you and lends itself to this combination with traditional Chinese music?

It’s very soulful music. When I first heard blues, I could feel the soul. The singers know soul…. That really touched me, especially because I like to write fiction. I feel very emotional about that music. From the way blues singers and jazz musicians communicate, I hear Chinese music. I understand one side of Chinese music that I’ve never been taught when I was in China. In our education, people forget there is soulful Chinese music…. From blues and jazz, I heard Chinese music. I started digging to find what was actually there in Chinese music. This is my life-long research.

The sound of your voice transcends boundaries. Using sounds rather than words gives the music a transcendental, other-worldly quality.

There is more room for imagination without lyrics. The voice then becomes like an instrument. Using words is like writing poetry, but if you don’t sing words, it’s like writing novels or fiction. The sentence can be long or short. Also in fiction things can be completely emotional. That’s why I don’t use lyrics.