One of my most prized possessions, Lang Lang’s book Journey of a Thousand Miles, is the only book he signed at the end of his concert I attended at the Esplanade Concert Hall (ECH) in 2010.(The ECH management had stipulated that each person in the queue at the autograph session could only ask Lang Lang to sign one CD. I not only got that, but also a photograph with him.) In person, Lang Lang was an imposing figure with lots of charm and charisma. Polite and affable, he was very obliging and immediatedly agreed to sign my book upon request. The few seconds (or a minute or two) with him would be forever etched in my memory.
The book began with his mother’s story: Zhou Xiu-lan was an actress, singer and dancer. Neither shy nor weak, she had dreams and ambitions, imagination and talent, but her professional dreams were thwarted by the Cultural Revolution. (Lang Lang practised to make up for her missed opportunities; the music became a soundtrack to a movie about his mother.) She met Lang Pa in 1977 when both were 24. Lang Pa was tenacious in his courtship and they married in 1980 and Lang Lang was born in 1982.As a child of two musicians who had had their ambitions and hopes shattered, Lang Lang was born of great expectations – one that both guided him and led him to great success.
The first account that was slightly different from Lang Pa’s book was that the first piano was delivered just before Lang Lang turned two. Lang Lang loved Tom & Jerry, Monkey King and Transformers but didn’t like learning scales and tackling exercises but did so because he realised that to play the pieces he loved he needed to practice.
Lang Lang was a child who was much loved, even adored, by his mother, his grandparents, his uncle and aunts. It was telling that he did not include his dad here. Unconditional dedication to his career became his father’s solemn duty and dad never smiled or said anything much except “Practice!”. His mum explained that “Your father and I will protect you. You wil always be the most important thing in our lives. We will sacrifice whatever necessary to ensure your career”. Yet, to live without Lang Lang was a sacrifice she never considered; it started with Lang’s sojourn to Beijing.
Lang played with tears in his eyes. He played because it was easier to play than not to play; easier to play than to argue with his dad; easier to play than to listen to his parents fight; easier to play than to think about being ini Beijing without his mom. When his mum was gone, and Lang Pa demamded that he practised, Lang poured his heart into his playing. Without his mother to run to, the piano often became an extension of his emotions. When he wasn’t playing the piano, he felt that everything was lost. Nothing would ease the pain till he saw his mum again, though his mum explained, “Your father only wants what’s best for you”.
Later, during his mum’s visit, Lang never let her out of his sight. When she listened to him practise, she told him he was playing better than ever; he embraced her with all his strength. Her encouragement gave him the nourishment he’d been missing.
Lang Pa had given up his job to dedicate his life to his son. For all the differences in their personalities, father and son shared an obsession – to be Number 1. As his mum explained: “Most dads don’t care half as much as he does”. She was right. Lang Pa was relentless, difficult and cold, but he was also his son’s best ally and strength.
Mum explained that it was because of her love for Lang that she stepped aside to let Lang Pa help him become Number 1, that the three of them were united in this great adventure to cultivate his talent and bring him fame, and that each of them had a role to play in this endeavour. His mum’s ego was more controlled. She loved her son without concern for her own well-being. Lang, in turn, loved her even more; he never stopped feeling the pain of her absence. His heart cried for her; he continued to cry for his mum throughout his entire childhood and, to be honest, long after that. Of the three of them, mum was the strongest, enduring endless stretches of loniliness for her son’s benefit.
Lang fell in love with New York at first sight and was enchanted by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (which is older and calmer that New York). Lang Pa told him America was the most open country with the most possibilities. In America, the sky was the limit.
Lang Lang realised for the first time how much he loved his dad when Lang Pa was hospitalised because of two large tumours in his throat on the plane back to China after the Curtis audition. Those were dark days. Lang Lang cried all the time. What would become of him without his father?
On another level, the new life was a revelation in many ways; one of which was to see kids of his age question authority. He felt creative and alive. Then the incident with the shoe happened. It was as Lang Pa recounted in his book, except that Lang Lang remembered it had hit his ear.
The most astounding day for Lang Lang was when he replaced Andre Watts. Lang was a crowd pleaser, a dramatic performer who loved nothing more than conveying his love of the music. He was the biggest and most exciting keyboard talent encountered in many years.
Another account that was slightly different from Lang Pa’s acccount was the choice of two recording contracts. At the agte of 18, Lang made his first release, a live performance in Seiji Ozawas Hall at Tanglewood under the Telarc label.
Lang Lang was slow in adjusting to the rhythms of success. He was meeting interesting people every day. Whe he started earning good money, the best thing was that he finally got to see his mother! He had not seen his mum for three years. The first time she walked through the customs at the airport, Lang Lang started to cry like a little boy; and when she held him in her arms, he felt like one. For the next two days, he didn’t let her out of his sight. This was something very crucial and Lang Pa did not make any mention of it in his book. I really hope Zhou would pen a book one day writing about her perspectives. She is the single most important source of his sanity and his love for her is boundless.
Another important milestone for Lang Lang was playing at the Carneige Hall because it meant being in the living presence of Horowitz and Rubinstein, masters who had performed there countless times. It also had by far the best acoustics.
Playing music is not rocket science. It is poetry, romance. The pianist’s interpretation must be the genuine manifestation of the human emotion. Lang Lang has been written about as a technical wizard but a self-absorbed interpreter: too personal, too undisciplined, too subjective, too schmaltzy, too romantic and too self-indulgent. But, ironically, the controversy was helpful. It made lang Lang controversial, and, funnily enough, controversy sells.
In 2002, depression loomed over Lang Lang (whicxh Lang Pa also did not mention). He felt constantly unmoored, always completely alone in spite of the crowds. He began feeling shaky and afraid and worried about injuries; the biggest fear concerned the arm and hands. It happened in 2003. His hand was injured because he didn’t “live a normal life”. This was a chance for him to find balance in life. Among other things, he studied Chinese philosophy (Confucius and Lao Tsu) and looks back on this time as one of the greatest moments of his life – a time to learn that he could live life without the piano. He learnt that balance is what matters most. The world was now a totally different place, and much more interesting thatn it had been just a month earlier.
Lang Lang’s first solo recital at Carneige Hall was a spsecial experience. When he and his dad held hands and bowed as they received a standing ovation, Lang Lang couldn’t help but think how far they had come together: it was a moment of great triumph and reconcilation.
Life was now a whirlowind of constant travel, excitement and even glamour. The reality of it went beyond what he had dreamt of as a child. He now lived in airplanes… It was crazy and non-stop, but he loved it. The downside was that his life was confined to airplanes, hotels and concert halls.
In 2004, Lang Lang was appointed Internationl Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. The unforgettable experiecnces made him cry and he felt confused that the human condition could be so wondrous yet so appalling. Kofi Annan, US secretary-general said: “Lang Lang, your responsibility as an artist goes beyond music. Your art must serve people and peace”. Yes, music is the true connector; the world of music is truly a world without borders.
Lang Lang wrote this book (with David Ritz, a bestselling music writer who has written autobiographies of many musicians) when he was 26 and much have happened since. I wonder when he will write the next book. Perhaps when he is 40, or when he has a family of his own? I would love to read his perspectives of his own family – like whether his wife would have the qualities Lang Pa mentioned in his book, whether his own children would be subjected to the kind of training he had, etc). Perhaps, before that, his mum would write a book from her point of view? I look forward to both books.