Ever since the 1980s, Liu Sola (刘索拉, b.1955) has remained an invigorating alternative voice in both Chinese music and literature.
Sola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.
In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).
After graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was
irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.
By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.
London and New York
In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.
With Vini Reilly, 1988.
Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.
In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.
Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):
After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.
In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:
In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.
Back in the PRC
After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she
cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.
In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:
The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.
From The afterlife of Li Jiantong.
Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.
Here’s a short CCTV documentary:
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Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.