When Ma Shui-long, one of Taiwan's best-known composers, was still in high school, he started deliberating about his future. But at that time he was torn between two loves: music and painting.
And so he decided to put himself through a test over a two-month period. During the first month, he stayed away from painting, including art viewing. During the second month, he did not touch the piano completely.
At the end of his self-imposed trial period, Ma realized that life without painting was not really all that bad. But the days completely devoid of music were unbearable. This was how he arrived at his mindset that music was the career for him to pursue. In fact, he has given himself to music fully from that moment on without regret.
Ma was born in 1939 to a family engaged in Chinese medicine for three generations. As a child growing up in Keelung, he developed curiosity and interest in a lot of things around him. His first exposure to music was to the traditional "pei kuan" (northern pipes) and "nan kuan" (southern pipes) at the temple in Keelung on a festive occasion. The old-style storyteller in his neighborhood, who introduced him to "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and the saga of "Liao Tian-ding," opened his impressionable ears to fascinating rhythmic sounds. His interest in music, it seemed, was first cultivated in those days.
As a child, Ma demonstrated an amazing range of talents, including writing, music, drawing, and even sports. He once entertained the idea of becoming a literary writer. Apparently he was good in composition, developing the habit of keeping a diary until he reached senior high school. In between, he managed to pen some poetry.
Exposed to music, Ma sought to understand music theory better. He borrowed the school's organ to practice playing. But during this time, he also felt the attraction of the fine arts.
Ma finally decided to take the entrance examination to the National Taiwan Academy of the Arts to study music theory and composition. His admission meant years devoted to strict academic training in music composition. He acquired a lot of experience during this time and this turned out to be his solid music foundation.
The year Ma entered the National Taiwan Academy of the Arts coincided with his father's passing away due to illness, forcing him to study during the day and work at night. Ma did not shirk from family obligations. In short, he put in only four to five hours of sleep daily. Sometimes he hardly slept. This went on for five years.
Even during his student days, Ma already showed a flair for music composition with Oriental flavor. His prize-winning piano solo piece "Rondo" could be cited as an example. Although written using the western classical approach, the music had Oriental tone colors.
Early on, Ma undertook to bridge the East and the West in his music direction. Turning out strictly western music did not sit well with him for the result belonged to a tradition which he could not call his own and he could not identify with.
"All my works have something to do with this land," he said days before the Taiwan Symphony Orchestra began presenting a repertoire of his music, including two new compositions, as part of the "Voice of Taiwan" series. "I have always loved this land. I try to express my wishes and hopes for Taiwan through my music."
The first piece in this particular program was "Legend of Taiwan - Story of a Chilvalrous Person, Liao Tian-ding." Ma looked at Liao as a very patriotic person. This legendary figure, a native of Taichung, rose from the masses. Yet he was not a common find. His fighting skills were exceptional. He lived during the period when the people in Taiwan were oppressed by their Japanese colonizers.
This composition with love of country as inspiration was originally commissioned by the Cloud Gate Dance Theater's Lin Hwai-min in 1979. At that time, when Ma wrote it for Lin's dance drama, it included only one or two segments of the presently full-length 50-minute composition.
"Searching" for Gucheng and Orchestra, also in the program, was finished by composer Ma only recently. He singled out a traditional stringed Chinese musical instrument with special features like the gucheng for highlighting and bringing together with a western-style orchestra. Gucheng artist Huang Hao-yin did the dramatic interpretation as featured soloist.
Those who have followed closely the music career of Ma Shui-long are aware that he made an international impact many years ago with his famous "Bamboo Flute Concerto." In 1983, the late maestro Mstislav Rostropovich conducted this composition during a performance of the National Symphony Orchestra from Washington, D.C. at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. The concert was broadcast live via satellite on the PBS television channel, thereby opening the eyes and ears of many to a most wonderful, tiny musical instrument.
Chen Chung-shen, Ma's student who was picked to be the bamboo flute soloist, showed up at the rehearsal with the instrument in his pocket. When he pulled it out to give a sampling of his flute-playing, the hundred musicians present could not believe their eyes for it seemed no match for a full-sized orchestra. However, when Chen started playing it, everyone was impressed to hear the melody, which he initially performed as a simple demonstration. Later, he waded into the portion played side by side with the string section of the orchestra and his performance far exceeded the foreign musicians' expectations.
After graduating from the National Taiwan Academy of the Arts in 1964, Ma received a scholarship to study under Dr. Oscar Sigmund in Regensburg Kirchenmusik Hochschule in West Germany. He completed this part of his education with distinction in 1975.
As a Fulbright scholar in 1986, he spent his time at the Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. His stay in the United States culminated with four full concerts at the Lincoln Center in New York. He also brought his music to other major U.S. cities.
All these years, Ma has been active in the Asian Composers' League, ROC Chapter, even actively representing Taiwan internationally as president of the Taiwan Chapter.
Throughout his music career, Ma wrote some 80 compositions, including works for the orchestra, chamber music ensemble, solo piano, solo voice, and chorus. He has no intention of retiring from such creative calling.
"Invisible Temple" for Chorus and Orchestra, another new selection in the Taiwan Symphony Orchestra's recent concert program, was composed after Ma climbed the Yushan or Jade Mountain three years ago.
"I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Taiwan on that trip," he said, recalling his highland adventure. He incorporated elements of Tsou and Bunun tribal music into his music. A male chorus of more than 120 voices was required to express the awesome grandeur of this "sacred mountain" called Yushan.
Musicians of the younger generation look at Ma as their mentor. Ma, in fact, was the first dean of the music department at the National Taipei University of the Arts, formerly known as the National Institute of the Arts, in Kuandu. He went on to become the president of the university.
As dean of the music department, he sought to give the students a well-rounded education, embracing a range of disciplines. Lee Tzu-sheng, a composer of the younger generation, remembered his days at the NTUA: "He incorporated traditional operas like the Honan opera into the required curriculum. And so I learned the special style of singing from Honan opera queen Wang Hai-ling."
This came to light a couple of days before the concert, "New Vision of Poetry." Seven composers, namely Lu Yen, Lai Deh-ho, Ma Shui-long, Pan Hwang-long, Yang Tsung-hsien, Wu Ting-lien, and Lee Tzu-sheng, were invited to match beautiful verses with their music compositions.
Ma wrote "I Am....." with Ma Sen's poem of the same title as take-off point. Back in 1985, Ma perceived at first glance the deep frame of mind in which the verses were written. He began thinking about life, music and a strong desire to create.
The opening lines of the poem cited feelings like loneliness, solitude, worry, and grief plus the need to keep going. Ma, the composer, shortly arrived at a music structure to express the philosophy and the abstract content of the poem. He thought of having a soprano, a flutist as well as a percussionist to handle the castanets, small drum, the chimes, the marimba, and gongs, among others, to perform his music.
While the burning passion for music composition never completely left him, Ma was saddled for 13 years with administrative concerns. If inspiration came to him in the middle of a meeting, he was not able to leave and quickly write down the music. Only after Ma quit to return to music composition did he return to a happy life.
Ma remains active teaching future generations of musicians at NTUA. He wants to pass on his thoughts and ideas about music. What is most important to him is his return to the world of music composition from which he does not ever want to retire.
Only last April, Ma Shui-long received the highest honor that could ever be given an artist - the Executive Yuan's Culture Award. The Tainan University and the National Taipei University of the Arts conferred on him honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of his great contribution to music culture and art. Ma has certainly come a long way.