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Composer Portraits: Chen Yi

"The required courses at the Central Conservatory in Beijing included Chinese folk songs....We also went to the countryside every year to collect folk songs....I could see what is natural – it’s so close to my native language and the customs of my daily life! I felt that if I were to create my music in a language with which I am most familiar, using logical principles that are related to nature, then my compositions would be very natural in emotion and powerful in spirit." — Chen Yi

Born in Guangzhou in 1953 into a cultured family (both her parents were medical practitioners and amateur musicians), Chen Yi began violin lessons as a small child and was able to pro t, too, from her parents’ record collection. Then came the Cultural Revolution, and at the age of fteen she was sent off to a rural area. The manual labor was tough, but the contact with Chinese culture as maintained by peasants vastly enlarged her horizons. She was also able to take her violin with her.

After two years, she went back home to work with the local Beijing opera troupe, until the reopening of the Central Conservatory, in 1978, allowed her to proceed with her studies. She spent eight years there, and then another seven at Columbia University, where her teachers included Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky. After graduating from Columbia, she taught at the Peabody Institute and was composer-in-residence with the Women’s Philharmonic, Chanticleer, and Aptos Creative Center in San Francisco (1993-96). In 1998 she was appointed professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. 

Her published output goes back to pieces she wrote as a student in China, including Duo ye for piano (1985), which she based on an ancient dance-song, and which won first prize in a national competition. Two years later, in New York, she made a new version of this material for orchestra, demonstrating how far she had so rapidly traveled, from the world of Bartók to one nearer Ligeti, Lutosławski, and John Adams, though still conveying the raw energy of the original. It was also while she was at Columbia that she began writing for Chinese instruments, whether as soloists (Dian for pipa, 1991), in groups, or in combination with western instruments. By the time she graduated, her tools were complete for exploring a territory between Chinese tradition and mainstream western modernism.

In the quarter-century since, she has been immensely productive, especially in the domains of orchestral, chamber, and choral music. Her works include three numbered symphonies and a fourth written in collaboration with her husband, Zhou Long, also a renowned Chinese American composer. Among her many concertos are works with solo viola, piano, flute, huqin (fiddle), percussion, cello, organ, saxophone quartet, violin, a quartet of Chinese instruments, and oboe and sheng (western and Chinese reed instruments). Her latest of this genre, Southern Scenes, with flute and pipa soloists, has its premiere in Honolulu next month.

Writing for smallish ensembles, she has produced works for traditional western formations (string quartet, piano trio, woodwind quintet) and for groups including Chinese instruments. Tonight’s program focuses on another area, centered on the quintet of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire plus a percussionist – a distinct sound world, but one she shows to be endless in its resources.


Near Distance for sextet

Composed in 1988. 

Composed in July-August 1988, after Chen Yi’s second year of studies at Columbia, this is one of the first pieces she produced in the United States. It catches her music at a point of ignition, following the deeper familiarity with contemporary western music she was able to acquire here in New York. That ignition is not, however, coming at the expense of Chinese aspects of modality and instrumental usage. On the contrary, those aspects are rather facilitating her embrace of the new and western. “Lost in thought,” goes the subtitle, “about ancient culture and modern civilization.”

The piece is a aflood with character, right from its opening flourish, using what was by now a standard ensemble – the Pierrot-plus sextet – with vitality, whether as individuals or fully together. Prominent solos include those for bass clarinet soon after the start, for high muted violin in a slow passage about a quarter of the way through the nine- minute composition, and for flute in a cadenza-like episode. No less engaging are the ways in which instruments come together, as when, quite early on, a solo break for the flute lands on a note simultaneously chimed by the vibraphone at its first entrance (the first entrance, indeed, of any tuned percussion). Perhaps the title should be taken as referring not only to eastern and western cultures but also to these miniature encounters of timbre.


Shuo Chang for guitar

Composed in 2013. 

This six-minute piece takes its title (“speak and sing”) from the traditional Chinese art of storytelling by means, indeed, of speech and singing. (The same term has more recently come to be used in China for a western form of narrative with music: rap.) Of the many varieties of this art in China, Chen Yi was thinking of Jingyun Dagu, native to the capital and involving drum interludes with other instruments, led by the banjo-like sanxian, accompanying the narrator. Hence her choice of this particular tradition as model for the solo guitar piece she was writing for Xuefei Yang.

The opening is intended to suggest the deep and leisurely manner the sanxian adopts when accompanying; with the introduction later of tremolos and iterations, we hear more the reciter, singing, humming, and speaking. This kind of music is interleaved with drumming and dance, and concluded by a victorious coda. As Chen Yi puts it, the guitar “plays all the roles in an imagined performance of Chinese Shuo Chang, respectively as the singer, the drummer, the ensemble musicians, and the dancers, all in one.”


Happy Rain on a Spring Night for quintet

Composed in 2004. 

Answering a commission from Music From Copland House, Chen Yi based this piece on a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu (712-70), her translation reading as follows:

Happy rain comes in time,

When spring is in its prime.

With night breeze it will fall,

And quietly moisten all.

Clouds darken wild roads,

Light brightens a little boat.

Saturated at dawn,

With flowers blooming the town.

The springtime rain, happily returning to nurture seeds, she sees as an image of “our new society pushing us forward to the future.” Such optimism, very characteristic, could be responsible for the brightness and dash of her music, and by no means only here.

By her own account, the opening section of the piece corresponds to the first half of the poem, with its fast splashing around a continuous line of tremolando triplets played by muted violin, then muted cello. There is no change in the tempo marking, but the second section, introduced by a melody in violin harmonics, feels slower because of its longer note values and spacier textures. The following two lines of the poem are now in play: “It’s so dark,” the composer explains, “a little light in the boat is shimmering on the lake.... Breathy key slaps on the flute create a mysterious atmosphere, in dialogue with other instruments. Cello glissandi recite the poem in the tone of Mandarin, later echoed by string harmonics.”

All of this occupies just five of the piece’s twelve minutes, to be followed by a strong and energetic toccata that builds to a climax and goes on into a powerful coda. Tonality in Chen Yi’s music is fluid and multicolored, but the ending here on C is fully affirmative, even if the piano has other ideas.


Qi for quartet

Composed in 1997. 

Of this work’s title, Chen Yi has written as follows: “Qi, a Chinese character, means air, energy, power and spirit. In my work Qi, I used a mixed combination of western instruments, to create sound from the east, to express my feelings of the Qi abstractly – it’s so untouchable, so mysterious, but so strong and powerful. It melts into air and light, it’s like the space in Chinese paintings, it’s filled into the dancing lines in Chinese calligraphy, it’s the spirit in a human being’s mind. In my composition, I translate my general feeling of the Qi, the element of nature, into my musical language in a quite free and slow tempo. There are also exaggerated textures with tension, in which I try to sound the inner voices and spirit of human beings, to experience this eternal power.”

It is with the former, slow kind of music that the work begins, the cello starting out alone from a motif that will recur: up an augmented fourth, down a major third. This provides the entry point for a wider exploration of the Qi sound, marked by suddenness and by fine blendings of timbre, with the flutist at first on piccolo. Soon the piano sets up a low-register ostinato in quintuplets, greeted by Chinese crash cymbals (later, there will be Beijing opera gongs), and the music acquires a far more dynamic character. The Qi motif is still there, however, transformed into the piano’s rotating bass and present in the slow melody that flute and the cello lay out, two octaves apart, to add to the sense of moving force. Through a cello solo, this force recedes, only to come back mightier than before. This time it leads into a reprise of the opening, with the ostinato now spiritualized in the high treble.


Three Bagatelles from China West for flute and piano

Composed in 2006. 

I. Shan Ge

II. Nai Guo Hou

III. Dou Duo 

Composed for Marya Martin, these three short pieces are based on the musical traditions of three minority groups living in the western provinces of China, respectively the Jingpo, Yi, and Miao peoples, to use the names they are given in Chinese. The first piece is drawn from a solo on the lerong, the Jingpo flute, accompanied by the kouxian (a variety of jaw harp, i.e. an instrument with several pieces of reed or thin metal attached to a frame that is placed in the mouth and twanged). It is not difficult to spot how the flute and piano take on these roles.

“Nai Guo Hou” has the piano repeating a folk song throughout, to which the ute, entering later, adds a solo in imitation of the Yi bawu, an instrument held like a flute but having a metal reed and thus a sound somewhere between the flute and the clarinet.

The short finale, in ostinato style, again treats a folk song, this time suggesting the lusheng ensembles of the Miao, groups of instruments having several long bamboo pipes bound together vertically and played through a horizontal pipe.


Sparkle for octet

Composed in 1992. 

Chen Yi was nearing the end of her studies at Columbia when she wrote this piece for the New Music Consort, for them to play at the Manhattan School in October 1992. “In Sparkle,” she wrote, “I want to express my impressions of sparks – ashes of wit, so bright, nimble, and passionate.”

Whirling figures in sixteenth notes, moving through slower changes in harmony, might alternatively suggest bubbles streaming upward in a glass of soda. To begin with, the piano has this kind of swirl all the time, the other instruments ( flute and clarinet, vibraphone and marimba, violin, cello, and double bass) adding support, contrast, or parallel activity. A sudden change takes the effervescence into marimba, with offbeat claves and a hint of Steve Reich. Progression – and one of the remarkable things about this piece is its achievement of progression simultaneously with rapid rotation – works towards a climactic passage, after which the repetitiveness moves into the background (cello harmonics) so that slower lines can come forward, especially, at first, high glissandos from flute, clarinet, and violin. A whole slow section develops here, with memories from earlier, before the marimba-claves episode returns and the piece works back to where it came from.

Sparkle is the least Chinese-sounding piece on this program, and yet it has a thoroughly Chinese origin. “The material of pitch, rhythm, and form,” the composer reveals, “are drawn from the tune and the structural method of the traditional Chinese baban (eight beats) rules of the grouping of notes.”


—Notes by Paul Griffths