Chen Yi is one of the most acclaimed composers of our time. One of the keys to her musical makeup is the way Chinese and Western elements are so distinctively fused in her music. Although born in China, she was brought up in the world of Western classical music, which she encountered through her parents and in the early years of her education. Once she became immersed in Chinese traditional music in her teens, though, the nature of her music changed. Her roots in Chinese music are evident in many of her compositions, in which one hears hints of the sound of folk songs and opera, Chinese scales and tuning, and traditional Chinese instruments, either the actual instruments or her evocations of them by Western instruments.
Chen Yi was born in the southern port city of Guangzhou on April 4, 1953. Her family was accomplished and musical – both of her parents were doctors and also played instruments (her mother the piano, her father the violin) – and Chen Yi and her brother and sister were all brought up with music. Chen Yi began studying piano and violin at the age of three. But with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, education and the arts were frowned upon. Her father and older sister were sent away to work camps. As Chen Yi later recollected, “As with many other Chinese ‘intellectuals’ during the Cultural Revolution, my family and I couldn’t escape from the suffering of having our home searched, of being compelled to perform forced labor, of having to engage in public self-criticism, and of having to live our lives under the persistent stress of political pressure. The target of the Cultural Revolution was always the people who had an education, especially if they had been exposed to Western culture.”
Chen managed to continue her musical studies in secret. When she was fifteen, she and the rest of her family were sent to do forced labor in the countryside. “We had to climb up and down a mountain carrying rocks,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I carried more than 100 pounds on my back, and would go up and down sometimes 20 times in a day.” Chen was allowed to have her violin with her, but was expected to play only revolutionary songs to inspire local workers. When alone, she continued to play classical pieces she had memorized, and started improvising her own compositions. During this time, Chen established and maintained her close connection with Chinese folk culture.
Two years later, the seventeen-year-old Chen was allowed to return to Guangzhou and became the concertmaster of the orchestra of the Beijing Opera Troupe. The ensemble, as decreed by the government, mixed Chinese and Western instruments, and Chen learned to play a number of Chinese instruments during her time with the Troupe. She also had a chance to hone her composition and arrangement skills.
But it was only when she started studying at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing that she made the official move from violin playing to composing. She was the first Chinese woman to receive a Master of Arts in music composition from the Central Conservatory, where she studied from 1978, the year that the Conservatory reopened after years of being shuttered, to 1986. Among her fellow students in that group of internationally-renowned composers now known as the “Class of 1978” were her future husband, composer Zhou Long, as well as Tan Dun and Bright Sheng.
Soon after graduating, she made her way to New York, working with Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University, where she completed her doctorate. By now she was producing a steady stream of new compositions. At one point in the 1990s she held resident composer positions with three prominent Bay Area-based groups: the Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra, the Aptos Creative Arts Center, and the a cappella chorus Chanticleer. From 1996 to 1998, Chen taught composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Then in 1998, Chen and her husband Zhou Long joined the faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. The following year Chen became a United States citizen.
Since then, Chen Yi has maintained a busy career of composition and teaching. Her works have been commissioned and performed by artists and ensembles all over the world. She was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition Four Seasons. She has won the Lieberson Award and the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, along with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She was herself elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019.
In 2006, Chen was appointed as the prestigious Cheungkong Scholar Visiting Professor at the Central Conservatory by the China Education Ministry, where she helped establish the first Beijing International Composition Workshop. She has served on a number of prominent boards as an advocate of new music, American composers, Asian composers, and women in music. She has also been heavily involved in music and education exchange programs all over the world. She remains a prolific composer, with three world premieres in 2019 alone.
Of the five CDs recommended below, three of them are entirely devoted to Chen Yi’s music. The other two, although they each contain just a single composition of hers, are so broadly interesting and engaging that they would be worth checking out as well.
Chen Yi: Concertos for String Instruments
Amazon – ArkivMusic
This album, perhaps the best single CD introduction to Chen Yi’s work, ranges from Spring in Dresden, Chen’s second violin concerto from 2005, back to her earliest original orchestral work, Xian Shi for viola and orchestra, composed for her graduation concert from Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music in 1983. In Spring in Dresden, the specifically Chinese aspect of the music moves into the background somewhat. This is less true of the other three featured compositions. In Xian Shi, Chen Yi actually quotes some Chinese folk songs and has the viola imitate the sound of the yehu (a Chinese two-string fiddle). The Suite for Cello and Chamber Winds features textures quite reminiscent of instruments like the ch’in (zither), lusheng (mouth organ) and bamboo flute, and the Fiddle Suite actually features the soloist performing on three types of huqin or Chinese fiddles, including the erhu. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose is typically virtuosic, as are the four featured soloists: Mira Wang (violin in Spring in Dresden), David Russell (cello in Suite for Cello and Chamber Winds), Wang Guowei (huqin in Fiddle Suite), and Lizhou Liu (viola in Xian Shi)
Chen Yi: Momentum
Amazon – ArkivMusic
Another excellent CD devoted to Chen Yi’s music, this BIS offering would also be a fine introduction to her music, aided as it is by the excellent performances by the Singapore Symphony conducted by Lan Shui and the typically brilliant BIS recording. The Chinese Folk Dance Suite, essentially a short violin concerto, is based on Chinese songs, as is the Romance and Dance. The Dunhuang Fantasy – named after the Silk Road town near the famous Mogao Caves, with their interiors covered with Buddhist paintings – is scored for organ and winds and is a little harsher in sound. Momentum is an orchestral showpiece, angular and passionate. Tu, even more emotional and angry, was written in 2002 as a memorial to the New York firefighters that died on 9/11.
The Music of Chen Yi
This is an excellent collection of Chen Yi’s orchestra music created in conjunction with a concert of her works by the now-defunct Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra, for which Chen Yi served as composer-in-residence for three years. Chen Yi’s fusion of Chinese and Western elements is evident even in the shorter pieces included here like Antiphony, where one can hear strings and percussion evoke the mountain calls of the Zhuang, a Chinese ethnic minority. The two major works on the program are the dark-colored Symphony No. 2, which Chen composed in the wake of her father’s death, and the Chinese Myths Cantata, in which men’s chorus and orchestra are combined with traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu and pipa.
Amazon – ArkivMusic
Chen Yi’s Night Thoughts, inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem, is one of the shorter pieces included on this invaluable collection – the title translates as “golden tone” – in which Chicago’s Civitas Ensemble presents several new and newly-arranged instrumental works by living Chinese composers. Each of the composers and pieces represents a unique approach to bringing together Western and Chinese musical traditions. The two largest pieces, both of which add the Chinese pipa to the otherwise Western ensemble, are particularly colorful: Five Elements by Chen’s husband Zhou Long opens the CD with evocations of the five elements that comprise the physical universe (metal, wood, fire, water, and earth), and the impressionistic Emanations of Tara by Yao Chen was inspired by the goddess Tara so important to Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism.
Chinese Recorder Concertos
Amazon – ArkivMusic
Two of the members of the famous “Class of 1978” from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Chen Yi and Bright Sheng, are featured in this vibrant disc of new concertos for the recorder played by perhaps the best-known recorder player in the world, Michala Petri, who recorded famously for Philips and BMG/RCA Red Seal for years before founding her own label OUR Recordings in 2006. Chen Yi’s concerto The Ancient Chinese Beauty, composed in 2008, was inspired by important aspects of Chinese culture: ancient totems, the clay figurines of the Han dynasty, and the cursive script of the Tang Dynasty. Also featured are Bright Sheng’s Flute Moon, Flying Song by Tang Jianping, and the Bamboo Flute Concerto by Ma Shuilong, one of Taiwan’s best-known composers.
Finally, although it requires an investment of time, this interview and concert by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble at the Curtis Institute of Music is also a great introduction to the world of Chen Yi.