Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 9, 1996

Composer Chen Yi
Rises Above Gulag

A former prisoner
of China's "Cultural
Revolution" made the
most of her hard labor...

Mike Field
Staff Writer

There is a long tradition in Western classical music of adapting indigenous folk music into symphonic form. A snatch of melody from a childhood lullaby, or a religious or patriotic hymn or a song sung by peasants laboring in the field will often find its way into a composer's larger, more complex work, often to great effect. Think of the heroic ending of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, for instance, or the haunting melody of the Shaker hymn "A Gift to be Simple," used to such glorious effect in Copeland's Appalachian Spring.

Composer Chen Yi, who joins the Peabody composition faculty this semester, has built an international reputation for the way she skillfully blends the music of East and West, formal and folk idioms, into compositions ranging from full symphonies to piano solos based on country dance music.

Were it not for the Cultural Revolution, she says, she may never have discovered the power and potential that lay buried in her musical roots.

The child of two prosperous and highly educated doctors, Chen grew up in the city of Guangzhou, known more commonly in the West as Canton.

"I started playing piano at age 3 and violin the year after," she said in a recent telephone interview from her new apartment directly across the street from the Peabody Conservatory. "In the beginning my repertoire was entirely a classical one. I did not pay attention to Chinese music until I was sent to the countryside."

The closing of China and the unleashing of the Red Guard in the late 1960s disrupted many people's lives throughout the country, particularly among the more affluent and highly educated. In 1968, at the age of 15, Chen was sent to the countryside to be "re-educated" through manual labor.

"I worked on a farm that grew rice and vegetables, but we were also set to work helping the army build a mountaintop base," she said. Each day she and the other laborers would arise at 4 a.m. in order to beat the midday heat. Using two baskets hung on a pole across their shoulders, Chen and the others would be loaded with about 100 pounds of stone each and sent up the mountain as many as 22 times each day.

Surprisingly, Chen describes her experiences with little hint of bitterness. "We worked really hard," she recalls of that time, "and the women were treated no differently than the men. Everyone was supposed to do hard manual labor as part of their re-education."

Although her piano studies were interrupted, Chen was able to bring her violin with her to the countryside. During time off she entertained the country folk by playing Paganini capricio and excerpts from major concertos that she would disguise as revolutionary songs. It was at this time she began to learn and collect the folk melodies that have influenced so much of her later work.

"I was a little bit fortunate," she says with the typical optimistic laughter that seems to punctuate all of her conversations. "I only had to work in the countryside for two years. Then word came from Beijing that Madame Mao needed orchestra members for the Peking Opera."

Chen was sent back to Guangzhou, where she spent the next eight years in the orchesta of a Peking Opera troupe. "The Peking Opera was my first work as a professional and where I started composing," Chen said. "I did arrangements and orchestration and incidental music. It really helped familiarize me with Chinese traditional music, theater and opera."

In 1977, with the Cultural Revolution waning and normalcy returning, Chen enrolled as one of the first students in the reopened Beijing Central Conservatory, formerly the most prestigious institute of its kind in all China. Part of the curriculum at the Central Conservatory included annual field trips to the countryside, where Chen was able to continue studying and collecting indigenous Chinese music. It was there she came upon the Guangxi Province dance "Duo Ye" which she composed for piano and for which she subsequently received first prize from the Chinese National Composition Competition. According to The New York Times, "Duo Ye" now "is almost invariably performed at piano competitions in China."

In 1983, Chen composed "Xian Shi," widely considered to be the first Chinese viola concerto; three years later, the Chinese Musicians Association, the Central Conservatory of Music, Radio Beijing, Central China TV and the Central Philharmonic of China jointly gave, in Beijing, an entire program devoted to Chen's orchestral works when she became the first woman in China to receive the degree of Master of Arts in composition.

"The key to different music lies in the differences in language," said Chen, who came to this country in 1986 to continue her studies at Columbia University. In 1993 she received her Doctor of Musical Arts, with distinction, and was appointed to a three-year term as composer-in-residence for the Women's Philharmonic, the singing group Chanticleer and the Aptos Creative Arts Program, all in San Francisco.

"The concepts of time and timing, timbre and expression are all contained in the language, and language can be directly translated into music," Chen said. "Tone and rhythm can be translated from one form to the other. Our language is in our blood and emerges from that to become our musical language. That is why Chinese music is so different from the Western musical style. But the two can be combined to create something beautiful."

Currently, Chen is at work on several pieces, including "The Golden Flute" a specially commissioned piece for James Galway and orchestra; "The Fiddle Suite" for the Kronos Quartet; and "Qi" which translates roughly to "Air," a chamber ensemble piece to be premiered by several groups, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Composing will now move to weekends and evenings as Chen prepares to work with her students, "an exciting group," she said, who will need to be instructed in the daunting task of composing to schedule.

"The biggest challenge is making that schedule and getting things done so there is time to really look at the results," said Chen of the coming semester. "I won't give too much pressure, but I expect them to reach their goals in time. We have long-term goals with concerts and activities arranged that they will have to meet. They are no longer amateurs, and I will treat them like professionals. When you have a commission, you have to make that deadline. So I will push a little, but I will smile with them as well."

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