The fusion of Asian and Western influences has been a significant development in contemporary classical music, and few other composers have accomplished that fusion as effectively as has the Chinese-born composer Chen Yi. Chen experienced success and critical acclaim after moving to the United States, but her music had deep roots in China and in the upheavals she and her country suffered in the 1960s. Most classical composers grow up surrounded by music, soaking up educational influences in one of the world's great capitals or university towns. Chen, by contrast, spent part of her teenage years doing forced labor during China's Cultural Revolution.
Chen Yi was born on April 4, 1953, in Guangzhou, China. Chen is her family name and Yi is what Westerners would call her first name; she continued to use the Chinese form of her name after coming to the United States. Chen's parents were both doctors; they were adherents of the Christian faith, and were interested in Western music and culture. Chen started violin and piano lessons at age three, and her two siblings both went on to careers as classical musicians. Drawing on her father's collection of records and orchestral scores, she made rapid progress as a violinist and began to learn the solo parts of some of the classical tradition's concertos for violin and orchestra—the showpiece compositions for the instrument.
In 1966 the Cultural Revolution threw a major roadblock in the way of Chen's education. Under Communist Party leader Mao Tse-Tung, China's educated professionals were purged from positions of influence and forced to work on farms and labor crews in the countryside. Chen's home was searched by the Party's Red Guards when she was 15, and the family's collection of music was seized. Separated from her family, Chen spent two years doing forced labor. "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 able to bring her violin with her to the country. Her official assignment was to play revolutionary songs for local farmers, but on the sly she used a muted violin to practice classical pieces she had memorized. Even when playing songs about hard work and loyalty to the party, she improvised interludes in Western styles. "I didn't know it, but I was composing," she told the New York Times. "It was my way of keeping my fingers moving. I made variations on themes." Despite the upheavals she and her family suffered, Chen looked back on her experiences without bitterness and even found that she had learned something about the music of rural China. "I had never touched ground," she told the New York Times. "I didn't know my own country."
Chen's familiarity with Chinese traditional music only increased in the next job she was given by the Chinese government. Jiang Qing, Mao's third wife, decreed that Western instruments should be added to the orchestras of China's traditional opera troupes, and Chen was made concertmaster of Guangzhou's opera company. She learned to play a variety of Chinese instruments during this period, and as the country's cultural life thawed out from its deep freeze, she was given more freedom. When the Central Conservatory of Music in the Chinese capital of Beijing reopened in 1977, Chen was admitted as a composition student. By the time she received her degree in 1982, she had met, in classes, both her husband, composer Zhou Long, and future Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun. Tan Dun "was not a good student," she told the San Francisco Chronicle, but then Debussy was not a good student either, so it's nothing negative."
In 1986 Chen became the first woman in China to receive a master's degree in composition, and a concert of her music was presented on Chinese television. That year, Chen left China for New York to study with Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung at Columbia University. She also studied with Mario Davidovsky at Columbia, receiving her doctoral degree there in 1993.
By that time Chen had amassed a group of finished compositions, as well as positive reviews from critics when they were performed. A tireless worker, she never turned down commissions for new music. Writing new music whenever she could find time to concentrate—even on airplane flights or in hotel lobbies—she succeeded in having works such as her 1992 Piano Concerto performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and other top ensembles.
After Chen received her degree in 1993, she had to kick up her level of compositional activity yet another notch when she held down resident composer positions with three major San Francisco-area institutions: the Women's Philharmonic Orchestra, the Aptos Creative Arts Center, and the a cappella chorus Chanticleer. Chorus director Joseph Jennings told the San Francisco Chronicle that "after going through what she went through and finally getting back to music, she has a real different perspective from someone who's never had to suffer for their art." From 1996 to 1998 Chen taught composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
Chen and Tan Dun were among a group of Asian-born composers who found success in the United States in the 1990s, and who merged Asian and Western musical structures in their own ways. Chen's fusions were marked by an especially wide range of influences on both the Chinese and Western ends of the spectrum. She was adept at using Western voices and instruments to evoke the sound of Chinese vocal music, as shown in the pair of songs titled "As in a Dream" (1988), and her music often showed the influence of the Chinese opera that had formed such an important part of her musical education. Yet she also transplanted the scales and instruments of Chinese folk music to Western concert contexts. Once in the United States, Chen kept her ears open to new music she encountered, and incorporated these influences into her music. She adapted elements of the percussive folk-influenced style of Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, as well as the American jazz that she heard on the New York City subways. She even used the sounds of Celtic bagpipes in her KC Capriccio after hearing a piper playing in Kansas City. Chen's Percussion Concerto (2003), written for the famed deaf Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, showcased her ability to counterpoint Chinese and Western percussion, and she was noted for ambitious choral pieces such as the Chinese Myths Cantata.
Chen and her husband both joined the faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1998. The following year Chen became a United States citizen. In 2001 she added a major prize to her growing list of awards: the American Academy of Arts and Letters named her as the recipient of the Charles Ives Living, a $225,000 cash grant awarded with the sole requirement that she work full-time at composing. In the years following her receipt of the award, she began several major projects, including a symphony to be premiered by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, a piece for the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra, and a cello concerto for famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Classical music audiences are eagerly awaiting the crowning achievements of Chen's composing career, a career that is rooted in one of the twentieth century's most painful episodes.
For the Record …
Born on April 4, 1953, in Guangzhou, China; married Zhou Long (a composer). Education: Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, B.A., 1982; M.A., 1986; Columbia University, New York, D.M.A., 1993.
Composer-in-residence, Women's Philharmonic, Chanticleer vocal ensemble, and Aptos Creative Arts Center, San Francisco Bay area, 1993-96; Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1996-98; University of Missouri at Kansas City, professor of composition, 1998–.
Awards: Charles Ives Living Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2001-04; ASCAP Concert Music Award, 2001; Chinese National Composition Competition, first prize; fellowships from Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and American Academy of Arts and Letters; grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and many other organizations.
Addresses: Office—UMKC Conservatory of Music, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, MO 64110-2229.
The Music of Chen Yi, New Albion, 1996.
Sparkle, CRI, 1999.
Momentum, Bis, 2003.
New York Times, December 21, 2000, p. E11; March 27, 2001, p. E2; April 28, 2004, p. E1.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 1996, p. 36; October 21, 2003, p. D1; October 24, 2003, p. I10.
"Chen Yi," Living Composers Project, http://composers21.com/compdocs/chenyi.htm (August 27, 2004).
"Chen Yi," Theodore Presser Company, http://www.presser.com/Composers/info.cfm?Name=ChenYi (August 27, 2004).
"Chen Yi and Her Music," AOL Hometown, http://hometown.aol.com/chenyi/myhomepage/profile.html (August 27, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Yi, Chen." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/yi-chen
"Yi, Chen." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/yi-chen
Chen Yi (chŭn yē), 1901–72, Chinese Communist general and statesman. Chen was a political instructor (1925) in the Kuomintang Whampoa Military Academy. After the Kuomintang-Communist alliance collapsed (1927), he joined the Fourth Red Army (1928) and was an early supporter of Mao Zedong. One of the outstanding Communist military commanders, Chen became acting commander (1941) and then commander (1946) of the New Fourth Army. After 1949 he was mayor of Shanghai and a dominant figure in E China. He succeeded Zhou Enlai as foreign minister (1958), serving during a period of intense rivalry between China and Russia for influence among developing nations. Chen was severely criticized during the Cultural Revolution despite attempts by Zhou to protect him. After 1967 his role was eclipsed by Zhou, who resumed the direction of foreign policy in his capacity as premier.
"Chen Yi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chen-yi
"Chen Yi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chen-yi