Composer  Chen  Yi

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in 1953 in Guangzhou, China, the daughter of two physicians, in a home filled with classical music, Chen Yi studied violin and piano from the age of three. During the difficult time of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, she was sent into forced labor in the countryside for two years, working twelve hours a day building military fortifications, and separated from her family. But she managed to take her instrument along, and credits this experience with providing her with knowledge of the wider life and music of her motherland and its people.

At the age of 17, she returned to her home city and served as concertmaster and composer with a traditional Beijing Opera Troupe, and also began her research of Chinese traditional music and Western classical music theory under the supervision of Zheng Zhong. When the school system was restored in 1977, Chen enrolled in the Beijing Central Conservatory, where she studied composition under Professor Wu Zu-qiang and British guest composer Alexander Goehr. She continued her violin studies with Professor Lin Yao-ji and began an eight-year systematic study of Chinese traditional music. She earned her BA and MA degrees in Beijing, the first woman in China to receive the degree of Master of Arts in composition.

In 1983, she went to the United States for further study, and in 1993 received her Doctor of Musical Arts with distinction from Columbia University, where her composition teachers were Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky. That year, with support from Meet the Composer, she was appointed Composer-in-Residence with the Womens’ Philharmonic, Chanticleer, and the Aptos Creative Arts Center in San Francisco. From 1996-1998, she was on the composition faculty of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.

Chen Yi was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. Among the many other awards she has received are: the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lieberson Award of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an ASCAP Concert Music Award, first prize at the Chinese National Composition Competition, the Lili Boulanger Award, the Sorel Medal for Excellence in Music from the Center for Women in Music at New York University, the CalArts Alpert Award for music, the first Eddie Medora King Composition Prize from the University of Texas at Austin School of Music, the Elise Stoeger Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Friendship Ambassador Award from the Edgar Snow Fund, an Honorary Doctorate from Lawrence University, an Adventurous Programming Award from ASCAP, and the Kauffman Award in Artistry/Scholarship from UMKC.

Her long list of commissions include: the NEA, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Creative Work Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, The Roche Commissions, the Barlow Endowment, the New Heritage Music Foundation, American Composers Forum, the Eastman School of Music, Ithaca College, Peoria University, Bradley University, Miami University, Friends of Dresden Music Foundation, Chorus America, the 6th World Symposium on Choral Music, the Lucerne Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, American Guild of Organists, the Copland Fund for Music, Chamber Music America, the San Francisco Art Commission, the NYSCA, and the Meet the Composer.

Performers and ensembles for whom she has written include the Cleveland, Dresden and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma and the Pacific Symphony, Rascher Saxophone Quartet and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin, Emanuel Ax, Evelyn Glennie and the Singapore Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Women’s Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Wind Symphony, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, New Music Consort, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Chanticleer, KITKA, San Francisco Citywinds, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Music From China, the Ying Quartet, the Elements Quartet, the Shanghai Quartet, the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra, the HK Chinese Orchestra, Boston Musica Viva, Network For New Music, Opus 21, Chicago a cappella, KC Chorale, Peninsula Women’s Chorus, and many others.

Dr. Chen’s music is performed worldwide and published by the Theodore Presser Company. Her works have been recorded on many labels. She continues to be active as a violinist in new music and as an ethnomusicologist in Chinese music and is co-editor of the Music From China Newsletter, an English and Chinese bilingual publication, introducing Chinese music, both traditional and contemporary, to wider audience and scholars.

Chen Yi is in great demand as a lecturer at composition workshops and at concerts of her music throughout the world. She was appointed by the China Ministry of Education to the prestigious three-year Changjiang Scholar Visiting Professorship at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music in 2006, and presently serves on the boards, advisory councils or juries of Meet The Composer, Chamber Music America, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, American Composers Orchestra, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the International Alliance of Women in Music, as well as numerous other music organizations.

--  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

This is another instance where the composer and I had tried to get together for awhile.  It finally happened that she was going to be in Chicago in December of 2005 for the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, so we arranged to meet there and had this conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re from China and you’re working with traditional Chinese music, and you’re from America and you’re working with American music.  How does that all combine
— is it more like a salad or more like a stew?

Chen Yi:    I was trained as a classical musician when I was young, starting piano when I was three and starting violin when I was four.  But for the whole time, the training was based in Western classical music until the Cultural Revolution.  When I was a teenager, I was sent to countryside to work as a farmer.  I have gone through two years of hardship, made to work as forced labor, to have to bring wash and to have to have the so-called re-education.  For that time I started to learn about human beings’ value, also the importance of civilization and education.  After the Cultural Revolution, I was one of the first group admitted to the Central Conservatory of Music, which is the top music school in China.

BD:    That’s in Beijing?

CY:    Yes.  We had more than ten thousand applicants.  I was one of the composer students admitted.  I had gone through eight years of training
five years for the Bachelor Degree and three years for the Master Degree.  I became the first woman to receive a Master Degree in composition in China after the Cultural Revolution when I gave a whole evening concert of my orchestral works at Beijing Concert Hall, played by the National Symphony.

BD:    That National Symphony is basically a Western orchestra?

CY:    Oh, yes, but among my required courses in the Beijing Conservatory, I not only studied the Western repertoire
like orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, history, music analysis and all kinds of requirements, including the piano — but also traditional Chinese music.  Violin is my major, but the piano requirement still is very strict, a four-years requirement.  There was also ear training, a four years’ requirement until you can do four-part dictation at a very fast speed, and then fugues and final exam.


BD:    So they want you to be an all-around musician, not just a composer in the abstract?

CY:    Right.  Because we do have systematical training of Chinese traditional music as well, we have forty different categories to train our composition students.  This includes folk songs that would cover the whole country
different provinces, different styles and minority groupsand you’ve got to memorize all of them.  You sing two stanzas at least of each piece in dialect.  Then you also have opera.  The opera includes singing, reciting, acting, lighting, mask, make-up, costumes, everything.  Then for a short time there is a kind of musical story-telling in which you can find the half-speech, half-singing kind of style, like the Schoenberg style.

BD:    Sprechstimme?

CY:    Exactly.  We went through all these, and then went on to the traditional instrumental music which would include four categories that would have plucking instruments, like a pipa, and sanxian, and all kinds of round-faced guitars.  [Laughs]  You have different names.  Then you have blowing instruments like the wind instruments such as the suona and bamboo flutes and the clay ones like this little shape of a sheng.  It’s called
sheng, which means weeping — woo, woo, woo, this kind of a human being weeping sound.

BD:    Are you expected to include all of this in your music?

chenyiCY:    Yes, and also percussion instruments are included.  Then after the training, we went to the countryside to collect folk songs.  Two years of hardship, like a working in the countryside, educated me a lot with the basic language.  There is my native language that the farmers spoke.  Actually it’s the first time for me to realize that this is my native language!  It’s not classical.  It’s not Mozart!  [Both laugh]  It’s not Beethoven that I’m used to.  Then I started to realize that I should find my own voice.  After all this working a patch of ground, hard working with farmers, living together and going to mountains, I realized that I have to think into my cultural roots very deeply in order to find my own voice, to have a unique language to speak in.

BD:    Has your own voice settled into something, or is your own voice continuing to grow all the time?

CY:    It is continuing to grow, but the root is always there.  I don’t think that would be changed easily because I have done this massive research.  I have done all these field trips collecting folk songs and living with the farmers, so I really speak in the same language.  I really read their mind and have felt everything that they feel.  So I think, really, this is a great time for me to have this experience.

BD:    How does this relate, then, when you come to Western audiences in the United States and in Europe?

CY:    I am very happy and easy and comfortable with Western classical musical language because for my whole life I studied these Western instruments, and also from the strict training I received at the conservatory.  I had to write an entire fugue in one day without  even going to restroom during the exam!  [Laughs]  At this time I had gone through all the training and I wrote fast.  Even during the Cultural Revolution when I served as the concert master for the Peking Opera Orchestra in my home city after being a farmer for two years, I was taken back as the revolutionary sample.  Our class needed orchestra members.  I was young.  When I was seventeen I became a concertmaster, and stayed for the next eight years.  So it was a great chance for me to learn from all the traditional instrumental players in the orchestra.  I wrote for them, and usually I wrote so fast that the ink was still wet when they had to take page by page to copy parts.  That was my experience, so I got to listen to what I wrote right on the same day.  I wrote a lot of incidental music for the opera house, and also for my little orchestra to play.  Also I helped Chinese instrumental players to copy their scores, and translate from western notation to Chinese notation in order for them to learn the parts.  From that helping, I also learned the fingerings of Chinese instruments in the orchestra.  Then I helped them to practice with the singers.  When the actors look for help, they have to look for us because one Peking opera fiddle is not enough for the whole company.  Many singers were there, so I helped them.  I got used to this style, and I also analyzed their percussion music because we have a huge percussion group accompanying the opera.  I learned those patterns representing different expressions.

BD:    Do you put Chinese instruments into all of your pieces or just some of your pieces, or do you try to amalgamate them?

CY:    That’s a very interesting question.  I have used them differently.  For example, I have written for Chinese instruments as solo works and ensemble works and orchestral works as well.  Then I have written for mixed ensembles, like for quartet of Chinese pipa and erhu, and cello and percussion.

BD:    Does that grouping work?

CY:    Yes.  It really works well, and the pieces are very popular, actually.  I also have written in the concerto form for Chinese instruments as the solo players and the full orchestra as a Western orchestra.  Most commonly I use Western orchestras to play Chinese style of writing.  I use their fingerings written for Chinese orchestra instruments on Western instruments so they sound differently from a normal Western orchestra.  When you have a special fingering
sliding tones and that kind of imitationyou may not find the same sound as from the normal standard orchestra.

chenyiBD:    Do the Western audiences know enough of your language to be able to enjoy and understand your music?

CY:    Oh yes, because music is closely related to language.  When you speak out, you are in your unique language, and when many, many more people around the world know each other well, you also share your ideas and styles with more and more people.  They get familiar with your language.  In San Francisco, they would tell the orchestra, “Pick the Chinese sound.”  They would know how to play with the oboe, for instance, for the raw sound in the low register.  When the Cleveland Orchestra rehearsed my music, they found no difficulty at all.  They say that everything is idiomatic.  The only thing I felt strange is that they could tell difference from the levels of pianissimo.  They could even tell that pianissimo (pp) is different from ppp.  They just premiered my new orchestral work in the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland and in Carnegie Hall in New York last month.

BD:    Do you get enough time to accept these commissions and write the music?

CY:    I line them up usually for two to three years.  I tell them that I couldn’t do it this year and I couldn’t do it next year because the commissions came usually two years ahead the time.

BD:    When you get an offer, how do you decide yes I will do it, or no I will turn it aside?

CY:    They would ask me when I am available.  Then I will tell them 2007 or 2008.  They will say, “Fine.  We wait.”  Some come in with an emergency, like they really want it right away!  Two years ago, the Caramoor Festival came in because St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra in New York are in residency and they wanted to celebrate the residency for twenty-five years.  So they wanted a piece, a premiere that summer.  My publisher urged me, “Can you take it right away, now, in one year?”  I said yes because I was on leave.  I was receiving an award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and I had a free year off from teaching.  I got to do it because I was on leave.  Otherwise, when I teach, how can I do it? 

BD:    You have all of these commissions lined up.  Do you always have the ideas coming out of your brain?

CY:    I always read.  I always research and do everything I can to have all the ideas in mind first.  Two years ahead is not an empty two years.  You bear the whole thing in your mind for the whole period of time.  You have to conceive, you have to get ideas in your mind, and then you’ve got the textures.  One year before the premiere, the orchestra would ask, “Hey, what is the title?  We need to do the promotion now.”  [Both laugh]  Then several months before, they want the detailed program notes.  If by then you still don’t have the notes, then you’ll be in trouble!  Then you have to tell more details, until three months before you have to turn in the score and the parts.  Usually you meet the deadline.

BD:    When you’re working on the piece, you’re putting the notes down and revising it and working on it, how do you know when it’s ready
or is it simply snatched from you at the time?

CY:    In order to meet deadlines, first I do research in order to meet the style and the needs.  If the orchestra or the choir comes in with their specialty, like what’s their best voice or instrumentation, for example, you have to do detailed research.  Then when you get things done, it’s being done gradually.  You don’t do it suddenly.

BD:    Is this research into technique, or into sounds, or...?

CY:    Ideas.  I would say it’s the whole cultural background behind you.  If you don’t speak in something of a special language, it’s not going to be a good piece.  The piece as written should meet the requirements of the mind and the heart.  The heart means the expression, the emotion of the piece that could carry from you to the musicians to the audience.

BD:    So it’s your responsibility to balance the intellect with the emotion?

CY:    Right, because if a piece is written quite casually, I don’t think that carries the weight.  I really think that we should treat human beings in society quite as seriously with our messages.  If we don’t treat them like a real thing, we don’t share our ideas with the audience with our heart.  That is our responsibility, as a real artist, particularly a creative artist, because you have got to share your ideas and opinions with the world, with other people.  When you share this with them, that carries the culture to the next generation.  That is what’s great about being a creative artist because I don’t talk about education, but I do care about inspiration.  If my music could inspire more people, then we could help the improvement of the future
for the health of all, for peace, for the brighter future for human beings, for the world.

chenyiBD:    But you want your music to be more than just useful, don’t you?

CY:    That’s why I think that it should be more inspiring, besides being useful.  We talk about educational goals, and that means we really share with young people as well.  If they don’t learn from you, that means maybe your work is useless.

BD:    I can’t imagine your music being useless!

CY:    I wish I could share more ideas with more people.

BD:    Is each piece is an opportunity to share a different idea, or more of the same ideas?

CY:    I usually write in different styles.  The basic roots from the culture are the same.  I take inspiration from situations around me, the culture exposed around me, and still the language is somehow from me.  It’s not from anybody else.  But the instrumentation and the music itself will be different because I don’t want every piece to look alike.  They should have different voices in instrumentation because you have to speak into this idiomatic language.

BD:    Different people play your pieces and they don’t play them identically.  They play them a little differently, don’t they?

CY:    Oh yes.  Sometimes I am quiet, or I leave the room for them to interpret as they wish.

BD:    How much interpretation do you want in your piece?

CY:    Sometimes I am very strict.  When I use the Chinese language, if the pronunciation is not precise I would jump up to coach the performers.  Or I would send them the demo tape in which I would sing and speak.  If it is an instrumental piece with sliding tones or that style, or if the tempo is not quite right, I would give suggestions.  Usually I am the one in orchestral rehearsals to jump up to speak for one minute because it is the only minute allowed for me to say anything.  I have learned how to say it precisely and fast and effectively.  Then I could do it right away to fix things.  Otherwise, I will leave it for them.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance of one of your pieces?

CY:    Oh, many, many!  I would say sometimes a whole concert of my music done perfectly!  You don’t talk about one wrong note.  One wrong note doesn’t mean a lot, but it could be a perfect performance to capture the style and everything.

BD:    It’s perfect in the inspiration and in the presentation, not necessarily in technical execution?

CY:    Right.  Usually you’ll find good groups to play your works, so technically it is no problem!  If it was really a problem, you wouldn’t set up that program.  You would say they should do different pieces.

BD:    Do you conduct any of your own works?

CY:    No, not me.  I only did that for recording sessions, or for rehearsals.  I’m good in that, for rehearsals.

BD:    Prepare it and then turn it over to someone else?

CY:    Right, right.  Usually they would say, “We do it on our own with our conductor.”  Most of chamber groups do that, and for orchestra, they have professional conductors.  They don’t need me.  I’m the one who sits there just talking for one minute.

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BD:    You’re doing quite a bit of teaching as well as composing.  What general advice do you have for young composers coming along?

chenyiCY:    I really love working with young composers.  That this is the most inspiring thing for me in my life.  For my students, I would urge them to find their own voices.  That’s why they have to go and do research.  They should see what is their cultural background and what is their direction to go for their whole life, although this direction could be flexible sometimes, because as you grow up, you change your language.  But that would be still your background.  Your root would never be changed because you grew up in this culture.  You have to dig deeply into it to find out what’s the most comfortable language for you to speak in to share with others.  Those are the important things
to go to society, to love people around you, to love the society.  You really go to work hard in the society, for others, for the culture, for the future.

BD:    Is there any chance that you would be sharing too much of yourself?

CY:    I have never thought that way.  Sometimes when I teach three nights a week, I work until one-thirty in the morning to fix my students
works.  Sometimes when I get home I said, “Oh, this idea has been given to my student.”  It’s not fair to me, sure, so if I give it out I don’t use in my piece.  Sometimes I throw them all out, but I will find something else anyway.

BD:    You give your ideas to your students.  Are there any times when the students give ideas to you?

CY:    I think so, but you don’t realize them.  When you share with your students, you talk, and those are the ideas.  I don’t think it’s really technical.  But when I fix the students’ works, it’s always very practical and technical as well.

BD:    Since you’re involved so much in music
your own music and in others’ musicwhere is music going today?

CY:    Our music would go not only to a concert hall, but it is also for many people who listen to radio.  Also the pre-concert talks or lectures or from reading, they learn a lot from these composers.  I don’t think that composers lack an audience, but the world needs more music sharing, it needs more creative arts.

BD:    But that’s more a technical thing.  Where are the musical ideas going?  What direction is music taking in these days?

CY:    Nowadays I think that music may help people to have a variety of ideas and creative thoughts.  They may share then with different media and then they would have more creative forces and opinions, and even more product.  If you don’t share, I don’t think other people would take what you have for their own creation, so that’s our creative artists’ responsibility, as well.  We train them technically at school, but I do think that each should grow up as a complete person, to learn everything about humanity and not just technique.

BD:    But you can’t learn everything!

CY:    [Laughs]  Learn as much as possible.  I was telling them the other day that you come to school not to study with us, but study how to study for your whole life.  When you get out of school, you know everything on your own.

BD:    My mother used to say, “You don’t learn anything in college, but you learn where to find it.”

CY:    Exactly.  That’s why I said you learn everything here.  It’s the Chinese saying, “Everything is nothing; nothing is everything.”

chenyiBD:    That is a very nice way of looking at it.  Tell me about your name.

CY:    Chen Yi.  Chen is my last name, my family name.  We put it in front because I guess it’s the agricultural culture in China.  We had the whole family living in one spot at one time, so we have the family name treated more importantly.  The family name goes first.  So Chen is my last name, Yi is my first name.  You put it together as Chen Yi.

BD:    Are you a Chinese composer, or are you a global composer?

CY:    [Laughs]  It’s hard to say.  I’m Chinese-American as a person, also as the cultural background as well.

BD:    Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your ongoing career?

CY:    I think so because I do what I am happy to do.  I work hard on what I am working on.  I also get more response from the society for what I want to share with people, so that’s what I’m happy with.

BD:    Good.  A number of your works have been recorded.  Are you pleased with the recordings that are out?

CY:    Yes, almost all of them, particularly those orchestra works on CDs.  I’m happy with all recordings.

BD:    Does it please you that they’re being heard by unknown people in unknown places at unknown times?

CY:    I am happy with that because many in the audience wrote me.  At the Proms Festival in London with six thousand in audience, I got many, many letters right after the concert.  They asked me about my culture, about my piece, about my background, and more specifically they asked me about the poems that I used in the Percussion Concerto played by the BBC Symphony.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

CY:    I think so because now we are opening up more and more and more opportunities for young composers.  We have all these competitions and commissions for the younger generation.  We have a lot of opportunities for them with the orchestral readings and competitions and commission programs which have been created in the last ten years.  I encourage my students to have their works performed and heard in the world, and that way they could share with more people.  I don’t think that is too much; it’s just not enough. 

BD:    So music is growing all the time?

CY:    Yes because you have multi-media now coming up.  You have more cultures coming up and you’ve got to mix them more.  You’ve got to speak out in individual cultures, and you have many subjects to work with.  It’s in us, so I am pretty optimistic, and I didn’t even mention commercial music.  Commercial music is more powerful, actually.

BD:    You mean films and jingles?

CY:    Right.  I am not prejudiced.  I don’t think anything is not good, but the commercial music may have another power to influence people,
sometimes good and sometimes not good.  I really only talk about the concert music, or serious music.

BD:    You would never do any commercial music.

CY:    I have done some before.  I am not offended.  I am not against anything.  Some of our students are doing that, but it’s not really my field.

BD:    Would it please you or displease you to hear your music in the elevator coming up and down in this hotel?

CY:    Oh!  I don’t mind.  I don’t really mind, because I didn’t think of it.  I think that good music is good music.  I don’t care where and when and what.

BD:    What is it that makes music good?

CY:    Good music means that it could carry human beings’ creativity, that could meet the needs of the mind and the heart.  That means the music which is written really touches human beings when they are thinking and feeling, but at the same time is logically arranged and created and crafted.  I think that is important.

BD:    Is it your logic, or is it nature’s logic?

CY:    Both.

BD:    So you have to discover nature’s logic?

CY:    Yes.  This is not to talk about nature of weather, but to talk about the nature of human beings’ feeling.  I do think so.  If we don’t match, that would not be a good work.

BD:    Is it your responsibility, then, to make sure that the music matches, or is it the responsibility of the performers to find that?

CY:    They are one part of it.  If they don’t carry your ideas perfectly, the music may not sound well.  We need each other, so I push my students to match these two.  If the work really deals only with techniques, I don’t think that’s a good piece of music.  We have to have something to say, not just to have to say something.

BD:     Thank you for all of the things you have had to say, both in your words and your music.

CY:    Thank you, Bruce.

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© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the Congress Hotel in Chicago on December 14, 2005.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNUR twice in 2006 and 2008.  A copy was also given to the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.