Friday, February 01, 2013

CCC 057 Chen Yi

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Chinese-born composer Chen Yi. Although born in China, Dr. Chen is currently based in the United States, and is currently on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. An accomplished violinist and composer, her work blends Chinese and Western musical traditions, transcending cultural and musical boundaries. The pentatonic nature of Chinese music gives her work its tonal quality, while simultaneously moving her compositions in unexpected directions (at least to Western ears).

Chen has written extensively for orchestras and wind ensembles, and has also composed several works for chamber groups. As might be expected, her catalog of works for violin is exceptionally strong.

Ge Xu is a short orchestral work. Chen uses a standard Western orchestra in a unique fashion. The violins open with a plaintive melody, but the glissandos and harmonics make them sound more like a Chinese huqin. Her use of percussion also demonstrates a non-Western sensibility.

Her piano trio Happiness is a perhaps purer example of Chen's style. I hear the rhythmic pulses of Stravinsky coupled with pentatonic melodies. It's an exciting and appealing work.

Chen's melodic gifts come to the fore in her choral works. Distance can't keep us two apart is a particularly beautiful example.

Chen has written extensively for wind ensemble. Spring Festival is one of her popular works in this genre.


Just because a composition is tonal doesn't mean it's bland or boring. Chen Yi using the building blocks of Western music in a different way, and that provides fresh insights in the process. Her works enrich the repertoire and dispel the notion that classical music is solely the realm of dead, white European males -- and that helps makes the genre relevant to more people. Which is as it should be.

Recommended Recordings

The Music of Chen Yi: Symphony No. 2 and other works

Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Wild Grass

Chen Yi/Karen Tanaka: Invisible Curve

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