Chen Yi: An Interview
These are excerpts from "An Interview with Chen Yi" originally published in 2001 in New Music Connoisseur. It was conducted by John de Clef Piñeiro who called Chen Yi "perhaps the most internationally renowned female Asian composer of contemporary music today."
Q: The history of Western classical music is notable for many things, not the least of which is the exceptionally small number of women composers. Is this also the case in the history of Chinese classical music -- that is, have there only been a very few women composers in Chinese classical music? If so, were you challenged or inspired, in any way, by that fact to become a composer despite the historical odds?
Chen Yi: Up until the first half of the 20th century, there were only a very few professional women composers in China. But this fact was never an obstacle or challenge for me because I had never thought that composition was something that only men could do. My parents were medical doctors who loved classical Western music, and they raised me to love music and to be trained as a musician. I admired tremendously all of great classical composers, and was deeply moved when I listened to their music, even though I didn't realize that they were all dead white men!
I remember one day, when I was a kid, as we listened to recordings of Heifetz and Kreisler playing their own compositions while we had our dinner, that my dad told me that it would be great if one day I could play my own works like them. And when I was a teenager , my father invited my early theory teacher Mr. Zheng Zhong to teach me music theory and Chinese folk songs. This important mentor told me that, since I drank from the Yangtze River's water as I was growing up, and was born with black hair and black eyes, I could understand Chinese culture better, and should be able to carry on the culture and share it with more people. That impressed me deeply and has influenced me my whole life. Later on, I started to do as he had suggested, and I still continue to work on it now.
Q: As a composer of Asian origins, are there cultural "responsibilities" that you believe ought to be fulfilled in your work and the work of other Asian composers?
Modern society is like a great network of complex latitudes and attitudes -- and despite their differences, all cultures, environments and conditions have something valuable to contribute to the whole. They keep changing all the time and interact with each other, so that each experience that we come across can become the source and exciting medium for our creation. In this sense, a composition reflects a composer's cultural and psychological makeup. For example, I believe that language can be translated into music. Since I speak naturally in my mother tongue, in my music there is Chinese blood, Chinese philosophy and customs. However, music is a universal language. Although I have studied Western music extensively and deeply since my childhood, and I write for all available instruments and voices, I think that my musical language is a unique combination and a natural hybrid of all influences from my background.
Q. In other words, your work embodies a kind of translation or transformation of sorts, a distillation of a life that yet transcends the individual. In the end, this may be the result of the process, but what is your basic intent when you compose?
Since I compose in my most natural language, from my heart, I am glad that my music is in a unique language, and it does reflect my cultural background, and most distinctly my Chinese origins. I think I'm doing it consciously and unconsciously, after all, it's hard to change your background and your taste intentionally. Still, I think the music could become a bridge between peoples from different cultural traditions. I hope that it can be inspiring and helpful to improve the level of understanding between peoples from different parts of the world.
Q. You mentioned before that you had studied Western music since childhood. Just how did this come about?
I started studying piano at the age of 3, by having a weekly one-hour private lesson. I also began to study the violin intensively at age 4, having two and, in some years, three one-hour private lessons a week. As I mentioned before, my parents are classical music lovers. Although they were medical doctors, my mother played piano at a professional level, and my dad played violin with great passion and sensitivity, at an intermediate level, and sang many European folk songs and title songs from Hollywood movies. They collected numerous records of classical music, ranging from solo instrumental and vocal pieces to orchestral works and operas, and they played them at home every day during and after dinner.
My older sister (only a year-and-a-half older) was a child prodigy and performed piano music on stage and on radio since she was three. I grew up listening to her practice every morning before going to school. In our home city of Guangzhou, my parents took us to local weekly symphonic concerts and to hear great visiting soloist recitals, to see ballets from foreign countries (from France, England, the Soviet Union, and other countries), and sometimes to the ethnic song and dance shows from the Congo, Japan, and elsewhere.
Eventually, I played through all of the standard repertoire in classical music, from Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, and Sibelius to the Prokofiev concertos, and from Sarasate and Saint-Saens concert pieces to all of Paganini's 24 Capricci and Bach's six unaccompanied suites. I got drunk by practicing and performing all of these works, and just enjoyed the beauty and the spirit behind the sound and notes. I read all available music history books about classical composers and books about their musical activities (most of them borrowed from my theory teacher).
In addition, I read European novels and stories about operas, while, at the same time, of course, reading the Chinese classics. I believe that literature has also played an important role in my research, study, and appreciation of Western music in the context of its culture.
Q. You have truly become a presence and a force in the music world since your arrival in the West. Do you believe that it is, at all, likely that you could have achieved as much or more if you had not come to the United States?
It would have been different kinds of achievement. I deeply believe that art creation and artists are closely related to the society they inhabit. I must say that I got a great education from New York City, from the atmosphere and conditions to be found in the richest cultural scene I have ever known, and from Columbia University, and from the people around me. My years in San Francisco were also very significant. And I must also acknowledge the great support that I have received from all new music advocates and from my audiences, to all of whom I am grateful. They made me who I am today. It's a kind of face-to-face interaction between life's activities and working, and as a result one becomes deeply rooted in the society where one works and lives. I don't think that I could have had the benefit of all of these influences and experiences if I had not come to the States.
Q. Perhaps we can get a sense of what it is like to be one of your students. Would you please share with us some of the perspectives that you, as a teacher, express in your advice and guidance to young composers today?
Essentially, there are three broad areas in which I encourage my students: first, I advise them to seek their own voice in composition by exploring and drawing from their own background, their traditions, and their interests and experience; second, I urge them to have an open mind and learn to appreciate a wide range of styles and methods, in order to stimulate their setting personal study goals and creative directions as early as possible; and, third, I encourage them to get strict training, to work hard in composing, and to get good performances and recordings of their work that they can use to create opportunities for their developing identities as composers."