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East and West cultures in composition
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For Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, bringing traditional Chinese music to the world has been her dream since she was a teenager and is now an integral part of her life-long music career.

Chen Yi in rehearsal with Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit. [Global Times]
Chen Yi in rehearsal with Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit. [Global Times]

Born in Guangzhou and internationally renowned for her unique compositions, 57-year-old Chen has had her work performed throughout the world by leading international ensembles such as the American Composers Orchestra, Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic and China National Symphony.

Chen was the first woman to receive a master's degree in composition in China and is now a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"I always believed that I could express my deepest thoughts rooted in my own culture to an international audience. Music is universal and we should use that as a bridge to improve understanding," Chen told the Global Times while in Beijing last week.

She was invited to speak at the 29th International Society for Music Education World Conference, which brought over 7,000 music professionals from over 90 countries to the capital. Chen's speech "My music journey to the world" attracted 3,000 attendees despite several concurrent events being held at the China National Convention Center as part of the conference.

"Her music is fantastic and a perfect combination of East and West," Gunnar Heiling from the conference's organizing committee and who personally invited Chen to be a keynote speaker, told the Global Times.

During her speech, Chen shared many of the ideas at the heart of her compositions, such as writing chamber music for Chinese-language songs and imitating the sound of traditional Chinese instruments like the guqin and pipa with Western musical instruments.

Chen's 90-minute presentation was well received, with many attendees remaining behind to meet her.

"I love Ms Chen's music because it is passionate; it is from the heart and it is harmony," said Canadian music teacher Aleksandra Hoek, who also elbowed through the crowd for Chen's autograph. "It is a bridge between traditions and it speaks to all of us."

Chen explained that most of the elements and inspiration in her compositions come from Chinese music, which she then applies to an international format. "I write according to the rules of Western orchestral music, so when they perform the song, the audience can understand the music and imagine the image behind it," she said.

Chen added that Chinese music has several unique sounds, such as the glissandi and grace note, which are not commonly found in Western classical music. "But if one can imitate its flavor, charm and articulation, they can give Western instruments a brand-new voice."

In 1989, Chen's work for soprano, violin and cello "As in a Dream" was included in a Polish documentary produced by the International Society for Contemporary Music, Chen was one of 20 composers selected from 20 countries to introduce their work.

"I used violin and cello to imitate the Chinese cymbal which is similar to the guqin and the music was written for a Chinese poem ['As in a Dream' by Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Li Qingzhao]."

Born into a musical and talented family, Chen's parents were both medical doctors who introduced Mozart to Chen when she began private piano lessons at age 3.

"I remember I had numerous records of classical music at home when I was a child," Chen said. "I listened to them all day but had no idea that they were all dead white men, although I dreamed to become a person like them."

Chen's days of drowning herself in Mozart came to an end when the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) broke out in China. Schools were shut down and families were torn apart as people were sent to labor in villages.

Managing to avoid being sent away for several years, at 15 Chen and her violin went to the countryside. Instead of playing Mozart and Bach, she used her hands to grow rice and vegetables.

Chen said that life in the countryside was hard, but the dark period exposed her to traditional Chinese music.

"I realized that my mother tongue was the same as what farmers spoke, but when translated into music, it was not the same as what I practiced everyday. I started to realize that Mozart was not my only language," she said.

"Only then did I start to feel a need to study more deeply and intensely to bring Eastern and Western music to a natural hybrid, not just on an artificial level."

At 17, Chen got her first job in the orchestra of the Beijing Opera Troupe in Guangzhou and began her journey as a composer.

"Actually I was hired as a violinist, but they didn't have any composers at that time because all the intellectuals were sent to the countryside," Chen said.

"An orchestra needs music and they needed composition so they grabbed me to write new productions and I became a composer."

When the system of higher education resumed in 1978, Chen enrolled at the Central Conservatory of Music and in 1986 furthered her study in the US where she received her doctor's degree in composition at Columbia University.

In 1999 she became a professor in composition at University of Missouri - Kansas City, a position that she holds to this day. Chen has composed for many US orchestras and won numerous awards, including the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award in 2001 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which offers composers $75,000 a year for three years. Chen was the first Chinese composer to win the award.

As a professor, Chen said that she always encourages her students, no matter where they are from, to seek their voice from their roots and background.

"When you speak your own language, it will be more powerful when you share it with others."

(Global Times August 10, 2010)

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