Every year, we have our composition students do focused study of the works of a living composer, then Skype with that composer to discuss the music. This year, one of the composers we focused on was Chen Yi, and we met with her this past week.
Chen Yi is a fantastic subject for young American composers to study because her life experiences are dramatically distant from theirs, and that distance makes it easy to hear how her music reflects who she is. A child prodigy on violin, she was subjected to “re-education” in her adolescence when the Cultural Revolution attempted to wipe out, among other things, Western influences. In Chen Yi’s case, the process of ridding her mind of Western “pollution” included two years of nonstop, back-breaking labor.
After she (and China) emerged from this dark period, nothing she faced seemed difficult by comparison. She immersed herself in musical studies – Western and Eastern – with a formidable stamina. The results are easy to hear in her work: a seamless, gorgeous fusing of East and West into a voice that is unmistakably hers. An added bonus is her keen ear for raw sound: sounds of the countryside, of the world she grew up in, abound in her music.
And therein lies, to me, the key to successful fusion of disparate musical worlds: these worlds existed side-by-side in her childhood, as her musical personality was forming. It’s very different from, say, a middle-aged composer from Iowa hearing Peking Opera for the first time and deciding to incorporate it into his music, or a Cantonese composer hearing Sibelius at the age of 45 for the first time and deciding to write a Sibelius-style symphony. When a mature composer adopts new-found styles for the first time, the result is exotic and condescending.
That’s why I encourage my students to engage with as many musics as they can in their youths, while making sure they stay in touch with their musical heritages. On the one hand, at a certain point – fairly soon, for most students – their musical voices will mature and trying out new styles will start to feel forced. On the other hand, the thing that we need most from them is smithy-of-their-soul forging: the music that says who they are, that speaks for all who share their sensibilities.
I can’t leave this topic without noting what an engaging, effervescent speaker Chen Yi is: warm, thoughtful, and enthusiastic. We all came away from our time with her with newfound insights and energy.