Chen Yi interview transcript
Chen Yi: Thank you, Dan, for inviting me.
DO: You have many homes in the United States. Where are all your homes in the United States?
CY: I teach at UMKC Conservatory. That is the University of Missouri in Kansas City. A conservatory. So I have a home in Kansas City. But another one is in New York. My husband, who is also a composer, we live together for most of the summer time in New York.
DO: You've been writing music for how long?
CY: Since 17 years old.
CY: And I started violin and piano when I was three, four years old. And I have come through China's cultural revolution during the late '60s and I was sent to the countryside to work as a farmer for two years. And I had brought my violin along with me and also I could practice my fingers playing revolutionary songs. ... Paganini's Cappriccios ... or the Candenzas. And then I was brought back to Canton, my home town in Guangdong. I worked as a concert master ....
And I have played for all the revolutionaries a sample of operas on violin. And after that, China reopened the University system in the late '70s. I was admitted as a first group of composers to study in conservatory. That is the Bejing Central Conservatory. I studied five years for an undergraduate degree and three more years for my master's degree in composition. And I became the first woman in our school to receive a master's degree in composition in China. And then, during this period you know, besides studying standard Western music repertoire, we also studied systematically Chinese music theory or the practical things like we categorizelike Chinese culture and Chinese music, into Chinese folk songs and Chinese operas and story telling musically. And the other type is a Chinese traditional instrumental music. Through all of these experiences, I could tell that I could use my own language to speak out writing for either Chinese instruments or Western instruments.
DO: Hmm. That's a wonderful biography, thank you for going through that. By the way, may I say, your English is wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking the English language. It's just ... it's wonderful to hear your words. What a great background.
CY: Because I came to Colombia University to study for my DMA degree .... I spent seven years in New York City, so New York City is my second home.
DO: A great place to learn all kinds of American cultural ideas and expressions. It's wonderful. Your piece "Ning"say a word about the word Ning. It's an abbreviation for the city Nanjing?
CY: Yes, Ning is the other name for the city Nanjing, which is the capital in China during WWII, which also was the city that Japanese went and killed many Chinese people during WWII. I think that is most memorable city and place for all Chinese. As well as the people in Asian countries. If you have gone to Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, or all countries around ... Hong Kong, those places, areas ... many people still remember those awful stories, and they could tell you all the truths and they would give you other articles and stories and books and pictures and everything.
DO: Were the stories suppressed for a long time officially?
CY: Yes. In China, when you are a kid, in primary school, you have the education in your text book, and every year, up to the Memorial Day, you will be shown all the pictures and documentaries and you could see all the scenes, the awful scenes, the awful, terrifying, and all sorts of pictures and exhibitions and concerts to remember those experiences.
DO: When you were asked to be a part of the "Bridge of Souls," of the Hun Qiao, what was your reaction?
CY: Immediately, I thought that this sorrow, this sad history should be remembered. That's a for sure, because I have written many orchestrations for big choral works, when the Chinese in Lincoln Center they presented big concerts to remember these events. And I certainly accepted this commission and invitation for sure.
I think that it's my obligation as a Chinese, as a person who can use music as the bridge to inspire people, and to bring history back to people's memory. And also, to improve their understanding .... Maybe they could get educational memory, or they could get inspiration from me.
DO: What do you think is the danger of staying silent about the atrocities?
CY: Because death has been a long history and story already, and if this generation is staying away and nobody could tell the truth, and nobody could ask the first person to tell you all their experiences. I think that it wouldn't be the first-hand material to obtain, so it's very necessary and hurry up to do this project.
DO: Why use music to heal?
CY: Because music is also abstract and that could last longer as an art form. And we could use that as the inspiration to share with the next generation. ... I think that is not a kind of propaganda. It's not a kind of a straightforward education, but that could last longer. Like a lingering remembering experience.
DO: In your travels, in your experiences, in your conversations with Americans of Western European background, do you think many know about the story of the Japanese invasion and occupation of China and Korea?
CY: I don't think many people know. Especially they don't know what happened exactly in the history. Or some of them have read the very popular book by Iris Chang and then you learn the history in those stories. But if you happen to be in the field where you didn't read those stories, you didn't read the books, and you didn't go to some exhibitions and same concerts then you wouldn't know about these, so I feel that it is in a hurry to educate more and more people using the history stories because when we learn these experiences, we will learn the lesson and we will avoid this bad thinking, bad ideas, bad experiences happen again. For the future of the war and for the peace.
DO: How would you describe the music for the commemoration? Angry? Sorrowful?
CY: I include all these expressions in my piece, which is abstract. In which you could hear the battle scenes, the sorrow, crying. The extremely miserable sighing, crying, kind of song effects that is merged into my music. Also play on pipa, that is the plucking instrument, and it's a pear-shaped lute, I use different fingerings and difficult techniques on this instrument to describe this awful scene. And also, I used ... vibrato in a high voice to imitate crying. That kind of miserable sighing and talking. And also in the violin you can hear, when you feel so sorrow and you are speechless and you couldn't talk until you made this (gasping sound)that kind of sound on the violin. And also, the cello would express more dramatic moments from slow to fast and all the big jumps and skips to describe that kind of feelings. So although my piece is abstract, I can combine all these kind of feelings into my textures. And towards the end, I plot in a Chinese folk song material ... like this is an old Chinese folk tune coming from the same region of Nanjing.
And so I use this piece also fragmented. I didn't use the whole song, but I used a piece of material only to symbolize our longing, our Chinese peaceful thinking. And we look forward to the future of the peace and of the war. So I developed this material ... and to end the whole piece, that means we are longing for the future.
DO: That's a wonderful description of your music. That's a truly wonderful description.
Just a few questions ... just a few questions left. As you have participated in the commemoration, what has been the reaction of your family, your friends, people you know, to the idea of this commemoration.
CY: My family certainly feels that it's an honor for us. And also, my mom has gone through this terrible period. And both of my parents ran away from Japanese's planes when they dropped the bombs. They used to tell me all the stories of when they saw their classmates die under the bomb. And they would teach me, if you have ever ... see those planes, how do you run? What direction you have to run? Because my mom always wake up with nightmare and shouting very loudly, and shaking, and say, "Run away quickly! The plane is here chasing us!" like this.
Many times, I could hear her shouting, although we were in the next room. I could hear it, and then I would run over and say: "What's happening?"
She said: "Japanese planes dropping the bombs and chasing me!" like this.
And so, when I told my mom that I will write this piece, my mom was very pleased and she said that certainly we should remember this period of history to remind people that that shouldn't happen again. ... I think that is very necessary.
When I told many of my students in Kansas City, they are Caucasian-Americans, and they are Asian-Americans, and they learn the history from me. And my Japanese student even help me to do my copying work. And his mom is a reporter who has written stories in this period. So I think the project is very educational.
DO: Is there disagreement among people you know about the value of opening old wounds?
CY: I have never experienced any disagreement any time in my lifetime. Because any time I brought out this project, or this subject even, in front of anybody in a society, everybody would encourage me to use music to inspire people, educate people, with this period of history.
DO: Four brand-new pieces world premier, yours among them, "Ning." What would you like listeners, concert goers, to take away from the performance?
CY: I think that a piece of music could bring in the beauty of the arts, and could bring in fresh inspiration to our audiences. I would like to use this piece of music to share my expression and thinking with audiences. And use my music as a bridge to improve the understandings between audiences from different cultural backgrounds. To share. And then we could bring our better qualities of the society a wish.