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Kansas City Creative Couples: Zhou & Chen

The work of iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is on display this summer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They’re part of an exhibit called Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico.

Kahlo and Rivera are known not only for their paintings, but for their tempestuous marriage, which sometimes influenced their art.

Inspired by Kahlo and Rivera, we are profiling some of Kansas City’s creative couples on air and online. From ballerinas to sculptors to musicians, we want to find out how two artists make a life together, and how their relationship influences their work.

Zhou Longand Chen Yi

Born and raised in China, composer Zhou Long and his wife, composer Chen Yi, have taught at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance for more than a decade. They've spent 30 years studying, teaching, and composing side by side. The prolific composers maintain a rigorous schedule with frequent travel around the globe.

The two met while studying at the Central Conservatory of Music in Bejing. Their "Class of 1978," which also included Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Bright Sheng, marked the first students allowed to study Western classical music after the Cultural Revolution.

Zhou and Chen share an apartment just above tree-lined Southmoreland Park in Kansas City, Mo., filled with music, scores, and mementos from their travel. However, the studios where most of their work is completed remain separate realms where the composers can focus on their commissions.

On their individual musical styles:

Chen: Both (of us) are very much devoted to the combination of East and West. Still I can tell the difference from our characteristics. For example, the color. His (Zhou's) music is more delicate. I would say that kind of instrumentation and different groupings that would form different colors that you may tell right away that, oh, that is not Chen Yi. For me, I have kind of a big stroke (laughs), this kind of passion and a more dramatic shape. This type also you may tell that is me. So you can still tell the difference from each of us.

Despite similar backgrounds and influences, their strong individual voices and styles keep their work distinct.

Zhou: We are very different in the style and the attitude of writing. Chen Yi can finish a choral work on an airplane. But if I am on the road, I can't write a note. I can think about it, but I can't just keep writing. I only compose in my studio here in Kansas City. I have to come back and then I can do the composing. Otherwise I just can't.

On the importance of feedback and criticism:

Zhou: Originally, I came from Beijing, I was born in Bejing. I think [it works for] the artists who live together, especially in the same profession. I am a very quiet person, but we both have a very strong personality, so we give harsh comments.

Chen: We are 60 this year. We got married when we were 30. So this year in July, it was absolutely 30 years. I think we have a lot of common language. Every day, talking. Although, when we finish our own work we always get comments from each other and sometimes we fight.

Zhou: Sometimes if you compose your own work even this error you can't see it. Because you look at it every day. You don't see it. It is too familiar. So I think the other's criticism is very helpful. And, for us, as a first audience, we give very direct comment and criticism. That really helps and sometime hurts, hurts the mood. But, as an artist, you know, that's the job. You have to do it.

On gaining and sharing creative experience:

Zhou: You know, the artwork you create is from your heart. You can't even copy. If you learn some great master's work, you can't copy it. Whatever is your honest writing is your own. You can't change that.

Chen: We train our students. You've got to study hard to earn your experience little bit by little bit. You cannot jump from here to there. It is a kind of collection you have to gain patiently (laughs).

Chen YiFiddle Suite For Huqin and Full Orchestra, 3rd Movement: Dancing, performed by Yan Jiemin and Beijing Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tan Lihua, 2008, Beijing.

Zhou LongThe Rhyme of Taigu, performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui, 2010, Berlin.


The Kansas City Creative Couples Series will air every week on KC Currents through August 18.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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