“When I was a child my father always told me that it would be great if my daughter would become a composer. It was his dream,” says Chen Yi.
Her father's dream came true. Chen is now well known as a composer, having received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. And as a professor for more than two decades at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music and Dance, she's taught composition to countless students.
Chen's music is published by Theodore Presser Company and performed worldwide, and has been recorded on at least a dozen albums.
Now, she has released a new CD that goes back to her earliest days. A collaboration with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the record has four compositions, each one exploring a different stringed instrument.
One of the pieces is Chen’s first orchestral work, from her student years in Bejing.
“It was actually the first viola concerto written ever in China,” Chen says. “It was in 1983.”
Chen was born to a musical family in China. Her parents shared their love of western classical music early on.
But her musical education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao Zedong started the brutal political campaign in 1966. Schools closed and millions of people from the cities were exiled to the countryside to work on farms. The national purges that followed led to ten years of upheaval in China.
“During the Cultural Revolution in the mid-'60s in China, all students were sent to the countryside to work as the farmers, hard labor. (It was) forced work to be re-educated,” Chen says.
Despite these hardships Chen, who’d been learning the violin since she was four, found a way to keep playing. She even slept with her violin.
“I brought my violin with me and the violin case slept with me in a corner of my bed,” Chen says with a laugh. “A little, very narrow bed."
Western music was prohibited, but Chen found ways to sneak it in whenever she could.
“But I used my violin to play revolutionary songs at the same time. I inserted all these phrases from Paganini and from Western repertoire that I had learned,” Chen says.
Schools were re-opened in 1978. Chen was admitted to Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first woman in China to receive a Master's degree in composition. She also met her husband there, the composer Zhou Long.
She went on to New York for a doctorate at Columbia University, then worked as resident composer for the Women’s Philharmonic and the vocal ensemble Chanticleer in SanFrancisco. She joined the UMKC Conservatory in 1998.
Her lifelong connection with the resonant sound of stringed instruments is one reason she's so pleased with her new record.
“This CD is so meaningful for me because all of the pieces being featured ... are for string instruments,” Chen says.
And the four compositions have a Chinese sensibility, she says.
“Four instruments are being featured in these concertos, and all of them are pretty much sounding like Chinese language, although they are written for Western instruments.”
She says she finds inspiration in all forms of musical expression.
“I don’t look down on any kind of styles because I am open to all different styles in my own composition,” Chen says. “So I really appreciate being in a multicultural society. I really appreciate the beauty from all different cultures.”
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Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.