Chen Yi: Ge Xu


Chen Yi was born in Guanzhou, China in 1953. She was born into a talented family of both doctors and musicians, and so from a young age Yi began learning violin. Her siblings were known as child prodigies within musical performance, so Yi had a lot to live up to. Whilst learning violin and piano, her biggest influences were from Western composers such as Bach and Mozart. As her family moved around a lot due to the cultural revolution, it wasn’t until 1970, when she returned to Guangzhou, that she began working as concertmaster for the Beijing Opera Troupe. In 1986 she moved to the USA.

She began studying at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing from 1978, where she earned an MA in composition. She was the first woman to be awarded an MA in composition from this particular institution – a massive achievement which is still talked about today. After her Masters Yi studied at Columbia University under Chou Wen-Ching and Mario Davidosky, where she received her DMA with distinction. Throughout her long and fruitful career, Yi has been awarded many honorary doctorates from institutions such as University of Portland (2009), University of Wisconsin (2002) The University of New York (2010). Further to this, Yi has won many competitions around the world, however she is perhaps the most well-known in China and the USA.

As well as composition, Chen Yi has also taught in various institutions on the works of Claude Debussy and she has also run masterclasses on composition. She has had a long and prosperous career in music, and her compositional style is said to be pushing the boundaries of contemporary classical styles. 


The Music

Composed in 1994, Ge Xu is spacious and uses a range of developmental techniques to create nuanced atmospheres. During the time of composition Yi had a three-year residency in San Francisco, through the brilliant Meet the Composer’s New Residency Program. Whilst working within this program, Ge Xu was subsequently commissioned by the Women’s Philharmonic. Yi said this about Ge Xu: 

“The work is inspired by the vividly competitive antiphonal singing of the Zhuang minority and folk dancing tune of the Yi.”

Breaking this down more, antiphonal often encompasses the interaction between choirs or voices, which come together to create a call and answer-like situation. The ethnic group Zhuang typically reside in the south of China, and they are within an autonomous region within this province. So this work is about their religious antiphonal music, which is highly competitive between voices, hence the colourful description. Lasting around 8 minutes, Ge Xu is a fascinating work with many layers of musical techniques.

The piece begins with a simple melody in the upper register of the violins, which is soon embellished by the woodwinds. This is then repeated again, although this time it is more developed and uses a range of different harmonic structures until it culminates in a growth of sound on a dissonant chord played by the whole ensemble collectively. The atmosphere drops back once more and the harmonics from the tam-tam can be heard, whilst the upper strings play in extreme octaves. A menagerie of woodwind sounds are heard together, creating quite a frantic aura, and the muted trumpets also add to the bitterness of this.

A rhythmic pattern played by the drums gives the piece some more drive, and a whirlwind of sounds can be heard from wind instruments. The use of dynamics are prevalent here as Yi uses very loud dynamics to signal impending fright, whereas she uses silences and very quiet passages to create and build tension.

The mixture of simple and compound time also makes this work very exciting as the changes typically signal the changes in tempo too, which makes the work erratic and unpredictable. Fanfares from the brass lead into a percussion cadenza. Led by various drums, this section releases a lot of the tension that was felt in the previous section. The woodwinds enter again, all playing sporadic melodies which again create a frantic atmosphere. A syncopated melody is played by brass and strings which proclaims some of the material played thus far. 

This theme leads us to the end of the movement where the instruments play in unison in different groups, which reaches a climax and quickly goes silent before a static upper string motif is heard. The bassoon then appears from within the orchestra and starts playing a new melody. There is embellishment from the vibraphone at this point, as well as the static strings, which develop into a tremolo. The harp plays a haunting arpeggiated motif which fades away and the piece is then over.


Final Thoughts

Ge Xu is an exciting work that is enjoyable to listen to as it transports the listener into a new realm where atmospheres are incredibly intense and where you can hear various voices clashing against each other. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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