“In 1970,” Chen Yi remembers, “Madame Mao had composed a revolutionary opera, a big piece that needed a Western-style orchestra. But all the Western-style musicians in Beijing had been fired and sent to prison camps, so they needed a new orchestra, and very quickly. So suddenly I had a job playing my violin, out in the open! Not only that, I had to compose a lot of music, very quickly: overtures, dance pieces, songs. Now I had a job, and most of the other composers came to work with me in the Beijing Opera as well. We had a company that toured through many cities, and that made life a little better.”
By 1977, the Cultural Revolution was over and the Chinese conservatories could be open again. Chen Yi had a huge pile of compositions to submit, from the music that she had composed for the operas. “No, it wasn’t very good,” she says, “and no, I don’t want to use any of it now, but everybody was amazed that I had such a large pile. Still, I had to start at the beginning, to learn orchestration techniques and harmonies and to do all the straight things that I had been doing just by instincts. In 1986, the Chinese Central Philharmonic gave a whole concert of my work. But I had gone as far as I could at the Beijing Conservatory, so I applied to Columbia and was accepted. I got a visa in one week — imagine that!
“Also I got to travel with Tan Dun, on a project to collect folk music in Chinese villages. We would travel some distance on a bus, and then we would walk, maybe 90 miles, to where there was a singer, or a musician that we could record.” This was the same thing that Bartók had done, recording the folk music of his native Hungary, and it helps to define the particular strength in the music of Chen Yi. Listen to her latest disc: Momentum, a 13-minute orchestral work on Sweden’s BIS label, or The Music of Chen Yi on New Albion; not packaged exotica on the Rimsky-Korsakov level, these are strong, confrontational pieces in which the strands of Chen Yi’s own concerns stand forth in stark relief.