Photo by Jim Hair

There was a time in China, Chen Yi remembers, when playing Paganini on your violin — or Mozart or Beethoven — could land you in a labor prison, with your instrument confiscated or burned. “I was about 13,” she says, “and I remember that I had to play with heavy blankets over the windows, and a big iron mute over the strings to mute the sound.”

That began to happen in 1966, at the time of the infamous “Cultural Revolution” (which was anything but cultural), organized to support the artistic policies of Mao Zedong and his nihilistic wife and carried forward by the formidable Red Guard and their up-front “Gang of Four.” One astonishing result from that sorry page in Chinese history, however, has been the emergence of yet another gang of four: four composers of extraordinary talent, born within four years of one another (1953–57), all of them with the same history — early musical talent, crushed by governmental forced labor for a time, emerging the better for their experience to gain international fame. All four — Chen Yi; her husband, Zhou Long; Bright Sheng; and Tan Dun — managed the transition to American acclaim (and residence) in the 1980s. All four are in Orange County this week to participate in the Pacific Symphony’s annual “American Composers” festival. That event reaches its climax on March 10 and 11 at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall, with music by all four composers performed by Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony, including the world premiere of Chen Yi’s Ballad, Dance and Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. During the week, the festival also includes music by one more Chinese composer, our own — Pasadena’s, that is — Joan Huang.

On the phone from her home in Brooklyn, just back from performances of her Chinese Myths Cantata in England — a characteristic work combining indigenous instruments and men’s chorus (Chanticleer) — Chen Yi is her usual sparkle, sounding very much like her piece of that name which stole the show at a Green Umbrella concert not long ago. Her message, however, is anything but sparkly as she reminisces about life under that other Gang of Four. “I think my life was even more miserable than the other composers, because my parents were really, really bad — in the eyes of Madame Mao, that is. My father was a doctor, which meant that he had contact with all kinds of Western medicine — very bad. My mother worked in a hospital. When the Red Guards came first to our building, in 1966, our neighbors tried to tell them that we were good people and that they should leave us alone, and so they went away for a while. But in 1968 they came back. My mother was made a prisoner in that hospital, and I was taken out to work, to plant vegetables — barefoot — and to carry 100-pound loads of stone and mud up the hill, maybe 20 times a day.”

It’s only recently that we have come to realize the impact of that horrifying decade in Chinese cultural history: the destruction of an entire educational system, and of an educated generation. Throughout that overpopulated nation, young people raised in good middle-class homes were forced to abandon their career ambitions and were shanghaied into labor camps and youth gangs in the Chinese countryside. We know their story only because of the few happy endings — the four surviving composers brought together by favoring circumstance being one example.

Yet the benefits from just this small composer group have already had an impact on the contemporary musical scene. All four composers have provided a substantial repertory of striking, original music: the delightful sound creations (involving water, paper and all manner of toy creations as well as large-scale devices) that sent Tan Dun high onto the charts, the wrenching musical memoirs of Bright Sheng (including his H’un — Lacerations — which begins the Orange County Festival) and the remarkably vivid works of Chen Yi with their rich, colorful combinations of large-scale “Western” orchestral tone and the dark mysteries of sinuous Chinese melodies.


Somehow, fate — or the ancient gods of music — intervened in the case of these four young musicians, all of them initially dragged off toward a destiny similar to Chen Yi’s. Dog-tired as she was by her daily exertions, she still found time to entertain her co-workers with revolutionary songs on her violin at night. “I felt a big release,” she says, “in being able to exercise some creativity in making something out of these circumstances. Frankly, it wasn’t until the Cultural Revolution that I found my roots, my motherland, and really appreciated the simple people of the earth. I found my own language when I realized that my mother tongue is really the same as what the farmers speak.” Off in Mongolia, her future husband, Zhou Long, in another labor camp, experienced the same epiphany, driving a tractor by day and playing the accordion for folk dances at night. Bright Sheng taught himself piano at a work farm in Qinghai province. Tan Dun, youngest and most completely self-taught of the four, planted rice in a commune by day and sought out musical sounds in rocks, water and paper by night.

“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.

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