Sweet, sweet sounds

By By Remi Tippetts

By Remi Tippetts

China’s cultural revolution devastated the lives of musicians throughout the country. Maoists severely stigmatized and punished activities that they considered too Western or intellectual, and many families were split up and sent to labor camps.

Or at least so much was the fate of Chen Yi, a student of violin and piano since the age of 3, who is playing Tuesday, Oct. 26 for free at Dumke Recital Hall.

During the revolution, some musicians stopped playing altogether, or even buried their instruments in hopes of recovering them after a more sympathetic regime was in control. Chen’s solution to avoiding further persecution was bolder: She opted to practice in secret. When universities were reinstated, she continued her formal musical studies. Despite the profound obstacles facing her, Yi became the first woman in China to earn an M.A. in music.

She later moved to the United States and earned a subsequent degree as well as the unique and prestigious Ives Living Prize (2001-2004). The award pays the recipient $75,000 a year for three years, with the stipulation that his or her occupation during those three years must be composition.

The prolific composer has certainly put the time to good use, increasing her catalogue with well more than a dozen works. The most striking feature of Yi’s compositions is the way they blend Chinese folk and Western classical music. Her compositions have a sincere, organic quality.

An apt, if not seemingly unlikely comparison to Scott Joplin’s classic piano ragtime is appropriate for Yi.

Yi’s composition for mixed ensemble “…as like a raging fire,” will be one of several played at the Dumke Recital Hall on Oct. 26. It’s worth noting that “…as like a raging fire” is not available on CD, which makes this performance a rare opportunity to hear the work.

Milton Babbitt’s Philomel will also play with Yi at Dumke Hall. Babbitt is something of a musical pioneer in the use of electronics, having used one of the first synthesizer/samplers ever created, the RCA Mark II, which cost $500,000 to build.

Karl Stockhausen, also featured on the bill, is probably most infamous for his use of four helicopters in Helikopter-Streichquartett. There will be no flying string quartets at Dumke Recital Hall Tuesday, but the crowd will hear excerpts from his “Twelve Signs of the Zodiac,” which features a corresponding melody for each sign.

There are two key points which make this concert an especially interesting event. First, all the works featured are by living composers. Such performances can be frustratingly difficult to find. It is typical to see venues label composers “modern” simply because they post-date the romantic period.

The second attractive feature of this concert is that admission is free.

This concert continues the Maurice Abravenel Visiting Distinguished Composer Series, directed by Morris Rosenzweig and played by the Canyonlands New Music Ensemble. Past visiting composers have included John Adams, Steve Reich and Milton Babbitt.

At a time when the general public often finds classical music intimidating or inaccessible, this program presents a wonderful opportunity to sample new music without risking hard-earned money.

[email protected]

Chen Yi will give lecture/forums on Monday, Oct. 25 from 10:35 to 11:35 a.m. in Dumke Recital Hall, and 2 to 4 p.m. in Room 302 of Gardner Hall. The concert is Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in Dumke Recital Hall. The lecture and the concert are free.