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Interview with Yao Chen
This week, we’ll be counting down the days to our spring concert with a series of interview with our composers. Yao Chen is (literally) days away from his doctorate from the University of Chicago. His new work for Wild Rumpus is called O…What An Awakening.
Can you tell me about where you’re from, and how you got started as a musician?
I was born in China. I am originally Cantonese, but I mostly grew up in the northwest of China. I went to the music high school affiliated with the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou. After I finished high school, I moved to Beijing to attend the conservatory. I was a singer and then pianist, but then my music life started to change after a short meeting with a piano professor in Guangzhou. He said I was probably too old to get into [conservatory] as a piano major, [but] maybe I can get in doing composition. I thought, “Okay, as long as I can get into the conservatory and as long as you let me play piano, I’ll be happy to do anything.” However, as my music composition gradually took up my time more and more during my high school years, I decided to be a composer. I did my bachelor’s degree in music composition in the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. And after that, I came to Chicago, and I’m going to receive my Ph.D. in two weeks.
When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?
Since I was very, very young. I was maybe seven or eight. I was into music from the very beginning; there was no doubt. Even when I was very little I really loved listening to music, and danced with music all the time, though I had no idea what kinds of style I was dancing, and I followed the rhythm. Even now today, I still believe that music is part of your body, not just your brain. It’s really integrated into your life and physical movement.
Very often I would improvise on my voice, and the first audience was always my grandma. When I was nine years old, I finally got a real piano after practicing on several different electronic keyboards for two years. I stopped playing with other kids outside, and stayed at home practicing the piano as much as I was able to. Since then my will of becoming a better musician never changes.
“Poem I: Sough” from Two Poems
“Poem II: Glowing Autumn” from Two Poems
When you talk about movement and flow, is it less about the literal physicality of playing as it is about capturing an intuitive kind of momentum in your pieces?
I’m trying to convey a sense of nature in my music. What does nature mean, it means something really harmonious but also at the same time, has a kind of randomness in it. It’s really an interplay between your natural human being and the artificial craft. In composing, we sometime care so much more about our craft that we forgot our human natural randomness. I do pre-compositional structuring, but I always spend much more time on feeling my music, and readjusting the timings among my notes and phrases according to my blood pressure. This procedure sometime would last until the premiere, and even the second performance.
Maybe it’s part of my earlier music education in China; I basically studied music under Russian pedagogy. It’s all about your feelings, your passion and your devotion on music before you can have any rational thinking. Every next note comes from your sub-consciousness, and the phrasing of music is directly from your breathing. I also love French music, which is also about sensuality and sensibility; we talk so much about colors, feelings, textures in French music. For example, in my orchestral piece Two Poems, I wish my audience to feel it viscerally at first.
Starting in high school and college as an undergraduate at Central Conservatory, were there any early composers or early teachers who were important to you?
My teachers are all important to my growing as a composer. My high school composition teacher really let me be myself and search new sounds. A good composer/theorist friend, my high school classmate, tremendously influenced me with his huge music knowledge and opened many doors to me. Those great classic music works I have heard and studied were very influential. When I was in high school, I was very fascinated by Messiaen’s music. I borrowed every available score and recording of his music from the school library to study. I read some Chinese translations of the treatises of Olivier Messiaen, though I don’t think I really understood them deeply enough. I was seriously intoxicated in his sound world and religious fascination. I even tried to imitate his style. I remember my first song I did during my freshmen year, Floating for piano and soprano, that piece is really Messian-esque.
Also in my high school, someone introduced me to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, and I also met her in person in France in 1998. I love [her music] so much because it’s not totally Western; it also has an Oriental concept of time and timbre playing. I can not remember how many times I have listened to her violin concerto Offertorium. These two composers [were] seminal in my understanding about new music. My chamber piece Transience and string quartet Afterglow, they all have connections to these composers’ musics.
Later on, I started to learn other composers. Recently, I have been quite into Sciarrino. I’m interested in his way of dealing with timbres and effects. Sometimes he almost uplifts the timbre, using sound effects in a structural way so they’re more than just effects—they’ve really become the chief structural forces of the music. Of course, Baroque music, I’ve been listening to as well.
Did your interest in Baroque music begin as a pianist, or was it a later development for you?
Later, much later. Just in the past recent years, maybe first from [Cecilia] Bartoli’s many Baroque opera recordings. At the beginning I was very stunned by her vocal technique, but then I started to pay more attention to the music she sang and then Baroque operas and instrumental music. It’s really fascinating because we barely found that kind of steady rhythm, pulsation and musical form in contemporary music. We contemporary composers tend to break the rhythmic pattern or the pulsation, and not much repetition, we always want to go away and create something newer and newer. In Baroque music, we have the da capo form, coming back to the original idea with lifted emotions. I don’t repeat history but I do want to find my way to utilize these interesting devices to make enough impressions on people. I think my Wild Rumpus-commissioned piece O…What an Awakening definitely exposes my fascination on Baroque music in many unspoken ways.
You’re in school right now at University of Chicago, set to graduate in a couple weeks, and we’ll be missing you [at our concert] because you have a doctorate to get!
Yeah, I really feel too bad. I have to miss you guys and miss the premiere, because the premiere will be on June 8th evening and my graduation parade and ceremony and hooding will be on June 9th morning. But I trust Wild Rumpus, they are really committed and experienced group! The premiere of the piece is actually announcing a new beginning of my life will lead to so much unforeseen, which totally echoes my graduation. In the program notes, I implied that I was searching a way of composing, a new stage. The piece also has some significant indeterminate elements. What a coincidence! But I’m kind of worried because there is one section with all the silent gestures and no sound, and how can I ensure this be done in a profound way instead of superficially.
Can you talk a bit more about performing the action in a profound way?
You ask hard questions! In new music, we have to have lots of communication because the expressions are so specific, so individual. As musicians, it’s really important to know what a composer is trying to express, and at the same time, you must also integrate your own voice with sheer confidence. I really like the idea that when you play chamber music, each musician is an individual actor or actress. Particularly for this piece, I address that, each voice of the piece has a significant aspect of individuality and theatricality, and musicians’ physical involvements are definitely demanded and shall be choreographed.
Can you describe what that physical involvement might look like, or if there’s a specific style or goal or objective that you’d like the physicality to convey?
Yeah, I mean, in this particular piece, musicians have to lift their sensibility up to a visible level. Breathing, expressions, characteristic motives, accents in the music should be seen in their physical movements. The intensity and relaxation in the music shall also be seen. The silence and activity in the music shall be seen too. Everyone needs to be hyper and a wild creature for this piece! There is no specific style, and the objective or the goal but that musicians need to let their bodies to react the sounds they are playing and hearing. That is the only way to convince audience without imposing superficiality.
I think another way to say it is to say each gesture is very strong in character. It’s not just theatricality in terms of staging or movement, it’s about a certain strength and precision in terms of the perceiving and conveying the individual character of each idea.
Indeed. Sometimes I can be so convinced by performance that I can forgive imprecisions of notes or intonations. Performance is such an important element of the realization of music composition. I’m very flexible in that way. I’m not like, “Oh, the soprano is not reaching the right pitch!”, but if the emotion is there, the intensity is there,and the expression is there, it’s good!
Can you tell me a little about the text for the piece? How do you imagine the declamation for the singer, for Maria?
At the very beginning, I asked you to get a recording of Maria’s singing, and she sent me these two pieces. I instantly liked her bright tone color. One of the pieces she gave me reminded me Mozart’s operatic arias. I right away decided to embed some Mozart music association in my piece. The climax of the piece, inside the gusty surging of every other instruments, Maria is singing one short phrase La ci darem la mano… from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Besides that, I also wrote about my daily experience with Buddhism into this piece. We tend to talk about Buddhism in a very meditative, very sacred way, a very ethereal and antisocial way. However, I wanted this time to write [about how] to be enlightened through your daily life—how you understand the world, how you position yourself in such a chaotic, competitive world—there are so many sounds in one’s life, it’s about speed, it’s about noise, and how much you can make your voice out there. Can I enlighten myself by living? That’s why I set so many daily life sounds into my piece, including sounds from my friends’ names such as Wang, Dan, Dong, and Ling. I also used the name of my friend’s cat, Nadja. Anyway, it has all kinds of words, Chinese phonetic sounds, pinyin, as well as English, Sanskrit. I also included some Buddhist mantras, for example the “Om mani padme hum”—”oh what a beautiful jewel in the lotus”, that’s what it actually means in Sanskrit. It’s all mixed. Sometime the sounds are related to the local timbre context, and sometime the words are organized according to some characterized alignment of vow and consonance. Life is a mix of everything, so now the piece is coming along in that kind of sense.
In your bio, you mention drawing on Western and Eastern influences. I was wondering if you could talk a little about what specific ideas or techniques or interests you draw from that you consider Western or Eastern, and to what extent do you feel that the relationship between the two is important to you as a composer?
It can be explained and at the same time cannot be explained. I grew up in China and lived there for twenty-four years and then came to this country. Having lived here for more than 10 years, now I think I have gained a new kind of humanity which mixes the Western and Eastern. I am sure one can make distinctions, but as a composer, I don’t really think too much when I am called by an idea, and don’t really identify where my techniques and approaches come from. So for lots of times, I can not explain and I prefer not to explain. But I do think that time perception is an important issue which we could have some explanation. In Western music, there is so much emphasis on the organization of time. Time is the key to shape the structure of your musical materials. You never lose the time in Western music, and you are actually driven by it. A good musical time will give you perspectives. While in the Eastern part, time is diffusing, more of the vertical than horizontal. It is a kind of musical time that will let you lose yourself. It’s so common in Chinese music that a single pitch material can be lingering around for so long and does not go anywhere. What actually matters in this situation is that how much nuance and how many colors can generate from this lingering. You savor the note and you don’t follow the note. It is hard for a composer to achieve this idea and let different people enjoy it. This is definitely one of important things to look for in my music. There always exists the intercrossing of two different times, such as my recent piece Yearning for zheng and double bass and Jun for pipa and double bass.
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