Winsor Music is honored to present the world premiere of a personal, powerful new work by a young composer, Yi Yiing Chen. As a student of John Heiss and Michael Gandolfi and a recipient of Tanglewood Music Center's Elliott Carter Memorial Composer Fellowship, her credentials are impressive, but her intellect, empathy, and openness shine through in her writing, both verbal and musical. We are so grateful that she has shared her story with us in her music and in this vivid and thoughtful interview.
Born in Taiwan, Yi Yiing Chen’s music has been described as “very different, showing the composer’s versatility and breadth of range and influence” and “an exciting amalgam of eastern and western styles.” Her works have been performed at the Tanglewood Music Festival, the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, and the Primrose International Viola Competition & Festival. Received awards include the Tanglewood Music Center's Elliott Carter Memorial Composer Fellowship, the LungShan Temple Scholarship, the NEC Honors Ensemble composition, the NEC Symphony Composition Competition and the NTNU Presidential Scholarship.
Besides writing music, she is also an active pianist. She presented a solo piano recital in Taiwan and currently is an affiliated artist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yi Yiing also plays flute, Chinese bamboo flute and Dulcimer.
Yi Yiing has studied or worked with many other talented musicians, including John Harbison, Oliver Knussen, Bright Sheng and Dimitri Murrath. Currently she is a doctoral student at the New England Conservatory studying with Prof. John Heiss and Prof. Michael Gandolfi funded by NEC's Francis Judd Cooke Scholarship. She also teaches at MIT, Yamaha Music School of Boston and Children's Music Center of J.P.. She previously received her M.M. from the Manhattan School of Music and B.A. from the National Taiwan Normal University, where her mentors included Richard Danielpour, Mao-Shuan Chen, Gordon Chin, Kris Falk, Nils Vigeland, Reiko Füting and Richard Sussman.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
These pieces are my music diaries – scenes, events, and moments I want to record, poems I want to sing with. The process of writing music allows me to unravel and reorder my scattered inner voices and thus better define and express myself. When these voices become simpler and clearer, and when I am able to let go, the piece has come to an end.
How did you come to composition? How do you balance your composition with your career as a pianist?
I started playing piano at age 4, and in the elementary school found I often had an interest in transcribing various music works. Around ten, I became fond of transcribing songs or music I heard on piano, such as music from the film Titanic and Chinese pop songs I heard on the radio. I really didn’t write any notes down until 1999, my last year of elementary school. I wrote a song with piano accompaniment as part of a class activity. Luckily, I was the only one among 30 students who submitted a piece, so my song was chosen and sung by the whole class with me as the piano accompanist. Actually it was not even a composition--I think I just arranged a song I heard on the TV for voice and piano--but it was an amazing experience for me and really encouraged me to do more “composing.”
Because my first attempts at “composing” were initiated mainly because I played piano, I haven’t consciously felt the need to balance my career as composer and as pianist; I believe they are from the very beginning inextricably tied together. Writing music is a state of solitude, both physically and mentally, whereas performing or teaching piano requires more immediate communication. Now I love to “create” things on my own, but I still love to read a piece and try to speak it in my own language, play songs I heard from YouTube or from next door, and voluntarily accompany for my family and friends playing other instruments. Doing these really brings joy and peace to my life.
What do you remember about the first piece you wrote? Did you know at that point that you would want to make this your profession?
When I was in middle school, my piano teacher suggested that I take “harmony” lessons studying figured bass and roman numerals. I then spent two years writing pieces in some different styles, from the organum of the middle ages to very basic 12-tone method. These lessons were actually my very first composition lessons, and the pieces I wrote during that time were my earliest “quasi-compositions.” Soon after, when I was 14, I wrote something for two violins and piano. This piece could be considered my first official composition. I chose these two instruments because there are many violinists in my family, including my three siblings. At that point I didn’t know that I would make writing music as my profession. This piece was later edited and included in the portfolio when I submitted my college application for a music composition degree.
What can you tell us about the piece you wrote for Winsor Music?
This piece is about how my grandmother gradually lost her memory because of Alzheimer’s. Her loss of memory at first made our family breathless and confused. I am sure she felt the same herself. Like a palindrome, as her character slowly faded and fragmented, she became like a child, with my grandmother’s spirit. Therefore, the piece follows a palindromic contour; the first and the last movements share the same beginning (the autumn theme), as do the two inner movements (the dawn theme), even though there are changes between the first and second statements of each theme.
The first movement, Autumn Leaves in Your Eyes, begins with a broad, autumn theme, then proceeds with a passage evoking my grandmother’s youth, about how Taipei, the city I grew up in, had been like when she was young. This passage, under the veil of time past, opens with the viola speaking through a long line portraying the busy and unceasing work at the steel factory where my grandfather worked while my grandmother took care of the home and children, waiting for his return. You may also hear the bicycle, the grassland, and the leaves swirling in the winds. These events function like flashbacks, turning very fast until the music moves directly into the second movement without any pauses in between. The tutti ending of the first movement is followed by a lingering single note of the oboe, F-sharp, to which the violin responds by playing the same F-sharp two octaves higher.
The second movement, The Sunset at Dawn, then begins with a relatively slower dawn theme. While the first movement serves as the source of the horizontal intervallic cell that I apply to the entire piece, the second movement is the juxtaposition between her present and her past. Her memories become fragmented, or redisplayed in time. When the juxtaposition ceases, the movement ends with an a-minor theme.
Like the second movement, the third movement, Sailing Against Time, begins with the dawn theme, then proceeds with a passages describes how her memory “called” for help when it begins to disintegrate; the juxtapositions in the previous movement become even more severe here.
Finally, like the first movement, the last movement, (He is) Waiting For Me (Downstairs), begins with the autumn theme, but this autumn theme eventually dissolves into the a-minor theme at the end of the second movement. (She died in her sleep in 2015.) The last day before her death, she told us that my grandfather was waiting for her downstairs. I feel that during the course of her losing her memory, we could have been more patient with her, in many ways. This last movement is a way for me to express whatever was not said or sung in the previous movements.
Can you give us a tour of some of the musical landmarks of the piece?
In the first movement, you may hear the busyness, the leaves swirling by winds, the grassland, her waiting and my grandfather’s return. These events would be like flashbacks, turning very fast until the music goes directly into the second movement without any pauses in between. The tutti ending of the first movement is proceeded by the second movement begins with a relatively slow dawn theme, led by the violin. This theme appears again at the beginning the third movement. The piece can be traced by a palindromic contour, the first and the last movements share the same beginning, as do the two inner movements, even though there are changes between the first and second presence of each theme. The last movement is devoted to whatever was not being said and sung in the previous movements.
Why did you apply this inspiration to this instrumentation? What about your experiences with your grandmother sparked this particular sound in your mind?
Every weekend my parents took me and my sister from our house at Shipai to Cheng de Road to visit my two grandmothers until we finally moved there when I was 8. The time I got to spend with my grandmother the most were the first four years when we lived together. Every weekend when we went to the market nearby, we could hear the outdoor Taiwanese folk opera, so in some way I always associate my grandmother with the haunting sounds of the opera. The sound of the oboe is very similar to suona, a very important wind instrument in the Taiwanese folk opera.
I have a basket of ideas/things that I usually save for possible future use in my music, such as music fragments, images, emotional themes or an approach to handle notes. The theme of my grandmother has been in the basket for the last few years since she began losing her memory, but I hadn’t decided to focus on these thoughts until the beginning of 2015. Later in the same year when I knew that I would be able to write a piece for this particular instrumentation (oboe, violin, viola and cello), I decided to face and interpret these ideas and associations.
Can you explain some of your approach to writing chamber music, specifically chamber music for a mixed (woodwind/string) ensemble?
I sometimes try to utilize both the balance and contrasts between different tone colors of woodwinds and strings. I also at times disregard the differences and treat each instrument as a single person that has unique stories to tell.
What composers and/or other musical traditions would you cite as influences?
I will list some of my personal favorites: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy and Berg. I also have been inspired by film scores written by Joe Hisaishi.
Finally, do you have a favorite piece (or pieces) of chamber music by another composer?
Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115!