Chen Yi’s The Han Figurines


Sounding Now Festival
Saturday, 13 April 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall

Contributed by Tai Yun Ming (BMus1, YST)

Chen Yi was born in Guangzhou, China to a family of music lovers. She survived the Cultural Revolution in China where many people including herself were forced into manual labor. As a result of her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, she realised the importance of music and culture in society. She leads a diverse life as a prolific composer transcending cultural and musical boundaries. She believes that music is a universal language that improves understanding between people from different cultural backgrounds. Hence, her music blends Chinese and Western elements, and covers a wide variety of genres.

Chen Yi received her bachelor and master degrees in music composition from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, China, and her doctorate in Musical Arts from Columbia University in New York. Her composition teachers include Wu Zu-qiang, Chou Wen-chung, Mario Davidovsky and Alexander Goehr. She received the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. Later in 2005, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Chen Yi has made significant contribution to the field of music education. She has held professorships at the Beijing Central Conservatory, the Tianjin Conservatory, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, and the Peabody Conservatory, John Hopkins University. She regularly gives workshops and was instrumental in establishing the first Beijing International Composition Workshop. As a composer and teacher, she is passionate about fostering collaboration between musicians from the East and the West. She has supported many other composers, performers and students over the past three decades.


for violin, B-flat clarinet, B-flat tenor saxophone, double bass, piano, and percussion (2 Timpani, Suspended Cymbal, Piccolo Woodblock, Lowest Tam-tam)

Commissioned by Opus 21 ensemble and Fontana Chamber Arts, and premiered at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI on 11thof May in 2006, the mixed sextet The Han Figurines is a musical realization of the composer’s impression on the Chinese clay figurines of the Eastern Han (25-220 A.D.). In the composer’s own programme notes she writes:

“Have you seen the shapes of the enraptured storyteller, the vivid acrobat and the moving dancers with long sleeves? They are in highly exaggerated forms and postures, in large and sweeping movements — the innocent and bold images symbolize the strength, motion and speed. It’s the beauty of the crude and primitive power of humanity in its conquest of the material world.”

Chinese literature and art especially poetry and Peking opera (京剧) are significant influences on Chen Yi’s music. In The Han Figurines, Chen Yi’s prominent use of Western percussion alludes to the percussive music essential in Peking opera as well as musics representative of a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. The disjointed melodies and glissandi are imitation of speech in exaggerated tones, characterizing the unique reciting style of Peking opera. If you listen to these melodies carefully, you will be able to hear “four levels of song” in Peking opera: songs with music, verse recitation, prose dialogue, and non-verbal vocalizations. Chen Yi sought to bring the beauty of the operatic gestures into this piece, giving the music its imaginative textures. The rapid percussive passage of alternating fourths and fifths on the piano simulates strumming effects on a lute; the quick strokes of rhythms and timpani playing together with the cymbals almost resemble the famous Luogu Dianzi (锣鼓点子). Although Chen Yi did not have the intention to imitate the four groups of sonorities in the percussion section of Peking opera: drum, cymbal, clapper and large gong, one can almost hear them by looking at the instrumentation, the timpani, piccolo woodblock and low tam-tam have timbres that suggest the drum (), Paiban (拍板) and Chao Gong (抄锣) respectively.


Chen, Yi. The Han Figurines[sheet music]. Theodore Presser Company, 2007.

Chen, Yi, personal communication, February 10, 2019.

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