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Music of the 21st Century


CHEN YI — 2008

“Since I speak out naturally in my mother tongue, in my music there is Chinese blood, Chinese philosophy and customs.... As an artist living in the United States, I feel strongly that I can improve the understanding between people by sharing my music.” — Chen Yi

Chen Yi’s music combines Chinese and Western traditions in a way that is organic and natural and results in music that transcends cultural and musical boundaries. By thoughtfully integrating such elements such as Eastern pentatonic tonalities, traditional Chinese instruments, Chinese folk music, and Eastern spiritual values with contemporary Western orchestral and choral idioms, she has created music that inspires people throughout the world.

Chen Yi is the Lorena Searcy Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Composition at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she has taught since 1998.

Born in 1953 in Guangzhou, China, the daughter of two physicians, in a home filled with classical music, Chen Yi studied violin and piano from the age of three. During the difficult time of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’ s, she was sent into forced labor in the countryside for two years, working twelve hours a day building military fortifications, and separated from her family. But she managed to take her instrument along, and credits this experience with providing her with knowledge of the wider life and music of her motherland and its people.

At the age of 17, she returned to her home city and served as concertmaster and composer with a traditional Beijing Opera Troupe, and also began her research of Chinese traditional music and Western classical music theory under the supervision of Zheng Zhong. When the school system was restored in 1977, Chen enrolled in the Beijing Central Conservatory, where she studied composition under Professor Wu Zu-qiang and British guest composer Alexander Goehr. She continued her violin studies with Professor Lin Yao-ji and began an eight-year systematic study of Chinese traditional music. She earned her BA and MA degrees in Beijing, the first woman in China to receive the degree of Master of Arts in composition.

In 1983, she went to the United States for further study, and in 1993 received her Doctor of Musical Arts with distinction from Columbia University, where her composition teachers were Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky. That year, with support from Meet the Composer, she was appointed Composer-in-Residence with the Womens’ Philharmonic, Chanticleer, and the Aptos Creative Arts Center in San Francisco. From 1996-1998, she was on the composition faculty of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.

Chen Yi was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. Among the many other awards she has received are: the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lieberson Award of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an ASCAP Concert Music Award, first prize at the Chinese National Composition Competition, the Lili Boulanger Award, the Sorel Medal for Excellence in Music from the Center for Women in Music at New York University, the CalArts Alpert Award for music, the first Eddie Medora King Composition Prize from the University of Texas at Austin School of Music, the Elise Stoeger Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Friendship Ambassador Award from the Edgar Snow Fund, an Honorary Doctorate from Lawrence University, an Adventurous Programming Award from ASCAP, and the Kauffman Award in Artistry/Scholarship from UMKC.

Her long list of commissions include: the NEA, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Creative Work Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, The Roche Commissions, the Barlow Endowment, the New Heritage Music Foundation, American Composers Forum, the Eastman School of Music, Ithaca College, Peoria University, Bradley University, Miami University, Friends of Dresden Music Foundation, Chorus America, the 6th World Symposium on Choral Music, the Lucerne Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, American Guild of Organists, the Copland Fund for Music, Chamber Music America, the San Francisco Art Commission, the NYSCA, and the Meet the Composer.

Performers and ensembles for whom she has written include the Cleveland, Dresden and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma and the Pacific Symphony, Rascher Saxophone Quartet and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin, Emanuel Ax, Evelyn Glennie and the Singapore Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Women’s Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Wind Symphony, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, New Music Consort, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Chanticleer, KITKA, San Francisco Citywinds, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Music From China, the Ying Quartet, the Elements Quartet, the Shanghai Quartet, the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra, the HK Chinese Orchestra, Boston Musica Viva, Network For New Music, Opus 21, Chicago a cappella, KC Chorale, Peninsula Women’s Chorus, and many others.

Dr. Chen’s music is performed worldwide and published by the Theodore Presser Company. Her works have been recorded on many labels. She continues to be active as a violinist in new music and as an ethnomusicologist in Chinese music and is co-editor of the Music From China Newsletter, an English and Chinese bilingual publication, introducing Chinese music, both traditional and contemporary, to wider audience and scholars.


Chen Yi is in great demand as a lecturer at composition workshops and at concerts of her music throughout the world. She was appointed by the China Ministry of Education to the prestigious three-year Changjiang Scholar Visiting Professorship at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music in 2006, and presently serves on the boards, advisory councils or juries of Meet The Composer, Chamber Music America, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, American Composers Orchestra, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the International Alliance of Women in Music, as well as numerous other music organizations.