As Artistic Director of Rush Hour Concerts, I am always delighted to meet young musicians who share my enthusiasm towards creating and making music. I first met composer Yao Chen this year at the “Rush Hour Tasting” house concert in April. My interview with him on composing, listening to the pipa and writing for Tuesday’s performer, pipa virtuoso Yang Wei, follows below.

Yao Chen is currently completing his doctorate in music composition at the University of Chicago, where he also teaches music courses in the collegiate division. Yao was trained formally at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music and at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. He has received commissions from Radio France, the Barnett Family Foundation, the Art Institute of Chicago & Silk Road Chicago Project, and accordionist Luo Han. His works have been performed by the Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird, pipa players Yang Wei and Lan WeiWei, double bassist Daxun Zhang, soprano Tony Arnold, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Orchestre National de Lorraine in France, to name a few.

1. You were formally trained both in China and the U.S. Is there a different methodology behind music studies in China and here?

My training as a composer in China actually was quite similar to the composition students in the music conservatories here. Harmony, Counterpoint, Form and Orchestration and Piano were the must-pass subjects every composition student needed to go through. At that time, the music schools in China had not developed enough compositional training on Chinese instruments. If you were interested in writing a piece for certain Chinese instrument, you had to get all the technique information from its performer or learn it by yourself. But we did study Chinese music history in which we were exposed to many Chinese traditional music repertoire, such as the traditional tune The Ancient Battlefield for solo pipa, and the erhu solo piece Moon Reflecting in Erquan.

2. You have written a number of compositions involving the pipa. What drew you to this instrument?

Pipa music and its performers! I have long been interested in pipa’s timbres, and I find it fascinating. Using different fingerings, you can obtain different timbres, especially heard in its solo repertoire. In China, I have a wonderful pipa player friend, Lan WeiWei, with whom I started my pipa writing. In Chicago, I have the inspiring Yang Wei, with whom I am able to continue my writing for pipa.

3. In your opinion, what should someone who has never witnessed the pipa listen for?

I bet most people who have never witnessed the pipa would be awe-struck in their first hearing by its sounding and dazzling finger techniques. But the more interesting way to listen is to pay attention to how a pipa player elaborates upon a simple melody by using different techniques. By applying different techniques, a simple melody can present many different facets, temperaments, and stories. I think that is the essence of traditional Chinese music – one note begets two notes, two notes begets three, three begets myriads, and myriads return to the one.

4. Can you explain some of the differences in tonalities between Chinese and what we would know as “Western” classical music?

This could be answered through a very lengthy discourse. But to explain it in abridged version: In Western classical music, you hear tonality as harmonic inclinations and impetus; you sense tonality as logic and consequences; and you are satisfied by tonality as the music progresses harmonically through chord progressions (such as I to IV to V to I). In traditional Chinese music, the tonality is based more on the linear movements in a piece. Once you have the central tone, you can just follow it and see how it floats around through different modes. Different modes bring out different moods for the central tone, and the tonality manifests itself.

5. What are some challenges (or bonuses) in writing for an instrument like the pipa? Did you face any challenges incorporating the pipa into a large ensemble piece (like your dissertation piece), which comprised of mostly Western instruments?

The bonus of writing for the pipa is getting to know this instrument more and more. I don’t set or fit the pipa into an ensemble piece which is comprised of mostly western instruments, since I treat the pipa as I treat any other single instrument of this ensemble: I try to give each of them enough space. The only challenge for me is to write, and to keep writing.

6. What was it like to write for a performer of Yang Wei’s caliber?

Writing for Yang Wei is both challenging and uplifting because he is a very sharp and thought-provoking artist. With a performer like Yang Wei, who has eloquent performing techniques and very broad repertoire and is always willing to try something new, you have to come up with exciting ideas and look at things genuinely and deeply.

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