Identity and cultural translation in the music of Chinese American composer Chen Yi.

Author:Shaw, Chih-Suei

Chinese-born, U.S.-based composer Chen Yi (1953--) is critically characterized as a composer who bridges different cultures and "transcend[s] cultural and musical boundaries." (1) This view is discerned both from her compositional practice, which features an integration of elements from Western and Chinese musical traditions, and from her own statements in interviews. According to Chen Yi, her musical fusion seeks to enhance cross-cultural understanding, interaction, and communications. (2) The purpose of this paper is to explore the way that Chen Yi constructs her identity through music. To that end, I direct attention to her metaphorical understanding of music as language, and her attendant belief in the "translatability" of "culture" into music by analyzing her interviews and her musical score. Given these central concepts, this paper seeks to understand Chen Yi's musical identity through her role as a cultural translator and through her philosophical meditation on different cultures coexisting with "equal rights" in art as well as in society.

This paper first examines Chen Yi's musical identity and self-narrative in relation to three important concepts--language, society, and culture. Following this theoretical basis is a discussion of the disparate aesthetic orientations of the same compositional practices in the music of Chen Yi and her Chinese American contemporary Tan Dun (1957--). The paper further examines Chen Yi's idea about musical language and translation, and the final section tests the applicability of Chen's idea of cultural translation in her Chinese Myths Cantata (1996).


Notions of identity have appeared in discussions of Chen Yi's music since the turn of the century. Notably, Chen Yi's interviews tend to correspond to the concept of narrative identity developed by Dan P. McAdams in 1985, which emphasizes the formation of the individual's identity by integrating personal life experiences into an evolving story of the self: (3)

Narrative identity ... is the internalized and evolving story of the self that a person constructs to make sense and meaning out of his or her life. The story is a selective reconstruction of the autobiographical past and a narrative anticipation of the imagined future that serves to explain, for the self and others, how the person came to be and where his or her life may be going. (4) As McAdams's critical notion tends to feature in Chen Yi's interviews, one can argue this narrative method of self-identification is employed by Chen Yi and provides her with a better understanding of her self-knowledge and self-perception as a composer. McAdams's analytical framework further offers the notion of "the redemptive self," defined by McAdams as the process according to which people transform pain and suffering into a positive status or outcome in their lives. (5) Chen Yi's life narrative evolved when she moved to America in 1986, and her life story appears in almost every interview she gives and has been reproduced in many profiles of her available on the Internet, in program notes, and in CD booklets. Three interviews in particular--conducted by John de Clef Pineiro (Fall 2001), Bruce Duffie (Winter 2005), and Jennifer Kelly (Spring 2010)--are useful in understanding the narrative construction of Chen Yi's life; these span over ten years, and the breadth and depth of the topics discussed support a "narrative" analysis of Chen Yi's own life stories. (6) Given this explicit autobiographical context, it becomes useful to further consider Chen Yi's stated idea of music as a language, as well as two other related themes: her belief in culture's translatability into music and her confidence in her own "bilingual" background. These aspects of Chen Yi's compositional philosophy, I argue, are clear functions of the composer's own narrative identity.

Chen Yi's account of her experience as a farmer during the Cultural Revolution is one instance of her redemptive self-narrative. Chen Yi's parents were both doctors and were obsessed with Western classical music; her mother played piano at a professional level and her father was an avid violinist. Chen Yi recalls that there was a huge collection of classical musical records, "ranging from solo instrumental and vocal pieces to orchestral works and operas, [that] they played ... at home every day during and after dinner." Chen Yi began piano lessons in 1956, at the age of three, and took up the violin at the age of four. (7) As their family escaped the first wave of house searches in 1966, immediately after the movement started, Chen Yi was able to continue her violin practice but had to "practice ... with a heavy metal mute, and put a blanket between the hammers and the steel frame in the piano" in order not to be heard. (8) In 1968, when she was fifteen, she was sent to the countryside to receive "re-education" and her immediate family was separated. Chen Yi recalls:

My mother was kept as a prisoner at the hospital to do heavy labor and was compelled to engage in self-criticism.... Shortly after undergoing a serious stomach operation, my dad was forced to leave his medical position in the city and go to work as a doctor in the countryside. My sister was sent to a remote farm in the North, and my younger brother was sent to a middle school in the South. Our domestic possessions were either seized or destroyed. (9) Remarkably, what must have been a traumatic experience becomes, in her later recollection of the same events, an occasion to acknowledge her own mother tongue and cultural history:

Two years of hardship, working in the countryside, educated me a lot [in my] basic language. There is [the] native language that the farmers spoke, [and] actually [it was] the first time that I realized that this [was] my native language! It's not classical. It's not Mozart! [Both laugh.] It's not Beethoven that I'm used to.... I realized that I have to think into my cultural roots very deeply in order to find my own voice, to have a unique language to speak in. (10) Chen Yi's concepts of "native language" and "cultural roots" are so vital to her musical identity that it becomes crucial to understand her variant usage of the word "language" and her slippage between referring to verbal and musical "languages." Firstly, in this quotation, she uses language to mean the verbal language that farmers spoke when she encountered them in the labor camp, and she emphasizes that this language was not the classical language of Mozart or Beethoven. In this context, the term "language" changes to mean Western culture and Western classical musical culture. Chen Yi is implying that music had been so important to her and her family that it had assumed a status equivalent to that of verbal language in their household, as a form of day-to-day communication. The music was therefore a "Western" language other than Chinese. Yet it is not Chen Yi's realization that she speaks the farmers' language that is significant here. Rather, it is the deep incongruity that she feels between her musical "native language"--meaning the Western classical musical training in which she was engaged as a child--and her spoken language of Chinese. Coextensively, there was the contradiction between Chen Yi's middle class background--with her modern, Western education--and the working class situation of the Chinese farmers. Chen Yi's interview statement implies that, despite their shared spoken language, she and the farmers were quite culturally opposed.

Drawing from her realization of these two contradictory musical and native "languages," Chen Yi elected to find "[her] own language," which would be the perfect combination of the two:

I believe that language can be translated into music. Since I speak naturally in my mother tongue, in my music there is Chinese blood, Chinese philosophy and customs. However, music is a universal language. Although I have studied Western music extensively and deeply since my childhood, and I write for all available instruments and voices, I think that my musical language is a unique combination and a natural hybrid of all influences from my background. (11) This quotation introduces a central feature of Chen Yi's musical philosophy, which is the intertwining of the concepts of music, language, and culture in her musical philosophy. Chen Yi at times uses "language" as a synecdoche for "culture," and her native Chinese speaking is used to justify the presence of Chinese elements in her musical language. Chen Yi's own musical language is therefore a combination of the different cultural "languages" that she has experienced in her life. Chen Yi's claim that "music is a universal language" conveys a belief that music transcends the barriers of verbal language--meaning that her own music, like other musical forms, effectively communicates with people from different cultures, allowing Chen Yi to be more globally or cross-culturally understood. It can therefore be argued that the early experience of deeply incongruous "languages" inspired Chen Yi's devotion in her career to bridging the cultural gap.

From this understanding of cultural language boundaries, Chen Yi develops the idea that music should be a language derived from and connected to all peoples and societies. If a language is culture, and music is a language that can be understood by another culture, then her musical language can also be a musical "translation" of her past experience and her native culture to each and every new audience. After receiving the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award in 2001, (12) Chen Yi states:

I am glad that my music is in a unique language, and that it reflects my cultural background, and most distinctly my Chinese origins. I think I'm doing it consciously and unconsciously; after all, it's hard to change your background and your taste intentionally. (13) This statement, coupled with the extracts quoted...

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