Chen Yi, who was born in the Chinese city of Guangzhou in 1953, had a broad musical training as a violinist, composer and ethnomusicologist. In 1988 she emigrated to the United States with her husband, who is also a composer. Her work combines Western music with the sound of traditional Chinese idiom. For Chen Yi, music is a universal language, but one that is inextricably bound up with the composer’s cultural and psychological makeup. As such, she believes her work is shaped by her Chinese roots, philosophy and customs. Chen Yi describes her music as a marriage of the consonant and dissonant, the tonal and atonal, expressing the sound of speaking Chinese in the Western music idiom.
When in 2004 Chen Yi received the second Roche Commissions she also visited the Research and Development Center of Roche in Basel. It was at the occasion of this visit that Chen Yi and Rae Yuan, then Scientific Advisor to the Head of Global Drug Development, engaged in intense discussions which profoundly impressed both of them. The following text is based on a later conversation between the two women which took place in Kansas City on April 21, 2005.
An excerpt from the conversation:
Rae Yuan: There are a few languages that the entire world shares. Music is one of them, science is probably another. No matter where you come from, everybody enjoys a good work of art and a good piece of music. It’s the same with science. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you have done something valuable you’ll be recognized. The scientific community is a truly international community. If you walk into a lab, you’ll see people from different countries speaking different languages. But it doesn’t matter, in science we are united just like players in the orchestra. Look at us! We’re both originally from China, lived in the United States, and met in Switzerland.
Chen Yi: Right, and you even studied in San Francisco, only a few blocks away from my home when I worked there as composer-in-residence.
Rae Yuan: Yes, the world is certainly getting smaller and smaller. I think people are beginning to see that there are lots of things we can learn from each other in the same discipline and across disciplines.
Chen Yi: True, crossing boundaries can inspire us to many new creations. Take my case. The music I write is mostly related to cultural traditions...
Rae Yuan: ...Chinese culture?
Chen Yi: That too, but it only influenced me later on. I learned Western music from the age of three and I only followed the classical repertoire. During the “Cultural Revolution” I was sent to the countryside to work as a peasant. That’s when I learned about the common people and their culture. But it wasn’t until I came to Beijing Central Conservatory that I got systematic training in traditional Chinese music besides European music. It was very important for me to learn about my own cultural roots. But getting back to your comment about the close relation between art and science: I was a good student in primary and intermediate school. I was even good at math. I apply a lot of mathematical principles to construct my music. I often use the Golden Section to proportion my works and build my climaxes.
Rae Yuan: Are you saying that music is actually very logical although most people aren’t aware of it?
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