Born in China in 1953, Chen Yi survived hard labor and separation from her family during the Cultural Revolution. When she was 17, she returned to her home city of Guangzhou and served as concertmaster and composer with the Beijing Opera Troupe. That, she says, is when her fascination with traditional Chinese music and Western classical music theory began. She went on to become the first woman in China to receive a master’s degree in composition and eventually emigrated to the United States and received her doctor of musical arts degree from Columbia University.
“When contemporary music is introduced in a university, it serves as a bridge for us to share thinking and understanding between peoples with different cultural backgrounds. It benefits all human beings in the society little by little.”
Dr. Chen Yi is the current Ives Living Award winner. Presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Ives Award is worth $225,000, making it one of the largest prizes available exclusively to composers. The Ives Living Award stipulates the winner must not have employment other than composition for 3 years. For that reason, Chen Yi’s husband, composer Zhou Long, has assumed her duties at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where Chen Yi is the Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor.
“She is so successful, in part,” says Professor Charles Argersinger from the Washington State University School of Music and Theatre Arts, “because her music parallels her inner spirit. Her music is very much like her personality.”
Ms. Chen has been commissioned to compose for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Women’s Philharmonic, the Central Philharmonic of China, Seattle Symphony, New York New Music Consort, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Music From China, Chanticleer, Yehudi Menuhin, Yo-Yo Ma, Evelyn Glennie and the Singapore Symphony, the Rascher Saxophone Quartet and Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the Ying Quartet, San Francisco Citywinds, San Francisco Girls’ Chorus, Ithaca College, Carnegie Hall, American Guild of Organists, and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.
Her compositions have also been performed by the BBC Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, China National and Shanghai Symphonies, NHK, Japan and Tokyo Philharmonic orchestras, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Washington D.C. Contemporary Music Forum, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, California EAR Unit, CalArts New Century Players, Ensemble 2e2m, Boston Musica Viva, Network for New Music, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Iceland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach, Duluth, Honolulu, and South Bend Symphonies, among many others.
In addition to composing, Ms. Chen is also an accomplished violinist and pianist and serves on the board of directors of Meet the Composer, on the composer advisory board of the American Composers Orchestra, and the International Alliance for Women in Music.