The Gang of Four Invades Orange County

Chen Yi speaks for Chinese music reborn

There was a time in China, Chen Yi remembers, when playing Paganini on your violin—or Mozart or Beethoven—could land you in a labor prison, with your instrument confiscated or burned. "I was about 13," she says, "and I remember that I had to play with heavy blankets over the windows, and a big iron mute over the strings to mute the sound."

That began in 1966, during the infamous Cultural Revolution (which was anything but cultural), organized to support the artistic policies of Mao Zedong and his nihilistic wife and carried forward by the formidable Red Guard and their up-front Gang of Four. One astonishing result from that sorry page in Chinese history, however, has been the emergence of yet another "gang of four": four composers of extraordinary talent, born within four years of one another (1953-57), all of them with the same history: early musical talent, crushed for a time by government forced labor, emerging all the better for their experience to gain international fame. All four—Chen Yi, her husband Zhou Long, Bright Sheng and Tan Dun—managed the transition to American acclaim (and residence) in the 1980s. All four are in Orange County this week to participate in the Pacific Symphony's annual American Composers Festival. That event reaches its climax on March 10 and 11 at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Hall, with music by all four composers performed by Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony, including the world premiere of Chen Yi's Ballad, Dance and Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, with YoYo Ma as soloist. The festival also includes music by one more Chinese composer, our own—Pasadena's, that is—Joan Huang.

On the phone from her home in Brooklyn, just back from performances of her Chinese Myths Cantatain England—a characteristic work combining indigenous instruments and men's chorus (Chanticleer)—Chen Yi is her usual sparkle, sounding very much like her piece of that name that stole the show at a Green Umbrella concert not long ago. Her message, however, is anything but sparkly as she reminisces about life under that other Gang of Four.

"I think my life was even more miserable than the other composers because my parents were really, really bad—in the eyes of Madame Mao, that is. My father was a doctor, which meant that he had contact with all kinds of Western medicine—very bad. My mother worked in a hospital. When the Red Guards came first to our building, in 1966, our neighbors tried to tell them that we were all good people and that they should leave us alone, and so they went away for a while. But in 1968 they came back. My mother was made a prisoner in that hospital, and I was taken out to work, to plant vegetables—barefoot—and to carry 100-pound loads of stone and mud up the hill, maybe 20 times a day."

It's only recently that we have come to realize the impact of that horrifying decade in Chinese cultural history: the destruction of an entire educational system, and of an educated generation. Throughout that overpopulated nation, young people raised in good middle-class homes were forced to abandon their career ambitions and were shanghaied into labor camps and youth gangs in the Chinese countryside. We know their story only because of the few happy endings—the four surviving composers brought together by favoring circumstance being one example.

Yet the benefits from just this small composer group have already had an impact on the contemporary musical scene. All four composers have provided a substantial repertory of striking, original music: the delightful sound creations (involving water, paper and all manner of toy creations as well as large-scale devices) that sent Tan Dun high onto the charts, the wrenching musical memoirs of Bright Sheng (including his H'un—Lacerations—that begins the Orange County Festival) and the remarkably vivid works of Chen Yi with their rich, colorful combinations of large-scale "Western" orchestral tone and the dark mysteries of sinuous Chinese melodies.

Somehow fate—or the ancient gods of music—intervened in the case of these four young musicians, all of them initially dragged off toward a destiny similar to Chen Yi's. Dog-tired as she was by her daily exertions, she still found time to entertain her co-workers with revolutionary songs on her violin at night. "I felt a big release," she says, "in being able to exercise some creativity in making something out of these circumstances. Frankly, it wasn't until the Cultural Revolution that I found my roots, my motherland, and really appreciated the simple people of the earth. I found my own language when I realized that my mother tongue is really the same as what the farmers speak."

Off in Mongolia, her future husband Zhou Long, in another labor camp, experienced the same epiphany, driving a tractor by day and playing the accordion for folk dances at night. Bright Sheng taught himself piano at a work farm in Qinghai province. Tan Dun, youngest and most completely self-taught of the four, planted rice in a commune by day and sought out musical sounds in rocks, water and paper by night.

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