Chen Yi

(b. 1953)
Year of Election: 2024

Chen Yi
Chen Yi

Chén Yí 陈怡 is a prolific composer who blends Chinese and Western traditions, transcending cultural and musical boundaries. Over the course of the past four decades, Ms. Chen has developed an extremely fluid bicultural musical vocabulary that has informed virtually everything she has written, whether it is a composition for solo piano, wind band, or an ensemble comprised of traditional instruments from her native country—all instrumentations for which she has created a substantial output. She has also made significant contributions to the field of music education. Many of her students have been recognized around the world with national and international composition awards and professorships.

In addition to her work as a composer and educator, Dr. Chen has been a significant cultural ambassador who has introduced hundreds of new compositions and a large number of musicians from the East and the West to music and educational exchange programs in the U.S.A., the U.K., Germany, and many Asian countries. She has been a strong advocate for new music, American composers, Asian composers, and women in music.

Born in Guangzhou, China in 1953, she and her siblings began studying classical music at age three as their parents were lovers of the genre. She began learning on piano and at age four was introduced to violin. She memorized works by classical composers like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky and was able to sing their compositions note for note. But during the Cultural Revolution, she was taken to a work camp in the countryside; she continued to play violin, but was only allowed to perform revolutionary songs. At age 17, she became concertmaster of the Peking Opera in Beijing. In 1978, Chen was admitted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing where she received a bachelor’s and master’s degree, the first woman in China ever to receive a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in music composition. In addition, she spent summers studying Chinese folk music and considers this research to be an important part of her musical development.

In 1986, Chen Yi came to New York City to study composition with Chou Wen Chung and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University where she received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree. From 1996 to 1998, she taught on the composition faculty at Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1998, she was appointed the Lorena Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor at the Conservatory of Music and Dance in the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In 2001, she was the recipient of the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. In 2006, she was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition Si Ji (Four Seasons), a work commissioned by the Swiss Roche Foundation which was given its world premiere performance by the Cleveland Orchestra in Lucerne followed by a performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall. In 2006, Prof. Chen was appointed to a Cheung Kong Scholar Visiting Professorship at the Central Conservatory in Beijing by China’s Ministry of Education in 2006, where she established the first Beijing International Composition Workshop, and later to a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the Tianjin Conservatory. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Letters in 2019.

Chen Yi has served on the advisory or educational board of the Fromm Foundation, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Chamber Music America, Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, New Music USA, the American Composers Orchestra, the League of Composers/ISCM, the International Alliance of Women in Music, and the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy. She has supported many composers, conductors, musicians (including dozens of excellent performers on Chinese traditional instruments), educators, and students through her tireless work over the past three decades. 

Chen Yi’s Ballad, Dance and Fantasy for cello and orchestra (2003) was performed by cellist Qin Liwei and the China National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Yongyan Hu during the opening concert of 2018 ISCM World New Music Days in Beijing. During that same festival, her 1999 composition Sparkle was performed by the American contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound in a 2018 arrangement for chamber orchestra by Stefan Freund. Chen Yi also served on the international jury for the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days in Shanghai and Nanning (which was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions). Her earliest connection to the ISCM came very early in her career, back in 1989, when, at the recommendation of her teacher Chou Wen-chung (who was elected an Honorary Member of the ISCM in 1994), she was one of 20 international composers chosen to participate in a film series initiated by the ISCM in collaboration with the ISCM Polish Section called Sound and Silence, co-produced by Polish National Television and Adamov Films (France). In the 30-minute program devoted to Chen Yi, excerpts from three of her chamber music compositions were performed and she was interviewed by ISCM’s then President, Zygmunt Krauze.

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