"Chinese Ancient Dances" - Chen Yi

The Chinese composer, and Guggenheim Fellow, Chen Yi, composed "Chinese Ancient Dances." Chen Yi came to the United States to study composition in the 1970s at Columbia University with Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky. Growing up in Guangzhou, she played the violin and piano until the government split up her family for political reasons, sending some to labor camps, and forcing the others to disperse across the country. Today, Dr. Chen teaches composition at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Kansas City. This video features my mentor, Zach Shemon, playing soprano saxophone, with pianist Jiyoun Chung.

In this composition, two Chinese cultural gems inspired Chen Yi. She portrays the ancient traditional Ox Tail Dance of the Ge Tian Shi ethnic group in the first movement, and the "Hu Zuan Dance," as described in the poem "Hu Xuan Lady" by Bai Ju-Yi, in the second movement. Here is the composer's note about this piece:

Co-commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Virginia Arts Festival, La Jolla SummerFest, and Chamber Music Northwest, the duo Chinese Ancient Dances was written for and dedicated to David Shifrin and Andre-Michel Schub for their national tour and their Alice Tully Hall premiere on May 7, 2004. The premiere performance was dedicated to celebrating the 70th birthday of Prof. Mario Davidovsky, one of my great professors at Columbia University. The work consists of two movements: I. Ox Tail Dance, and II. Hu Xuan Dance. It is said that in ancient times, there was an ethnic group called Ge Tian Shi. Three people would dance in slow steps with ox tails in their hands, while singing eight songs to praise the earth, the totem of the black bird, plants, grains, nature, heaven, weather, and the flourishing of breeding livestock. I got my inspiration from imagining the gestures of holding the ox tails, and went into the atmosphere of composing the first movement, Ox Tail Dance. There is a poem called Hu Xuan Lady written by the famous poet Bai Ju-Yi in the Tang Dynasty, which describes the Hu Xuan dance in detail. The energetic dance has continuous fast, spinning gestures, introduced to China from the West in ancient times. I reproduced this image in the second movement of my music, written vividly for clarinet and piano. Thanks to a request by Prof. Carrie Koffman at the Hartt School of Music, I adapted Chinese Ancient Dances for soprano saxophone and piano, for her to premiere in 2010.