Ge Xu (Antiphony)

Che Yi (b. 1953)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1994
Duration: 8 minutes

Chen Yi is just one of a noted group of composers who grew up in China in the mid-20th century, known for successfully fusing traditional Chinese musical elements with Western compositional techniques. Chen was born into a musical family and learned to play the violin and piano at an early age. When the Cultural Revolution began in the 1960s, her parents were tagged as intellectuals and the family was separated and relocated to the country for “rehabilitation” through forced labor, in which the children also participated. Chen recalls secretly practicing Mozart, soundproofing her instruments and room as much as possible to avoid detection. At age seventeen, Chen was allowed to return to her hometown to become leader of the local Beijing Opera Company. Upon the Cultural Revolution’s official end, Chen enrolled in the first composition class of the reopened Beijing Central Conservatory, where she eventually became the first female to earn a master’s degree in composition. In the 1980s, she moved to the United States to study at Columbia University, receiving her doctorate in 1993.

Ge Xu (Antiphony), is an excellent example of Eastern-Western musical fusion. Orchestrated for a traditional Western orchestra, the composer uses traditional and extended techniques to create an atmosphere of the celebrations one might encounter in the southern regions of China. Chen drew inspiration from three folk tunes of the area and with them mirrored the practice of different individuals or groups singing back and forth to each other, hence the title Antiphony. Use of glissandi and harmonics imitate sounds of traditional instruments. The final section of the piece draws upon an irregular meter and features a prominent percussion section to fashion an unrestrained, exuberant dance that culminates with a single reedy voice nostalgically looking back upon what once was.  

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Chen Yi is a remarkable composer who has achieved worldwide acclaim for her many compositions—compositions that seek to reconcile or at least convincingly meld—the disparate musical styles of East and West.  Born in Guangzhou, China in 1953, she studied violin early on, practicing surreptitiously with a mute during the privations of the Cultural Revolution. Ultimately, she had to give up music, owing to her impressment into forced agricultural labor in a variety of locations in China.  After the end of the Cultural Revolution, she was able to enter the Beijing Conservatory in 1977.  Her career as a composer ensued with great success, culminating in a major broadcast concert dedicated entirely to her compositions. She came to the United States in 1986 and studied composition at Columbia University with the distinguished composers, Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky.  Thereafter, in 1996, she accepted a position at the Peabody Conservatory, and in 1998 joined the faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City.   She is the recipient of numerous prestigious fellowships, awards, and prizes, and enjoys performances of her compositions all over the world.

Ge Xu (Antiphony) was commissioned by the Women’s Philharmonic of the Bay Area in San Francisco as part of their “Meet the Composer New Residencies Program.”  Composed in 1994 while Chen Yi was in residence with the orchestra, Ge Xu (Antiphony) received its world première in January of the next year. The composer relates her inspiration for the composition: “For celebrating the Chinese lunar New Year or mid-autumn festival, Zhuang minority people in Southern China often gather in the field and sing mountain songs in solo, choir or antiphonal forms. In the antiphonal singing, distinct groups or individuals make up the texts in a style of antithetical couplets, competing with one another. It is this vivid scene that has inspired the composer to write music for keeping spirits high and hope alive.”

Antiphony is simply musical performance that is characterized by the alternation of soloists or musical groups—a time honored style found in most cultures.  In Western music it is found as early as mediæval liturgical chant, and memorably in the works of Gabrieli in sixteenth-century Venice.  Chen’s study in antiphony divides the orchestral color palette into multiple combinations, variously contrasting or combining them into a remarkable variety of sounds.  Throughout the work we are regaled with creative and novel ways of eliciting non-traditional sounds from the familiar array of orchestral instruments.  In addition to the usual special techniques such as string harmonics and muted or stopped brass, at one time or another one will hear strings playing behind the bridge, glissandos in the horns, and cymbals rubbed together or placed on the heads of timpani—to name a few.  Extremes of tessitura, layers of completely different rhythms, dense, bombastic—almost chaotic—textures alternating with the most ethereal, delicate soft ones.  It’s all part and parcel of Chen’s imaginative creation of antiphonal sounds.

Beginning with a soft, high, unaccompanied violin gesture soon joined by a Debussy-like sonority of harp, horns, and soft percussion, dense woodwind rhythms and stentorian brass soon add their contrasting layers.  A faster dance-like section follows—much simpler in rhythm, but with an amazing paroxysm of challenging and contrasting activity in the low strings. It all ends in a dramatic cadenza for the percussion section.  The percussion continues, soon joined by unusual sounds from the strings, with a dense cloud of complex woodwind activity floating above it all. The dance-like section grows out of all of this to take us to the conclusion.  It’s abruptly soft, with the ethereal textures of the very beginning.  A solo bassoon plaintively recalls the opening violin gesture, but now a half step lower.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Intense, Playful & Serene at the Lincoln Center, May 2022.