Noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms

Eighth blackbird to perform contemporary composers' works in their midst

When the chamber music sextet eighth blackbird plays China-born composer Chen Yi's "Qi" today at the Lied Center, she'll be there to hear it.

Probably the most internationally renowned Asian female composer of contemporary music today, Chen lives in Kansas City, Mo., where she's a distinguished professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music.

She's heard eighth blackbird perform her work twice before and was thrilled to hear they'd be playing so close to her home.

"I think the ensemble is really very excellent," she says, referring to the group as a "fresh voice" in the chamber music scene.

"They have a reputation; they memorize all works," Chen continues. "In my case, my piece is complicated, with many notes. This time they told me, 'We ALMOST memorized your piece.'"

Eighth blackbird performs on flutes, clarinets, violin/viola, cello, percussion and piano. The group, founded in 1996 by students at Oberlin Conservatory, is ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University and has toured extensively and performed at music festivals throughout the United States.

For its Lied Center concert, eighth blackbird will play a program that, in addition to Chen's piece, includes "Variations" by David Schober, "Violence" by Gordon Fitzell, Movements from "Reflections on the Nature of Water" by Jacob Druckman, "About Time" from "Damaged Goods" by Roshanne Etezady, "Indigenous Instruments" by Steven Mackey, "Own" from "Powerless" by Dennis DeSantis and "Dramamine" by David Gordon, who also is expected to attend today's concert.

Breath, pulse, spirit

Chen named "Qi" (pronounced chee) after a Chinese character that has many meanings: breath, air, pulse and "the spirit behind."

"The piece is abstract because air and breath is untouchable, invisible. You can't see it, although you still could feel it," she says. "I translated all of these kinds of feelings into music. In my piece, you can hear some free, open-space kind of musical textures. At the same time, you can hear the pulse, which is energetic, which is forceful, and, in the climax, it became a big section for percussion."

Chen, a prolific composer, is busy as ever these days. She's on leave from UMKC, completing the final year of the $225,000, three-year Charles Ives Living award, the largest prize available exclusively to composers. This month, she's writing a cello concerto for Yo Yo Ma and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and a new symphony for the Seattle Symphony.

Chen, a native of Guangzhou, China, was born into a family of doctors with a strong interest in music. She began studying violin and piano at age 3, and, during the Cultural Revolution that overtook China in the 1960s, she continued to practice violin at home (with the mute attached). Even when she was sent to do forced labor in the countryside for two years, she took her instrument along.

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Special to the Journal-World

Contemporary chamber music sextet eighth blackbird will play a Lied Center concert today that features, among other pieces, a work called "Qi," by China-born, Kansas City, Mo., composer Chen Yi. Chen will attend the 2 p.m. performance.

"During that period of time, many people were hopeless because we didn't know the future. We didn't know that one day we could be brought back to the city, the Cultural Revolution would be ending," she says. "But I still kept my hope. I guess it was the classical music, maybe the spirit from Mozart's music, that inspired me to keep working, to keep hoping."

'Inescapable rhythms'

She returned home at 17 and served as concertmaster and composer with the Beijing Opera Troupe and, when the school system was restored in 1977, she studied composition at the Beijing Central Conservatory. She composed the first Chinese viola concerto and came to the United States in 1986 for further musical studies.

She has bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, China, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Columbia University, New York.

"I think my music mostly would act like a bridge for people from different cultural backgrounds. I would like my music to be inspiring," she said. "If that could give beauty to society, to the people, and improve understanding between people from different cultural backgrounds, that may be my goal."

Chen obviously has inspired eighth blackbird. The group also has forged connections with dozens of other contemporary composers, most notably Frederic Rzewski and George Perle, who have dedicated works to the ensemble. The group's repertoire also includes works by Michael Torke, George Crumb, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec, John Harbison, Joan Tower and others.

The group's debut CD, "Round Nut Tool," was released in 1999, and its most recent recording, "Thirteen Ways," was released in the spring of 2003.

The Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," inspired the ensemble's name with the eighth verse, "I know noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms."

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