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Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Say Qi

Chen Yi’s quartet Qi for flute, cello, piano, and percussion will be the first chamber piece on Ensemble ACJW’s Class of 1978 concerts on October 25 and October 26. The Chinese word Qi (pronounced "chi") describes a metaphysical flow of energy in the universe. It has little or no relation to the physical concept of energy, referring instead to a kind of spiritual vitalism—one that continually changes in order to restore and maintain harmony in all things.

Dr. Chen's musical portrayal of Qi is simultaneously extreme yet cohesive. Textures change rapidly, from cadenza-like passages in the cello and flute to driving motoric rhythms in the percussion and piano. Evolving atmospheres delineate the structure of the piece; often the same sonorities will return with slight alterations, giving the whole work an “ambiguous rondo” feel. It is absolutely fascinating to listen to the piece this way, substituting the Western idea of thematic development with the metamorphoses of sonic blocks.

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Excerpt from Chen Yi's Qi
New Music Consort
CRI Records

More fascinating still—to the four of us playing the piece, anyway—is the way the treatment of each of our instruments changes with these textures. One of the work’s longest “phrases” is a percussion solo featuring four Beijing opera gongs. Except for a single passage lasting a mere two bars, the piano part is written exclusively in the extreme high and low registers.

Dr. Chen gives the cello the rock-star role. She sets some of the cello writing in stratospheric registers to invoke the sounds of an erhu; at other times, the cello mimics percussive ostinatos found in the piano part. Nick Canellakis, who plays this part, asked the rest of the quartet before the first rehearsal, “Are your parts difficult for this piece?” The question was met with a few grumblings, but nothing outrageous. “Because, this is one of the hardest chamber parts I’ve ever seen.” Indeed, if Dr. Chen’s point had been to write in a completely Western idiom, most of the technically demanding passages would probably not be present since they are the ones that best evoke indigenous Chinese music. Needless to say, Nick makes the part look easy.

There is an exceptional moment in this piece that excites me so much that I want everyone who reads this post to be aware of its appearance in Qi. After a very aggressive and buoyant passage that ends with David Skidmore executing an ascending flourish on the crotales, the entire texture of the four instruments drops out, leaving Nick all alone holding a fake harmonic for four bars in the softest dynamic possible. Julietta Currenton joins him with a fragmented melody on the piccolo. Due to the timbre of the false harmonic, the resulting sound most closely resembles a faraway flute drone; this creates an unsettling feeling of tension after the climactic build-up that precedes it. Interestingly enough, the hulu si is a Chinese flute that allows the player to sustain a drone while playing a melody at the same time. I can’t say for certain that Dr. Chen intended this instrument to be emulated, but the primal sound it creates is yet another atmospheric marvel she incorporates into Qi.

Posted by Gregory DeTurck, an award-winning pianist and current Fellow of The Academy—a Program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

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Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)