Most cellists are probably familiar with Chen Yi’s cello concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma and The Los Angeles Philharmonic in the early 2000’s. Her works that incorporate traditional Chinese instruments, and implement Chinese instrumental playing techniques are well known in the western art music world. The question is: As cellists where do we start with her huge catalogue? We start with her short piece for solo cello titled Memory!
Memory was originally written for solo violin but after listening to this piece I think you will agree that it is even better suited as a piece for solo cello. Even in the opening line it isn’t hard to hear the influence of Chen Yi’s Chinese heritage. The free phrasing, frequent glissandi, and grace note ornaments bring to mind similar folk melodies played by the erhu.
Another element in her compositional style that makes her music appeal to audiences and performers alike is her abundant usage of the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is the backbone to harmony in many culture’s music. We encounter this scale not only in traditional Chinese music but also in gamelan music from Indonesia, blues music from the United States, Celtic music, West African music, and Jamaican Reggae. Chen uses materials present in traditional Chinese music while manipulating them in her own way to create a very personal sound.
Rather than writing a singable earworm-like melody she tends to write lines that sound more improvisatory in character. The melody itself isn’t as memorable as the shape of her lines and the energy and impetus that these create. The flexibility that is offered in Chen’s lines makes this a very fun piece to learn. Much like we are faced with the challenge of deciding on bowings and phrasings in Bach’s suites, we also have to make decisions in Memory that are very personal ones. We must approach her piece with a slightly different mindset regarding fingerings. In our cello education we are usually taught to shift ‘cleanly,’ or in a way where the sound of the shift isn’t heard very much. This is quite the opposite in Chen’s music. She very much so wants to hear these glissando sounds and so we have to rethink our fingering so as to most effectively bring these nuances out.
For the most part Chen has written very idiomatically for the cello. Passages that sound very challenging are actually quite easy to play because she has taken into consideration the geography of the cello’s fingerboard. These aspects make this piece a great choice for cellists interested in exploring music by Chinese composers.