Chen Yi's Multicultural Approach in Ba Ban for Piano Solo

by: Xiaole Li


The music of Chen Yi (b. Guangzhou, 1953)1 has been heard as a vigorous voice among Asian-American composers. Unlike some Chinese-born composers like Tan Dun,2 whose most significant works are their multimedia works or those in the genres of symphony and chamber music, Chen Yi has composed piano pieces with the same significance as her large-scale compositions. Her Ba Ban for Piano Solo (2000) exemplifies Chen Yi’s skillful merging of Chinese philosophical and aesthetic elements and the sonorities of Chinese instruments with Western techniques. This paper illustrates how Ba Ban uses a multicultural approach to fuse seemingly incompatible Eastern and Western elements in an individual trans-cultural musical language. Ba Ban symbolizes Chen’s role in the bridging cultures with her unique musical voice as a creative Chinese-born American composer.

A. Historical background of Ba Ban
In Chinese musical tradition, the term “
Baban3 has evolved multiple meanings: 1. eight beats, 2. eight phrases, 3. a title and melody of a tune for instrumental ensemble. Transmitted by folk musicians from generation to generation, the folk tune Baban has become the basis of numerous Chinese instrumental pieces. The book Xian Suo Shi San Tao (Thirteen Sets of Music for Strings) edited by Rong Zhai in 1814 presents a large number of pieces using Baban materials.4

Commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation, Chen Yi’s Ba Ban for Piano Solo (2000) draws inspiration from the Chinese traditional instrumental piece Baban and materials from her own Piano Concerto, written in 1993 as her dissertation piece. In the early 1990s, the study of Chinese traditional music had developed scientific and philosophical aspects, as researchers began to explore the mathematical, numerological, and aesthetic issues in Baban (e.g., the basic numbers found in Yijing: two (yin-yang), three (trigrams), four (seasons of the year), six (hexagrams), eight (order of trigrams), sixty-four (total number of the hexagrams). Scholars calculated numbers of the Baban beats and its climax, which mirrors the Golden Section.5 Without considering the additional four beats, each Baban phrase has eight beats. In phrases 1, 2, 4, and 5, the eight beats are grouped as 3, 2, and 3 quarter notes. In phrases 3, 6, and 8, the eight beats are grouped as 4 and 4 quarter notes; in phrase 7, the eight beats are grouped as 5 and 3 quarter notes (see Ex.1). Chen writes that the relations between beat groupings represent the figures from the Fibonacci Series: 2, 3, 5, 8. The grouping of 4+4 contrasts those related to Fibonacci series and forms the changes.6 Du Yaxiong’s 1999 article “The Beauty of the Baban Form” stresses the structure of Baban as it corresponds to the Fibonacci series and the Golden section.

Du Yaxiong writes:  
  ... the structure of Baban corresponds to the mathematical proportion expressed in the Golden Section. In Baban, the additional four ban of the fifth daban [big beat which refers to a "phrase"] are numbered 41 to 44. Since the whole piece contains sixty-eight ban and 68 times 0.618—the Golden Section ratio—is 42.024 (or rounded off to 42), the point of division for the Golden section is right in the middle of the forty additional ban. . . . The resultant ratio of 5:3—a part of the Fibonacci sequence—is further evidence supporting this conclusion.7

Chen Yi studied scholarly articles on Baban and compared the tune to many instrumental pieces. She found that Baban “is the basic melody for over a thousand pieces in Chinese ensemble music.”8 These pieces, with their references to the Fibonacci Series and the Golden Section, seem to reflect natural beauty and balance through the grouping of beats and proportions:

  The theory of the Golden Section and the Fibonacci series is related to nature. One can find the ratio in the proportions of the human body, in the growing numbers of some plants’ leaves, in the formats of paper sizes, in three-dimensional designs and in the floor plans of some buildings . . ., and the theories in ancient Chinese books on mathematics. It reflects natural beauty and feeling. Therefore, it is applied extensively in every field. In the course of several generations of performances of Baban, folk musicians must have transferred the natural feeling of balance from the visual arts and natural sciences to the form and rhythm of the music.9

Baban’s structure features the Golden section and its varied groups of beats mirror the Chinese traditional idea of the number “8” and the Eight Trigrams of the Yijing, The Book of Change. Thus, she traced the philosophical and aesthetic roots of Baban. The Yijing, dating from twelfth century B.C., was originally a book of divination. In the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-24 A.D.), “it became the first of thirteen official classics of Chinese culture.”10 The Yijing recorded ancient Chinese thoughts and metaphors about man and the universe. To give an overview of the Yijing, the German scholar Hellmut Wilhelm writes:

  the Book [Yijing] is based on sixty-four hexagrams, that is, sixty-four six-line figures, each figure or complex being composed of undivided and of divided lines. . . . a whole, undivided line, representing the yang force, or a line divided in the middle, representing the yin force.11

The yang symbolizes brightness, heaven, virility, the positive, and masculinity while the yin symbolizes darkness, earth, docility, the negative, and femininity. These two components form the hexagrams, connoting natural phenomena and events in a procedure of development.

When Chen Yi studied with the professors at Columbia University from 1986 to 1993, Chou Wen-chung’s12 research on the Yijing provided inspiration for her. In his compositions, Chou had invented a system of variable modes containing pairs of intervals (e.g., two major seconds or a minor third and a minor second) to reflect the yin-yang lines of the hexagrams in the Yijing.13 From a multicultural viewpoint, both Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky14 encouraged Chen Yi to find and merge compatible elements from various musical traditions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chen used melodic elements and rhythmic structures of Baban in her Sparkle octet (1992) and Piano Concerto (1993). While Chen’s Sparkle (1992) shows equal flair in handling the Ba Ban and twelve-tone elements, her Piano Concerto (1993) combines the influences of Chou’s research of Chinese philosophy and Davidovsky’s logical form.

In 1999 when I talked to Chen Yi about researching her piano music, she suggested to me that I write about her forthcoming composition, Ba Ban. She sent me the score and suggested that I read her dissertation.15 Ba Ban’s title reflects Chen’s interest in the traditional Chinese folk tune Baban and emphasizes connotative meanings of the number 8 in Chinese culture. This composition offered a special opportunity for Chen to merge Chinese number sequences with the Fibonacci series. Chen’s multicultural approach in Ba Ban can be seen as an experiment of blending East and West.

Like Tan Dun, Zhou Long,16 and other Chinese-born composers, Chen Yi uses Western instruments to imitate the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments and to merge elements of Chinese philosophy and folk music with Western techniques. Chen’s Ba Ban also shows her careful control of structure and use of number sequences.