B. Chinese Philosophy and Aesthetics Reflected in Ba Ban


Chen Yi’s dissertation touches on some ideas for exploring the interdisciplinary intersection of Chinese philosophy and music. For example, she discusses that Chinese people are intrigued by the number “8” and that the number is related to many cultural idioms, such as the Eight Trigrams in the Yijing and eight standard strokes in calligraphy.

Chen writes:  
  According to the Chinese folk saying, the Baban (Eight Beats) is based on the ancient theory of Eight Diagrams [Trigrams in the Yijing]. The diagrams are eight combinations of three whole or broken lines used in divination. Correspondingly, there are three groupings in the leading phrases in Baban (the first, the second and the fourth). The eight diagrams indicate eight different things in nature, hierarchy in family, personalities, animals, parts of the body, positions and seasons. In nature, for example, the diagrams indicate heaven, earth, thunder, wind and wood, rain and water, sun and fire, mountain and marsh. In practice, people overlap two diagrams to form a six-line diagram and thus get 64 different diagrams. Baban has eight 8-beat phrases, plus 4 beats that represent the four seasons, to get the Golden Section, so there is a total of 68 beats.17

Chen Yi’s notes on Yijing elements is selective, focusing on the similarity in the numerological and structural aspects between the Eight Trigrams and Baban.

Figure 1. The Eight Trigrams in the Yijing (I-ching).18

The Eight Trigrams are metaphors symbolizing the germinal cosmic elements in a state of flux. Referring to the Eight Trigrams, Sun Zhengsheng, a writer on the Yijing, explains that “the Yijing uses — (a solid line) to present Yang, and uses – – (two broken lines) to present Yin . . . to symbolize the virile/the docile and the moving/tranquil qualities.”19 Every phenomenon in nature can be seen in terms of changing yin and yang.

In Chinese, the word yi has two meanings: 1. ease and simplicity, 2. change. According to the Yijing, “Change is un-changeable.” Based on the concept of the Yijing, Chou Wen-chung’s Pien (Change) for Piano, Winds and Percussion, illustrates sounds “changing within a continuum of the timeless and unchanging—like the shifting patterns in a steadily flowing current.”20 Guo Qingye, Chinese music critic, reports that Chen Yi—aware of life’s propensity toward constant change—believes that “all changes can arouse our creative imagination.”21 Chen’s remarks on the Yijing concepts and the Eight Trigrams shows not only the influence of Chou, but also that the composer attempts to infuse her music with philosophical metaphors.

Chou Wen-chung’s Beijing in the Mist (1986) uses the lao ba ban (old ba ban) principles of variation in its structural design.22 Since Chen studied with Chou, she must have known Chou’s use of the principles of Baban and the techniques of treating the thematic materials. Chen writes that the Golden Section of the Baban folk tune is right at the middle of the additional four quarter notes of the fifth phrase. “There are five phrases before these four [notes] and three phrases after. The ratio in the Baban form is 5:3, a ratio that occurs in the Fibonacci series.” After mentioning this ratio in natural phenomena, she emphasizes that the Fibonacci series reflects natural beauty. In Baban, “the relations between beat groupings represent the figures of the Fibonacci Series: 2, 3, 5, 8.”23 In Example 1, the groups of beats in phrases 1 and 2 are 3+2+3.

Ex. 1. The Chinese folk tune Baban.24

With this idea, Chen Yi builds the structure of Ba Ban and sequences by using these numbers to organize sections and group beats.

Professor Chou Wen-chung’s lectures and articles on Eastern philosophy and aesthetics profoundly influenced Chen Yi. Chou writes, “One must search beyond the procedures of a musical practice, discern its original aesthetic commitments, and trace how its tradition has evolved.”25 He did extensive research on qin (an ancient seven-string zither) music. In The Willows Are New,26 he imitates the sound and playing techniques of qin by using grace notes and arpeggiated chords with inflections. Like Chou, Chen imitates Chinese instruments’ sounds in Ba Ban by using similar techniques (diminished or augmented octaves). Unlike the nostalgic style of The Willows Are New, however, the opening of Chen’s Ba Ban shows a virtuosic and robust style in its high tones with accents answered by augmented low octaves and in the atonal ornaments rushing (fast-running, quick moving forward) to the melodic tones (Ex. 2a and 2b).

Ex. 2a. Chou Wen-chung, The Willows Are New, mm. 1-8.

Ex. 2b. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 1-9.27

In Ex. 2b, Chen interweaves the pentatonic melodic tones within the atonal ornaments (mm.6 and 9), adding unusual sonic colors to the Ba ban theme and foreshadowing the atonal Chen Yi theme and twelve-tone theme (see Ex.6).28

An influence of Chinese aesthetic elements in Chen’s Ba Ban is calligraphy. The strokes of Chinese characters illustrate an artist’s spirit and emotions. In his compositions, Chou Wen-chung arranges notes in curved lines according to his system of yin-yang pairs of intervals, which resemble the ink lines in Chinese calligraphy when one looks at his score.29 (See Fig. 2 and Ex.3a) He calls this technique “melodic brushwork,” exemplifying patterns of “classical Chinese ideograms in black ink executed with calligraphic penmanship” (Ex. 3a).30 Journalist Holly Selby notes that “When Chen Yi composes, she thinks of the fluid, dancing calligraphy,”31 portraying fluid ink lines of varying density. Her photo with the character “dragon,” (Fig. 2) shows the vivid life force in the calligraphy and her love for cursive script. Some segments of Ba Ban appear to suggest and evoke the floating lines of a sort of dragon-like or tiger-like calligraphy (Ex. 3b). The scores by Chou and Chen in Example 3 show similarities to calligraphy.

Figure 2. Chen Yi’s photo with calligraphy (the character “long,” dragon).32

Ex. 3a. Chou Wen-chung, Pien, mm. 155-58.33

Ex. 3b. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 53-58.

Chou Wen-chung emphasizes a fundamental Chinese aesthetic concept that “each single tone is a musical entity in itself, that musical meaning lies intrinsically in the tones themselves.”34 Chinese musicians are expected to make each tone a living thing while playing music and imagining natural things. Ba Ban carries on this tradition by embellishing tones with grace notes as the playing on Chinese instruments qin, zheng, or pipa (Ex. 2b).35

C. Influences of 20th-century Western composers

Regarding influences of Western composers, Chen writes that Schoenberg’s sonic design of vertical consonance and dissonance opened her mind. Having adapted serial techniques, Chen makes her musical language more colorful, dramatic and intense.36 In Ba Ban, the twelve-tone theme (Ex. 6), octave displacement of dissected motives, and atonal sonorities (Ex. 5b, mm. 48-53) show the influences of Schoenberg.

With admiration for Bartók, Chen Yi writes that her “aesthetic taste and musical style are influenced by Bartók.”37 Her use of polymodality echoes Bartók’s polytonal settings of the same melody and intervals. Bartók’s “The Sounds Clash” (Ex. 4a) places the modal intervals in two tonal tracks ("track" here means a path or a course along which the tones or melodies move): D-flat and C. Similarly, Chen varies the Ba Ban tune in polymodal tracks: F-sharp, C-sharp, F, and C (Ex. 4b).

Ex. 4a. Bartók, Mikrokosmos for Piano Vol.4,38 No.110, “The Sounds Clash and Clang,” mm. 1-6.

Ex. 4b. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 18-21.

Chen Yi notes that she learned rhythmic techniques and textures from Stravinsky. Stravinsky often highlights the irregular accents and uses syncopation to create a climactic moment (Ex. 5a). Similarly, Ba Ban stresses irregular accents and builds up to a climax through the use of syncopation (Ex. 5b). In Ex. 5b, Chen’s use of repetition is close to Stravinsky’s style.

Ex. 5a. Stravinsky, Concerto en Ré pour Violon et Orchestre, mm. 81-85.39

Ex. 5b. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 43-52.

Chen Yi writes that Davidovsky taught her to arrange major materials logically. In Ba Ban, she arranges materials into logical relationships, reversing themes in positions of different importance. She logically constructs her twelve-tone row by dividing the numbers of the pitches into four symmetrical groups. The sums of three-pitch groups are 17, 16, 16, 17 (Fig. 3). The sum of the two outside figures is 34, the ninth figure in the Fibonacci series, while each of the figures inside is twice as much as eight.40

Figure 3. Implication of the Fibonancci series in the twelve-tone theme.