D. Analysis of Ba Ban


According to Chen Yi, Ba Ban’s structure includes four large sections: an introduction, three variations with transitions. There is also a short coda.41 In the following discussion, I will call the Ba Ban theme "Theme I"; the Chen Yi theme "Theme II"; and the twelve-tone theme "Theme III". I chose the enumeration to follow the order of the appearance of the themes in the work. It is important to note that the composer uses these primary materials in several of her previous works. All themes appear in Chen’s Sparkle and Piano Concerto. The twelve-tone theme and Chen Yi theme appear in her Symphony 2.

The modal Theme I opens Ba Ban with a ceremonial mood, imitating Chinese instrumental playing (Ex. 2b). Themes II and III enter in atonal transitions (Ex. 6). The first appearance of Theme III presents only eight pitches of the tone row. In Variations I and II, Theme I, in the style of a mountain song, is combined with and surrounded by Themes II and III (Ex. 8). Variation III displays a splendid “cadenza,” leading to a fierce competition of transforming motives. The soft coda recalls motives III, II, I and plays a complete set of Baban beat groups. Then, the motives run and vanish in high pitches.

Ex. 6. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 14-17.

In rhythmic organization, this piece achieves unity through the use of Baban elements and the Fibonacci series. At a macro-level, in a fast-slow-fast form, the eight sections, A B C D E F G H, correspond to the fifth number of the Fibonacci series. At a micro-level, Chen often uses the Fibonacci numbers and the Baban method to group beats. In Chinese folk music, each note is counted traditionally as a “point,” regardless of its duration. In this tradition, in the first two phrases of Theme I (Ex. 2b), the points or beats are grouped as 5+3 and 5+3+3. To create the peak for the introduction, she uses the Fibonacci numbers: 1, 2, 3, and 5 to group notes (Ex. 5b). The pinnacle rhythms recall Stravinsky’s syncopation (Ex. 5a); the extreme dynamic contrast dramatizes the Yijing concept of change. Her signature method of using the Fibonacci series comes to fruition in the ostinato (Ex. 7). Here the numbers of decreasing repetitions of motive III are: 8, 5, 3, 2, 1.

Ex. 7. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 193-222.

Chen Yi creates contrasting rhythms to the themes and sections and emphasizes dramatic shifts (Ex. 5b). These rhythms can be generally categorized as follows:

  1. Theme I in a slow elastic tempo (Ex. 2b);
2. Transitional and diverse groupings of beats, e.g., Themes II and III in
eighth and sixteenth triplets, quadruplets, or quintuplets (Ex. 5b and Ex. 6);
3. Varied embellished Theme I, imitating Chinese instrumental playing (Ex.4b) and
a rhythm in a mountain song style, long-short-long (Ex. 8);
4. Strong hammering eighths and sixteenths by alternating hands;
5. Entire Ba Ban beat groupings (e.g., 3+2+3, 4+4) in eighth triplets with rests.
The introduction features Rhythms 1, 2, and 3. The transitions use Rhythm 2, leading to Rhythm 3 in Variations II and III in a mountain song style. Variation III and the coda articulate Rhythms 3, 4, and 5, but ends with Rhythm 2 in running sixteenths.

Figure 4. The structure and Rhythms of Ba Ban

  A B C D E   F G H
Sections Themes Trans. 1 Var. I Trans. 2 Var. II Trans. 3 Var. III Climax Coda
Measure number 1-47 48-63 64-97 98-11 112-45 146-56 157-83 184-232 232-257
Tempo slow, ad lib Andante =92 =100 =104 =112 =80 =120 piu
mosso allegretto =132 =88              
Meter 3/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 2/4 4/4 2/4 2/4
Types of rhythm 1,2,3 2 3, 2 2 3 3 2 3, 4 2, 5
  Fast Slow     (acce le..ra... tion) Fast  

The foregoing discussion is more complex than Figure 4 would imply. However, the simplification will help the reader identify the main rhythmic characteristics.

In pitch organization, theme I is a two-phrase pentatonic melody centered around G-flat. Chen modernizes theme I (Ex. 2b) by adding a bimodal layer of the same melody at an augmented octave below the three low tones (C-sharp D-sharp F-sharp) and by adding atonal ornaments to the melodic tones (Ex. 2b). These ornaments help to illustrate the idea of treating a single tone as an entity that Chinese musicians must embellish. Theme I shows the yin-yang elements such as high and low pitches.

Theme II, a five-pitch motive (b-flat, c', c-sharp, f-sharp, a), often enters as a bridge between themes I and III (Ex. 6). Theme III, a twelve-tone row, highlights the tritone, minor ninth, and major seventh, all of which generate tension and compelling force. The introductory theme III presents only eight pitches (Ex. 6). Themes II and III appear in transitions. Later, while theme I becomes secondary, themes II and III become dominant in Variation III or equally important at the climax. The reversal of the roles of themes reveals a logical, but changing relationship among themes.

Chen’s blending of themes can be categorized into three types:
1. Heterophonic polymodal layers suggesting Chinese orchestral sounds (Ex. 4b).
2. Polymodal-atonal pitch aggregates in homophonic-monophonic alternation (Ex. 8). In Variation I, theme I emerges in a mountain-song-like melody combined with chords using tones of theme III. Theme II flows in a single line as an embellishment between Theme I’s tones.

Ex. 8. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 64-68.

3. Modal and atonal motives in an intense polyphonic web (Ex. 9). Motives I and II are juxtaposed and transposed upward in octaves. Meanwhile, theme III’s P0 form in the bass appears as the first notes of the first three beats (C, f-sharp, d', e') joined with Motive I (d-sharp', g-sharp', c-sharp', b). While the themes in varying roles demonstrate the concept of change, the recurring central intervals show unifying elements.

Ex. 9. Chen Yi, Ba Ban, mm. 175-76.

Although there are atonal passages and combinations of polymodal and atonal elements, the first part of the piece is centered around G-flat; the second part is centered around C. The central pitches form a tritone. The interaction and balance between the modal and atonal motives are the central thesis of pitch organization of Ba Ban.

Figure 5. Pitch organization of .Ba Ban

  A B C D E   F G H
Sections Themes Trans. I Var. 1 Trans. 2 Var. II Trans. 3 Var. III Climax Coda
Measuer number 1-47 48-63 64-97 98-111 112-145 146-156 157-183 184-232 233-257
Motives     II   II   II II I
Center G-flat B G   F-sharp=G-flat   C B C
Row form P11   P11   P10   P0 P11 P9

E. Referential meanings

Ba Ban’s referential meanings lie in its integration of a variety of ancient and contemporary sources and the lofty and powerful spirit of Chen Yi’s individual musical language. Chen Yi writes that her pieces express her thoughts “about the parallels and contrasts between the East and West.” With her compositions, she tries to bridge the gaps between Chinese folk tradition and the ever-changing, energetic life in modern society.42 Thus, she imbues metaphors into Ba Ban’s sonic images. The Ba Ban theme as written in the style of Chinese instrumental ensemble or a mountain song, symbolizes idioms of the Chinese culture, which contrast with the tense and busy activities of themes II and III, the symbols of Chen Yi and the West. While the Ba Ban and Fibonacci number sequences reflect Chen’s understanding of nature and the world, the three themes depict the interaction of Eastern and Western musical elements and reflect her efforts to bridge East and West.

In terms of aesthetics, Ba Ban involves extensive negotiation between Chinese and Western contemporary concepts. She modernizes the folk tune by placing it in a polymodal or atonal context. She includes Chinese aesthetic ideas like the Chen Yi and twelve-tone themes and places them in a monophonic texture; the music imitates the sounds and playing styles of the qin or zheng; the themes allude to the dancing lines in Chinese calligraphy.

With Ba Ban, Chen has established her style as "American" with multicultural perspectives. The sound landscape of Ba Ban’s has raised questions about how to maintain one’s native musical identity in Asian-American music. Li Songwen, a pianist, who holds a D.M.A. from the University of North Texas notes that when he played Ba Ban for both Chinese and Western listeners, they considered this piece to be almost completely in a Western style. “Some even specified the work as atonal in [a] New York style.”43 Chen Yi has experienced the atonal style prominent in New York, so it is only natural that the atonal New York style became a component of her musical language.44 The audiences’ reaction suggests that Chen’s attempts at integration have been successful and validates Chen’s efforts to combine and reflect new artistic experiences and life experiences into a multi-cultural art form.

Ba Ban illustrates Chen Yi’s multicultural approach as a Chinese-born American composer. Her internalization of Chinese traditional and American avant-garde music has inspired her art and enabled her to create works that synthesize Eastern and Western musical elements. Chinese aesthetic ideas, including the ancient Yijing concepts of change and yin-yang, leave imprints on Ba Ban. In this signature work, Chen blends Baban materials and idioms with the Fibonacci series and a broad spectrum of Western techniques, such as serialism and polymodality. Ba Ban spontaneously merges the folkish and the philosophical, the simple and the sophisticated, the robust and the refined, East and West, contributing to the diversity of contemporary piano music.