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Chen Yi talks merging East and West through music

Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang
Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang
Photo by Xiaoxuan Yang

Cassidy Hillburn

Grinnell College’s Center for Humanities sponsored one of the first events of this year’s speaker series entitled “Rethinking Global Cultures” earlier this week on Sept. 13. Dr. Chen Yi spoke with the goal of exploring cultures on a global scale. Yi is a professor at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a composer who produces music blending East and West tradition,

Born in Guangzhou, China in the early 1950s, Chen Yi describes music as a main focus of her life since she was a child.

“[My parents] raised me to love music and be trained as a musician. I started piano lessons when I was three, and violin when I was four,” she said.

Raised by medical doctors who were huge fans of Western music, Chen grew up aware of the cultural divide that existed in having music rooted in a background different from her own.

“I didn’t realize at first that they were all dead white men,” she said, “I remember [when I realized], my dad and I were listening to recordings of Heifetz and Kreisler playing their own compositions, and my dad turned and said to me that it would be great if I could one day play my own works like what they did.”

In coming to Grinnell, Chen’s focus was to highlight music as an agent for sharing culture, specifically between Eastern and Western cultures.

“The main thing is to introduce the cultures and blend the cultures through my own creation,” she said.

Though she has worked with students for over 30 years, her aim has remained consistent: to further understanding of other cultures. She returned to China as a visiting professor several years ago and brought students with her to learn from and gain understanding of a culture different from their own.

The result, she said, is the creation of a “same, shared generation of connection. [It becomes] not only about teaching but sharing the same understandings. That is why exchange is so important — and exchange programs.”

Chen, seeing parallels between the knowledge Grinnell focuses on and her own interests of working towards a multicultural global future, was excited by the culture Grinnell teaches.

“Grinnell College … is very visionable; you can see the long term goal, and this is very beneficial for the next generation,” she said. “When you graduate and think back, you will know the global culture, you [will understand] why this education was so important.”

Looking forward, Chen seeks to continue composing more exciting and meaningful works bridging the cultures of East and West and sharing ideas through her own musical creations.

“I believe this [can] improve the understanding between people from different cultural backgrounds, and work towards peace, of our world in the present time, and for the future.”

She also encouraged others to engage with music and bring their personal cultural identity into music in new ways. She sees studying internationally as a key tool in this aim and enthusiastically encourages interested students around the world both to treasure their traditions and to explore new adventures.

“We need to love people, love nature, love our society and work hard in our community. Everything coexisting in the world would be an inspiration for our innovative creation in our own voice.”

“To all of our young students,” she said, “you are the hope of the future of our world.”

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