Chen Yi (b. 1953) is a composer, violinist, and educator originally from Guangzhou, China. She spent her early life there learning violin and piano until the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s effectively banned everything Western. She continued to practice in secret even when she was sent to the countryside for two years of forced labor. During this time, she came into contact with a great deal of traditional Chinese folk music, which would later inspire and inform her compositions. With the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution lifted after 1976, Chen became the first woman to earn a Master of Arts degree in Composition in China, from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, in 1986. This accomplishment was widely celebrated in Beijing’s musical circles. Shortly thereafter, she came to the United States and earned her DMA at Columbia University in New York City. She is now the Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Composition at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Read more about her at Wikipedia, Theodore Presser, UMKC, the Living Composer Project, and New Music USA.

One note: Chen Yi’s name follows the Chinese custom of having the family name first, meaning that her family name is Chen (as in, Dr. Chen, Professor Chen), and her given name is Yi.

Spring Festival was commissioned by the American Composers Forum and premiered on February 3, 2000 by the Smith-Hale Junior High School Band in Kansas City, Missouri, directed by Jan Davis. The score includes the following program note:

Chen Yi wrote Spring Festival for the most important Chinese celebration of the year, New Year or Yüan Tan, a fifteen-day event. Chinese New Year is also called Spring Festival because it marks the time when winter ends and spring is close at hand. This festival begins on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar. On a western calendar, the date usually falls between the end of January and the beginning of February.

The composer drew her melodic ideas from a southern Chinese folk ensemble piece called Lion Playing Ball. The form of the music is constructed using a mathematical scheme called the Golden Section – a mathematical construct based on the ratio known as phi (or Φ). The ratio is equal to 1.61803, and was thought by ancient civilizations to be a perfect proportion most pleasing to the eye. When the ratio of line segments, geometric shapes, objects in nature, or proportions in a building is equal to 1.6, it is called the “golden ratio.”

Chen Yi went two steps further. She constructed a Golden Section within the larger (45 measure) Golden Section which ends at measure 27; the Negative Section [smaller of the two parts of a Golden Section] begins at measure 28 where the clarinet takes the melody for the first time. The first 28 measures of music are further subdivided into a Golden Section, with the Negative Section beginning at measure 17 where the brass play the second phrase of the melody.

Math and music work together well in this spirited, ringing celebration of the Chinese New Year. Gongs and cymbals make it exciting. Crisp articulation, rhythmic syncopation, and uneven phrases enhance the style and spirit of the music.

I will add that the piece is 76 bars long. Chen’s stated 45 measure Golden Section forms an almost-perfect golden ratio within the whole form: that is, 76/45=1.689. It could also be considered a perfect Golden Section with a 4-bar coda, since 72/45=1.6 exactly. This sort of analysis could go on forever within this piece, and in fact it can be applied to a great many musical works of all styles: going by measure numbers alone, for instance, the first movement of Holst’s First Suite adheres to a clear, if possibly unintended, Golden Section form.

The Golden Section is also related to the Fibonacci Sequence, in which each term is the sum of the previous two terms:

0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 …

As this stretches out to infinity, the ratio of each adjacent pair of terms gets closer to 1.61803 (e.g., 144/89=1.61798).

Enough math geekery: here’s what Spring Festival both sounds and looks like.

Here is but one version of what a Chinese Lion Dance looks like.The colorful and expressive lions are always performed by two people, and the accompaniment here matches what I’ve heard in many years of going to New York City’s Chinatown New Year:

Finally, here is an animated summary of all of the traditions of Chinese New Year: