Chen-Yi/Karen Tanaka: Invisible Curve

Exploring the sound worlds of Chen Yi and Karen Tanaka, one immediately hears some common
elements: their fastidious craftsmanship; the timbres, textures, and harmonies chosen with such care that
each piece feels like a three-dimensional sculpture rather than a painting. Both were born in the Far East
and show an approach to composition that is organic rather than reliant on imposed forms. Oh yes—and
they’re both women. However, the differences between the sonic explorations of the two composers are
much greater than the commonalities. Whereas in Chen’s music rhythmic pulse is always an important
element, in Tanaka’s music there is a timelessness, an eternal, meditative aspect. And while each composer
speaks in her unique voice, we can hear echoes of their respective roots in China and Japan as well as the
Western composers whose influences they acknowledge. Those Western composers were themselves
influenced by Asian music and concepts they had encountered, completing the circle.
Chen Yi (b. 1953) is part of a distinguished generation of Chinese composers who have immigrated to the
United States. A common element in the biographies of Chen Yi, as well as composers Zhou Long, Tan
Dun, Ge Gan-ru, Bright Sheng, and Jing Jing Luo, is study with the Columbia University professor Chou
Wen-chung. A native of China himself, Chou was a pupil and a close associate of Edgard Varèse. Varèse,
who defined music as “organized sound,” did not himself study Asian music, but his approach to timbre
and texture is very close to Chinese aesthetic values. In his article “Asian Music and Western Composition”
in the Dictionary of Contemporary Music, Chou writes:
Varèse’s concept of music as “organized sound” and of sound as “living matter” . . .  is
again a modern Western parallel of a pervasive Chinese concept: that each single tone is a
musical entity in itself . . . This concept, often shrouded in poetic and mystic metaphors, is
fundamental to many Asian musical cultures. It is manifest in the great emphasis placed on
the production and control of tones, often involving an elaborate vocabulary of
articulations, modifications in timbre, inflections in pitch, fluctuations in intensity, vibratos,
and tremolos . . . .1
Chou Wen-chung and his student-colleagues all share this aesthetic, which treats timbre as a musical
element equal to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form. One is struck in Chen Yi’s music by the vibrancy
and importance of tremolos, pitch inflections, and articulations, while concurrently realizing that they are
always in the service of the music, not there merely as “effects.”
Another biographical commonality of this generation of Chinese-American composers is much less
pleasant, though equally important. All lived through Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution”; most were
forcibly moved into the countryside to be “re-educated” and do manual labor. In Chen’s case, in 1968 (at
the age of fifteen) she was separated from her intellectual family of doctors and musicians, who were
dispersed to five different parts of China.  However, during this grim period the resourceful Chen absorbed
the folk music and culture of the Chinese countryside, realizing that her true compositional voice would
come from what she calls a “natural hybrid” between Eastern and Western musics. Two years later, she was
able to return to Guangzhou, becoming concertmaster of the Beijing Opera company there, thus adding
another important element—the theatricality of Chinese opera—to her musical palette. The three works on
this disc, while all recognizably Chen’s voice, show how broad the spectrum of her palette is.
Night Thoughts for flute, cello, and piano (2004) takes as its inspiration the ancient Chinese poem of the
same name written by the great Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (also known in Western culture as Li Po). Li
Bai’s poetry has served as an inspiration to several composers, not the least of whom was Gustav Mahler,
who set several of his poems in Das Lied von der Erde. Chen Yi has provided her own translation of Night
On couch bright moon shone,
Thought frost on the ground,
Raised head facing bright moon,
Lowered head dreaming of home.
A mostly quiet, ruminating piece, the music is spare and elusive; there is a pestering motif (that thing that
keeps you awake at night), and scurrying, fleeting phrases. Almost no tones are heard “plain”: instead, they
are modified with tremolos, trills, glissandos, arpeggios, fluttertonguing, portamento, and bends, or grace
notes, elements also pervasive in traditional Chinese music. Even the piano texture is spare; the few vertical
sonorities are arpeggiated. Just a bit past the midway point, the flute recalls a wistful tune from the past, but
as with all dreams, it is fleeting and soon transforms itself into something else. The tune is picked up by the
cello, then traded back and forth a bit with the flute, before disappearing completely into some chromatic
vapor trails and trills. Night Thoughts was co-commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival, Chamber Music
Society of Lincoln Center, La Jolla SummerFest, and Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon,
supported by the Meet The Composer’s Commissioning/USA program, and is dedicated to Heather
Hitchens. It was premiered on April 28, 2004, by Deborah Cross, Keith Robinson, and André-Michel
Schub, at the Virginia Arts Festival.
Just as Béla Bartók took the raw materials of East European music and alchemically forged them into works
such as Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, so does Chen Yi transform the traditional music of
China into her own very individual aesthetic in works such as Wu Yu. Commissioned and premiered by
Boston Musica Viva on March 15, 2002, in Boston, directed by Richard Pittman, Wu Yu is a sextet for
flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), bassoon, violin, cello, and percussion (vibraphone, bongo, Japanese
high woodblock, cymbal, two Chinese gongs, tom-tom, and bass drum), in two movements. The composer
explains, “Wu Yu was a ritual rain dance in ancient China, which includes song and dance performed with
ox tails in hands. In the first movement Praying for Rain, I use the flute, clarinet, and bassoon to play in
heterophonic style, imitating the tunes played by a group of suona players in the village ceremony (the
double-reed instrument suona is a shawm, made with wood), while using other instruments to create sheng-
like sustained chords (the Chinese traditional instrument sheng is a free-reed mouth organ, made with a
gourd). The music starts slowly and gets faster and faster toward the coda. In the second movement, Shifan
Gong-and-drum, I imitate a whole group of Chinese traditional percussion instruments played in the folk-
ensemble music Shifan gong-and-drum in Southeast China, which is often used in ceremonies and village
However straightforward this explanation may appear, the actual sound of the music is anything but that. In
the first movement, the violin, cello, and percussion deftly weave gossamer lines that seem entirely
unrelated to the intricate heterophonic melodies in the winds, yet everything somehow meshes. A ritualistic
piece, the music begins declaratively, becoming gradually more intense as the tempo increases, until at the
end the music is twice as fast as the beginning. Chen bases the structure for this movement, both at the
larger and smaller levels, on the golden ratio, also used in Bartók’s work. The second movement, marked
“energetically,” begins with a lively chromatic sixteenth-note passage in the clarinet that is picked up in the
flute (actually the piccolo in this recording). The sixteenth notes are nearly omnipresent throughout the
entire movement, being passed by the performers from one instrument to another, like jugglers or acrobats.
We also sense something a bit diabolical here, not least because of the sonic echoes of Stravinsky’s
L’Histoire du Soldat in the interplay of violin and percussion. 
If we know one thing about Chen Yi from listening to her music, it is that she must be a dynamo. Energy
pulses through her music like a direct current of electricity. The composition . . . as like a raging fire . . .
(2002) is another exemplar of this trait. Approximately ten minutes in length and described by the
composer as a representation of a “raging fire both external and internal,” the music is nearly a perpetual-
motion machine, with only two eighth-note rests in the near-center of the work to serve as oxygen holes for
the performers and the audience. In a modified ABA form, the music flickers, crackles, and burns through
chromatic passages, trills, portamentos, tremolos, and string pizzicato, before giving way to strange and
ghostly string harmonics, then gradually refueling and raging once again. Commissioned with a grant from
Meet The Composer’s Commissioning/USA program and premiered February 24, 2002, in Philadelphia by
Network for New Music conducted by Jennifer Higdon, . . . as like a raging fire . . .  is composed for flute,
clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. 
From fire to ice: the music we hear of Karen Tanaka (b. 1961) on this disc contemplates the space-time
continuum, the frozen landscape of Norway, and an imaginary garden. Tanaka’s musical influences are, like
Chen’s, from both the East and the West, but they are as different as—well, as different as China is from
Japan. Important Japanese elements in Tanaka’s music are a sense of timelessness as found in Zen
Buddhist aesthetics, an appreciation of noise and manipulated sound, and concepts of “stretched time” and
“deformed space,” which can also be found in the Japanese Noh theater. Yet, Tanaka’s Western musical
influences are also very much linked with these same aesthetic values. In 1986 she left Japan to study in
Paris with the spectralist composer Tristan Murail and to work at the IRCAM institute, where research on
acoustics, sound design, and perception and cognition is conducted and integrated with musical
composition. Founded by Pierre Boulez, the “pedigree” of IRCAM and its concerns can be traced back
through the French composers Olivier Messiaen and Claude Debussy, both of whom were fundamentally
influenced by the Asian music they heard. Tanaka also adopts elements from spectralist thought, which
Tristan Murail has described as being an attitude toward composition rather than a set of techniques, the
attitude being that “music is ultimately sound evolving in time.”
 Thus the feeling of being “out of time” and
away from Earth’s gravitational pull that we sense in listening to Tanaka’s music was forged equally from
Japanese and French aesthetics. In the compositions heard on this disc, the instruments are subtly amplified
to add slight reverberation and enlarge and “deform” the instrumental timbres and sonic space.
In the work Invisible Curve (1996, revised 1999) for flute, violin, viola, cello, and piano, we find ourselves
in the vast regions of the cosmos. The composer writes: “The title Invisible Curve was inspired by books
and articles about the introduction to general relativity that I read prior to composing. Space-time can be
curved and warped by the presence of a body, like the Earth, and this distortion accounts for gravity. In
Invisible Curve, my intention was to project the images of the curves in space-time with sound. The fine
curves drawn by each note would be analogous to the curve of the whole structure.” Appropriately marked
Lontano, the piece begins with a long, low C-sharp on the cello that is shaped by dynamics and timbre,
changing pitch only some forty measures later. The other instruments slowly drift in, sometimes sharing
their pitches with each other, the music gradually increasing in density but deliberately avoiding a rhythmic
pulse. Toward the midpoint of the piece, when the violin, viola, and piano finally indulge themselves in a
rapid chromatic passage, the cello anchor changes to a low C, again maintaining its pitch for many
measures. Then the cello disappears, leaving the other instruments adrift, the piano sounding sonar signals,
until the cello reappears, back on its original low C-sharp, gradually bringing the piece to its close. Invisible
Curve was commissioned by Shigenori Kudo. It was first performed in Yokohama by Shigenori Kudo, flute,
Blagoya Demcevski, violin, François Schmitt, viola, Jean-Marie Trotereau, cello, and Jeffrey Grice, piano,
on June 30, 1996.
From the cosmos to Earth, but to a place on Earth where the two seem to meet: Frozen Horizon (1998),
scored for amplified ensemble of flute, percussion (suspended cymbals, vibraphone, crotales), two violins,
viola, cello, and double bass, portrays the landscape of Harstad—a town on a small island in northern
Norway at the 68th parallel above the Arctic Circle, where the sun does not rise during the winter but where
the Northern Lights are often visible. The composer describes the landscape: “Beyond the icy earth’s
surface, the frozen sea spreads towards a curved boundary line between the sea and the dark sky. Time
passes slowly there.”  Another “invisible curve” has been found.
As with the landscape itself, the music changes slowly and subtly, carefully exploring one step at a time
through undulating, echoing passages in the strings and flute. Like ripples in water, the musical phrases
gradually expand to the outer reaches of the instruments’ ranges before dissipating. Exactly halfway the
vibraphone and crotales make a welcome appearance (the Northern Lights!), shimmering and glimmering
in ostinato figures over long-held string tones. These hallucinatory lights gradually fade into suspended
cymbal rolls, and there is a brief reminiscence of the piece’s beginnings before the music fades away. Frozen
Horizon was commissioned by the Mirkk Art Forum. It was first performed by the BIT20 Ensemble
conducted by Ingar Bergby at the Bergen International Festival in Norway on May 22, 1998.
As Robert Pogue Harrison states in his 2008 book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition,
“Sometimes the most intense journeys—the most visionary journeys—take place while one stays put, in
moments of stillness unscorched by ‘passion’s heat.’”
 Tanaka’s Water and Stone (1999) allows us to linger
in the stillness of her garden and take such a visionary journey. This work is not a depiction of any specific
garden. Rather, as the composer notes it “suggests various reflections of light when water flows over different
colored stones, and also various phases of water itself.” Tanaka’s description cannot help but remind us of
such French Impressionist painters as Monet (a connoisseur of Japanese prints), attempting to capture on
canvas the constantly changing play of light in his garden in Giverny. In a musical analogue, tones are
introduced by one instrument, then shared with or passed to another, constantly changing their timbral
coloration. As in Tanaka’s other works, the cello and contrabass supply long pedal tones (Tanaka credits
her playing the organ in church with a special fondness for long low tones in her music), while the harp
embroiders the sonic tapestry with delicate repeated figures. The music sparkles and flows in ways we don’t
anticipate but that our ears always welcome. The final section brings the ostinato idea to the forefront with
the addition of the vibraphone—as listeners we are invited to enjoy this moment of reflection, and we are
glad to do just that in this unapologetically gorgeous piece. Scored for an amplified ensemble of clarinet,
two percussionists (both playing vibraphones and crotales), harp, violin, viola, cello, and five-string double
bass, Water and Stone was commissioned by Radio France and first performed in Paris by the Ensemble
TM+ conducted by Laurent Cuniot on March 4, 2000. 
         —Marilyn Bliss
Marilyn Bliss is a composer, writer, and editor, and is president of New York Women Composers.
Recipient of the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
Chen Yi has served as a Distinguished Professor in Music Composition at the Conservatory of the
University of Missouri-Kansas City since 1998. Born in 1953 in Guangzhou, China, Ms. Chen has received
music degrees from the Beijing Central Conservatory and Columbia University in the City of New York
(DMA). Ms. Chen’s major composition teachers included Professors Chou Wen-chung, Mario Davidovsky,
Wu Zu-qiang and Alexander Goehr.
Ms. Chen has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the
Arts, as well as the Lieberson Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has received
major commissions from the Koussevitzky, Fromm, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations, the National
Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and Carnegie
Hall. Commissioning ensembles and soloists include the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mira Wang
along with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the BBC Symphony
Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma and the Pacific Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra,
the Women’s Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, and the Los
Angeles Philharmonic.       
Tokyo-born composer Karen Tanaka studied composition with Akira Miyoshi and piano with Nobuko
Amada at Toho Gakuen School of Music. She then moved to Paris in 1986 to study composition with
Tristan Murail and work at IRCAM as an intern. In 1987 she was awarded the Gaudeamus Prize at the
International Music Week in Amsterdam. She studied with Luciano Berio in Florence in 1990–91 with
funds from the Nadia Boulanger Foundation and a Japanese Government Scholarship. She has been co-
artistic director of the Yatsugatake Kogen Music Festival, previously directed by Toru Takemitsu. In 2005
she was awarded the Bekku Prize.
Since 2000, she has had significant premieres including five orchestral works: Guardian Angel for the
Brooklyn Philharmonic, Departure for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Lost Sanctuary for the NHK
Symphony Orchestra, Rose Absolute commissioned by the Michael Vyner Trust for the NHK Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen, and Urban Prayer for Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) and the
Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano. The performance of Guardian Angel by the
Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in July 2002 brought her music to the attention of the
large audience in Los Angeles.
The Azure Ensemble has been a contemporary music presence in New York City and nationally since
1999. With a special emphasis on the music of living women composers, the Ensemble has an extensive
commissioning history. The diverse instrumentation of the ensemble offers the flexibility to program unique
compositions. The Azure Ensemble works directly with composers in order to effectively communicate
their musical concepts. Commissions and premieres include works by Gabriela Lena Frank, Stella Sung,
Yuriko Häse Kojima, Anne LeBaron, Zhou Long, Alexandra du Bois, Judith Shatin, Tristan Keuris,
Marilyn Bliss, David Stock, Jacqueline Jeeyoung Kim, Alan Frederick Shockley, Alice Shields, Cynthia
Folio, and Pablo Ortiz.
The Azure Ensemble has performed in such diverse venues as Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, the
International Computer Music Conference at Tulane University in New Orleans, and on tour with the
Arcady Music Festival in Maine. Other performances of the Ensemble have included presentations by the
Kosciuszko Foundation of New York City, broadcast live on WQXR, the Morris Museum in New Jersey,
New York University, and Temple University in Philadelphia.
Susan Glaser, director of The Azure Ensemble, has brought contemporary works to her recitals
worldwide. She has performed in such concert halls as London’s Wigmore Hall, Toho Gakuen in Tokyo,
the Field Room of Ireland’s National Concert Hall, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Alice Tully
Hall, and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. She has collaborated with the Lark Quartet at Merkin
Concert Hall.
Ms. Glaser has presented solo recordings on the Koch International Classics label, all of which feature
contemporary music. An accomplished piccolo player, Ms. Glaser has recorded one of the few existing
discs of contemporary piccolo music. Her performances and recordings have been broadcast in national
syndication for National Public Radio’s Performance Today, “Center Stage at Wolftrap,” BBC London,
CBC Toronto, WGBH Boston, KFDC San Francisco, WFMT Chicago, and WQXR and WNYC in New
Ms. Glaser holds a doctorate from The Juilliard School. Her principal teachers have been Julius Baker,
Geoffrey Gilbert, Walfrid Kujala, and Peter Lloyd, and she has been the recipient of a Fulbright grant. In
addition to the master classes she gives nationally and abroad as a Powell Artist, she is currently on the
faculty of New York University.
Chen Yi
Eleanor’s Gift. Paul Tobias, cello; Virginia Symphony; JoAnn Falletta, conductor. Albany Records 648.  
Momentum. Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui, conductor. Bis 1352.
The Music of Chen Yi. Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic, Chanticleer, JoAnn Falletta, conductor. New
Albion Records NA 090.
Sparkle. New Music Consort, Music from China, Manhattan String Quartet, New York New Music
Ensemble. New World/CRI NWCR 804.
Karen Tanaka
Prismes. Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Jun’ichi Hirokami, conductor. Bis 490.  
The Song of Songs. Joan Jeanrenaud, cello. New Albion 120. 
Produced and engineered by Judith Sherman.
Engineering and editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Digital mastering: Paul Zinman, SoundByte Productions, Inc.
All works recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City: Frozen Horizon and
Water and Stone, June 16, 2008; Wu Yu, October 9, 2008; Invisible Curve and . . . as like a raging fire . . .,
October 11, 2008;  Night Thoughts, October 12, 2008.
Cover art, including size, gallery credit, date, format of art (pastel, etc):
Cover design: Bob Defrin Design, Inc., NYC
Chen Yi: Night Thoughts, Wu Yu, and . . . as like a raging fire . . .  published by Theodore Presser, Inc.
Karen Tanaka: Invisible Curve, Frozen Horizon, and Water and Stone published by Chester Music Ltd.
All rights for the USA and Canada administered by G. Schirmer, Inc. 
This recording was made possible by grants from The Aaron Copland Fund for Music,
the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable
Trust, the New York State Council on the Arts, The Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia
University, and the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trust.
Herman E. Krawitz, President; Lisa Kahlden, Vice-President; Paul M. Tai, Director of Artists and
Repertory; Mojisola Oké, Bookkeeper; Anthony DiGregorio, Production Associate.
Richard Aspinwall; Milton Babbitt; Jean Bowen; Thomas Teige Carroll; Emanuel Gerard; David Hamilton;
Rita Hauser; Lisa Kahlden; Herman E. Krawitz; Fred Lerdahl; Robert Marx; Arthur Moorhead; Elizabeth
Ostrow; Cynthia Parker; Larry Polansky; Don Roberts; Marilyn Shapiro; Patrick Smith; Paul M. Tai; Blair
Francis Goelet (1926–1998), Chairman
P & © 2008 Anthology of Recorded Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in U.S.A.
Chen Yi
Wu Yu (2002)
1. I  8:34
2. II  5:45
Susan Glaser, flute; Pavel Vinnitsky, clarinet; Marc Goldberg, bassoon; Airi Yoshioka, violin; Pitnarry Shin,
cello; Ingrid Gordon, percussion; William Purvis, conductor
Karen Tanaka
3. Frozen Horizon (1998)       8:24
Susan Glaser, flute; Airi Yoshioka, violin; Conrad Harris, violin; Karen Ritscher, viola; Pitnarry Shin, cello; Gail
Kruvand-Moye, contrabass; Michael Lipsey, percussion; Matthew Gold, percussion; Gerald Steichen,
Karen Tanaka
4. Water and Stone (1999)      9:29
Airi Yoshioka, violin; Karen Ritscher, viola; Pitnarry Shin, cello; Gail Kruvand-Moye, contrabass; Esther
Lamneck, clarinet; Michael Lipsey, percussion; Matthew Gold, percussion; Jessica Zhou, harp; Gerald
Steichen, conductor
Chen Yi
5. Night Thoughts (2004)                    9:21
Susan Glaser, flute; Pitnarry Shin, cello; Christopher Oldfather, piano
Karen Tanaka
6. Invisible Curve (1996, rev. 1999)    10:49
Susan Glaser, flute; Airi Yoshioka, violin; Karen Ritscher, viola; Pitnarry Shin, cello; Christopher Oldfather,
piano; William Purvis, conductor
Chen Yi
7. . . .  as like a raging fire . . .  (2002)      8:29
Susan Glaser, flute; Airi Yoshioka, violin; Pavel Vinnitsky, clarinet; Pitnarry Shin, cello; Christopher Oldfather,
piano; William Purvis, conductor
TT: 61:20
 Dictionary of Contemporary Music, John Vinton, ed. (Dutton, 1974)
 Joshua Fineberg, "Spectral Music: History and Techniques," Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 2,
 Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (University of Chicago Press,