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Program

Chen Yihan

Don’t You Know? 知否

Chen Yihan, Lead Composer, Piano, and Video

Min Xiao-Fen, Pipa, Ruan, Qin, Voice, and Improvisation

Howie Kenty, Composer and Electronics 

François-Thibaut Pencenat, Lighting 

Event Info

A night of Chinese poetry by Li Qingzhao through music, including the first ever performance of the endangered Changzhou Recitation tradition outside China.

A note from the composer: 

Traditional Chinese recitation is a dying tradition. It is the forgotten voice of the Chinese literati. People in the previous generation, as well as in mine, grew up reading traditional poetry no different from reading a newspaper. However, this was not always the case. Traditionally, poetry, as well as classical texts, would be chanted. As far as we know, this tradition was widespread throughout China, but just like many other traditional art forms, they have largely disappeared within the last century.

Changzhou Recitation—the recitation tradition from the city of Changzhou in southeastern China, which is my hometown—was first documented by Chao Yuen Ren, a well-known linguist who is also from Changzhou. Over the last three decades or so, a local musician named Qin Dexiang recorded recitations from various Changzhou residents educated in the traditional way. Most people who still know how to recite are in their eighties or nineties, and the younger generations are not inheriting the tradition. Seeing a tradition dying in front of my eyes made me committed to making this program happen.

Recitation blurs the boundary between language and music (perhaps there were not any clear ones to begin with). Because traditional recitation was always improvised, writing “compositions” based on the “music” seemed to defeat the purpose. I see this program within the creative tradition of traditional Chinese opera. Here, the writing of the music is not the creation of a single composer, but the total collaboration between language, composition, and improvisation, thus between the author, the composer, and the performer, the distinctions are completely superfluous. Everyone on the team, Xiao-fen, Howie, François-Thibaut, I, and also the poet Li Qingzhao, are the creators of a singular program.

As for the poet Li Qingzhao (1084 - ca. 1155), Ronald Egan, the translator of the text that we will be using in the program, states:

Yet at the outset we should also say that for all the questions surrounding Li Qingzhao and how one should read her works, the core of what she left us—a few dozen lyrics set to songs, a handful of other poems, a few prose works—has a certain luster and pathos unique among all Chinese poets. It is these qualities that have intrigued readers through the millennium since her death, and kept them coming back to her, unendingly, even as each new age brings its own prism of predilections through which it views her.

English translations by Ronald Egan are used with permission, taken from “The Works of Li Qingzhao”, volume edited by Anna Shields, published by DE GRUYTER MOUTIN. Access to free eBOOK at https://www.degruyter.com/view/product/473545.

About the Artist:

Much of Chen Yihan’s music seeks for a convergence of different points in time and space, connecting the past to the future and bringing different corners of the world together in an abstract, poetic, and emotional way that transcends culture and epoch. His music is often a play of lines, space, and intensity in a calligraphic way, reflecting his cultural roots in the Chinese arts. He is currently pursuing a PhD in composition at Princeton University. Learn more at yihanmusic.com.

Few artists have done more to both honor and reinvent the 2000-year history of the pipa than renowned soloist, vocalist, and composer Min Xiao-Fen. Classically trained in her native China, Min was an in-demand interpreter of traditional music before relocating to the United States and forging a new path for her instrument alongside many of the leading lights in modern jazz, free improvisation, experimental, and contemporary classical music. The Village Voice has lauded her as an artist who “has taken her ancient Chinese string instrument into the future,” while The New York Times has raved that her singular work “has traversed a sweeping musical odyssey.” She is the founder of Blue Pipa Inc. (minxiaofenbluepipa.org) and currently lives in New York. 

Howie Kenty is a Brooklyn-based composer and performer, occasionally known byhis musical alter-ego, Hwarg. His music, called “remarkable” with “astonishing poetic power” by the International Compendium Prix Ars Electronica, is stylistically diverse, encompassing ideas from contemporary classical, electronic, rock, sound art, theatre, and everything in-between, occasionally with visual and theatrical elements. Howie is half of the electronic operatic duo Ju-eh+Hwarg, plays guitar in the progressive rock band The Benzene Ring, and is currently a Graduate Council Fellow PhD ABD candidate at Stony Brook University. Hear more at http://hwarg.com. 

François-Thibaut Pencenat is a French visual artist based in New York City since 2018. His work uses the idea of staging to establish a relationship between reality and fiction. Through his working process, he refines his artistic materials and their staged settings to reach the simplest and most visually effective forms. Notions of absence and erasure recur in his work, raising questions about visual memory and the permanence of certain forms in art history.