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Composed: 1998
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo, high cymbal, snare drum, tam-tam, Japanese woodblock), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Born and raised in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, Chen Yi is the daughter of two classical-music-loving medical doctors who made sure she was exposed to as much Western and Chinese culture as possible. Besides her study of Western music via the violin, she steeped herself in European novels and other literature, and, of course, the Chinese classics. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), Chen Yi labored in the countryside, all the while playing revolutionary songs on the violin. It was in the fields that she found her roots, her motherland, and an appreciation and commonality with farmers and other non-intellectuals.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1977, Chen Yi became a student at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she studied Western classical and traditional Chinese music. She then attended Columbia University in New York, where she earned her DMA in 1993.

“Since I speak naturally in my mother tongue, in my music there is Chinese blood, Chinese philosophy and customs. However, music is a universal language. Although I have studied Western music extensively and deeply since my childhood, and I write for all available instruments and voices, I think that my musical language is a unique combination and natural hybrid of all influences from my background.” These elements are aurally evident in Momentum.

In Momentum sections of calm, transparent lyricism contrast with explosive, highly energized rhythmic patterns that drive the music forward. Importantly, elements of Chinese folksong are juxtaposed with advanced Western compositional techniques. In the preface to her score, Chen Yi clearly states the inspiration for this composition as “the power of ancient totems, the tension of the breathing lava (before it breaks up to flow), and the gesture of the exaggerated dancing lines in Chinese Calligraphy.”

Momentum opens with a folk-like tune played by piccolo accompanied by bongos. The volume builds as other woodwinds enter to create a tutti polyrhythmic section of primal power. This is followed by a solo violin cadenza that leads to a return of the folk material that is now varied and of greater intensity. Following this, the polyrhythmic music returns in an expanded version that eventually dissipates into a reprise of the opening folksong that is closer to its original setting. A coda for full orchestra brings the music to a close.

Momentum was commissioned by the Peabody Conservatory of Music in 1997. It was premiered at the Peabody Symphony Orchestra’s New York debut concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on May 2, 1998.

Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.