Ge Xu (Antiphony)

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Ge Xu (Antiphony)


            Chen Yi is a remarkable composer who has achieved worldwide acclaim for her many compositions--compositions that seek to reconcile--or at least convincingly meld--the disparate musical styles of East and West.  Born in Guangzhou, China in 1953, she studied violin early on, practicing surreptitiously with a mute during the privations of the Cultural Revolution.   Ultimately, she had to give up music, owing to her impressment into forced agricultural labor in a variety of locations in China.  After that unfortunate episode in China’s history, she was able to enter the Beijing Conservatory in 1977.  Her career as a composer ensued with great success, culminating in a major, broadcast concert dedicated entirely to her compositions.   She came to the United States in 1986 and studied composition at Columbia University with the distinguished composers, Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky.  Thereafter, in 1996, she accepted a position at the Peabody Conservatory, and in 1998 joined the faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City.   She is the recipient of numerous prestigious fellowships, awards, and prizes, and enjoys performances of her compositions all over the world.

            Ge Xu (Antiphony) was commissioned by the Women’s Philharmonic of the Bay Area in San Francisco as part of their Meet the Composer New Residencies Program.  Composed in 1994 while Chen Yi was in residence with the orchestra, Ge Xu (Antiphony) received its world première in January of the next year. The composer relates her inspiration for the composition: 


For celebrating the Chinese lunar New Year or mid-autumn festival, Zhuang minority people in Southern China often gather in the field and sing mountain songs in solo, choir or antiphonal forms. In the antiphonal singing, distinct groups or individuals make up the texts in a style of antithetical couplets, competing with one another. It is this vivid scene that has inspired the composer to write music for keeping spirits high and hope alive.


            Antiphony is simply musical performance that is characterized by the alternation of soloists or musical groups—a time honored style found in most cultures.  In Western music it is found as early as mediæval liturgical chant, and memorably in the works of Gabrieli in sixteenth-century Venice.  Chen’s study in antiphony divides the orchestral color palette into multiple combinations, variously contrasting or combining them into a remarkable variety of sounds.  Throughout the work we are regaled with creative and novel ways of eliciting non-traditional sounds from the familiar array of orchestral instruments.  In addition to the usual special techniques such as string harmonics and muted or stopped brass, at one time or another one will hear strings playing behind the bridge, glissandos in the horns, and cymbals rubbed together or placed on the heads of timpani—to name a few.  Extremes of tessitura, layers of completely different rhythms, dense, bombastic—almost chaotic—textures alternating with the most ethereal, delicate soft ones.  It’s all part and parcel of Chen’s imaginative creation of antiphonal sounds.

            Beginning with a soft, high, unaccompanied violin gesture soon joined by a Debussy-like sonority of harp, horns, and soft percussion, dense woodwind rhythms and stentorian brass soon add their contrasting layers.  A faster dance-like section follows—much simpler in rhythm, but with an amazing paroxysm of challenging and contrasting activity in the low strings.  It all ends in a dramatic cadenza for the percussion section.  The percussion continues, soon joined by unusual sounds from the strings, with a dense cloud of complex woodwind activity floating above it all.   The dance-like section grows out of all of this to take us to the conclusion.  It’s  abruptly soft, with the ethereal textures of the very beginning.  A solo bassoon plaintively recalls the opening violin gesture, but now a half step lower.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan