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Chen Yi’s Ba Ban (1999) for solo piano, like many works of Western-trained Chinese composers, situates fragments of evocative traditional folk melody within a post-tonal discourse that is well described by transformation theory. The eponymous folk tune that it quotes is a standard of the sizhu (“silk-and-bamboo”) repertoire. In sizhu performance practice, the evenly pulsed rhythm of the 68-beat melody is augmented and each pitch is highly “flowered,” that is, decorated. Chen’s piece, often simulating the timbral quality of sizhu heterophony, reproduces some of the directed temporal qualities of this repertoire by quoting distinctive phrases and elaborating their pitches. Intermingled with this discourse, however, it presents multilinear threads of motivic transformation through virtuoso figurations typical of Western piano repertoire. The free rhythm evokes a different folk music tradition, mountain song, that Chen mentions as inspiration. At first, as the post-tonal structures are introduced, they disrupt the linear continuity of the Ba Ban folk tune and create an undirected associative network. Eventually, however, they gain control over temporality as firmly as Ba Ban did at first, and then Ba Ban itself is transformed into ametrical pulse. Considering the contrasting gendered connotations of mountain song and sizhu, I suggest how my narrative of these rhythmic processes might resonate with some ideas of feminist theory.
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