Interactions of Folk Melody and Transformational (Dis)continuities in Chen Yi’s Ba Ban

Author: Roeder, John

Publication details: Presented at the Society for Music Theory 40th Annual Meeting in Arlington, Virginia, 3 November 2017


Abstract: 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 qupai (“named tune”) that it quotes is a standard of the sizhu (“silk – and – bamboo”) repertoire of Jiangnan and elsewhere (Thrasher 1989). In sizhu performance practice, the evenly pulsed rhythm of the 68 – beat melody is greatly augmented and each pitch is highly “flowered,” that is, decorated. Even the plain version of the tune has a distinctive temporality that arises from its multivalent grouping structure (Roeder 2011), but the partly improvised flowering process also affords special sensations of time that are simultaneously unpredictable locally yet highly directed across longer timespans. Chen’s piece, often simulating the timbral quality of siz hu heterophony with mistuned octaves, reproduces some of these temporal qualities by quoting distinctive phrases and elaborating their pitches. Intermingled with this discourse, though, it presents multilinear threads of motivic transformation through virtuoso figurations typical of Western piano repertoire. This paper examines how the distinctive pitch, rhythmic, and grouping continuity of the tune sometimes takes command of the otherwise transformational temporality of these post-tonal materials, while at other times the transformational logic fractures and absorbs it. Without presuming compositional intent, but in tribute to the 30th anniversary of the SMT CSW, I suggest how this hybridity might resonate with some ideas of third – wave feminist theory.