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Weijun Chen takes listeners back to their childhood with new art song collection

Composing, for Weijun Chen, is an opportunity to express himself through an art form that is beyond words. Hearing his own works performed by a world-class orchestra or ensemble is immensely gratifying for this celebrated classical composer. He is at the top of his game, and his passion for what he does is a driving force for his success.


“It is such a privilege to be able to share my music with other people, and it is humbling when your music touches them. Often times audience members would approach me after concerts and share their listening experience. As composers, we have the power to make people think and feel through our music, and that to me, is beyond incredible,” said Chen.

Chen’s vast and thorough understanding of his craft is evident throughout his entire musical catalogue. Audiences and critics alike have appreciated his talent, with his work making its way to prestigious music festivals around the world, such as the 2016 MATA Festival of New Music for his chamber piece Dancer and the 2016 Aspen Music Festival for the orchestral version of the piece. He has also taken home several awards for his work, and his string quartet Canoe was not only the runner up in many competitions, but also was the winner of the 2015 I Creation/Mivos Composition Prize for Chinese Composers.

Chen’s most recent success story, Three Earlier Songs, premiered at the 2018 Nief-Norf Summer Festival in Knoxville, TN (Felicia Chen, soprano; Alisa Kolot, piano.) Three Earlier Songs is written for voice and piano and belongs to the genre of art songs. Despite its rich history and vast repertoire, art songs are rarely heard in the contemporary classical music scene these days. Chen, on the other hand, fell in love with this genre since the very beginning of his compositional career. It combines many of his artistic interests, such as Chinese poetry, Chinese folk music, piano music, late romanticism, and impressionism, into a single art form.

“Art songs, due to their simple and restrained performance manner, are not as popular as dramatic vocal works on the concert stage these days. However, it is difficult to find another art form that perfectly marries music and poetry in a subtle, nuanced, and sincere way. Therefore, it brings me great joy when I am able to share art songs with the modern audience,” he said. “The performing aspect of art songs may be perceived as overly simplistic and old-fashioned: a singer and a pianist, with no staging. However, art songs explore the deepest connections between poetry and music. They are highly expressive, yet in an elegant, subtle, and restrained fashion. As a composer, I am attracted to these qualities and to the genre of art songs in general.”

Three Earlier Songs sets three short poems by Chinese poet Bing Xin that form her collection titled A Maze of Stars (specifically, poem #2, #131, and #97). These three selected poems all deal with childhood and nostalgia, as Bing Xin herself laments: “Childhood… is a teary smile in the memory.” Musically, the melodic writing is reminiscent of the Chinese vernacular music in the 80s and 90s, a style that Chen says his mother sang to him when he was a child. Three Earlier Songs alludes to the fading of childhood memories, a common theme in Chen’s recent works.

“Chinese poet Bing Xin’s collection of vignettes, A Maze of Stars (繁星), was my first encounter with modern Chinese poetry. First appearing in newspaper columns in 1921, these ‘fragmented thoughts,’ as Bing Xin self-described, reflect the young poet’s curiosity towards life, nature, and love. It was no surprise that I returned to these poems at various stages of my career and have a growing collection of art songs based on Bing Xin's poetry,” said Chen.

To convey such a sense of nostalgia, Chen relied on piano harmonies to create that feeling. Three harmonic techniques are used: high-position chords, abundant non-chord tones, and juxtaposition of distant-related keys. As a result, the conventional tonal chord progressions are subtly distorted at every turn, creating the illusion of time displacement.

Chen thoroughly enjoyed writing the piece, which made him feel like home. For a listener, it has the same effect. An album of Chen’s original art songs is forthcoming in late 2020.

Written by Annabelle Lee
Photo by Ahron Cho
Sept. 6th, 2019

Weijun Chen takes listeners back to their childhood with new art song collection Reviewed by JaamZIN on 6:46:00 AM Rating: 5
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