Behind Shen Yun Orchestra’s Unique Music
An interview with acclaimed conductor Ying Chen
“Listeners can easily sense the goodness, serenity, and nobility expressed through Shen Yun’s music.”
—Ying Chen, Shen Yun Orchestra conductor
When the curtain goes up at a Shen Yun performance, heavenly scenes, majestic landscapes, and historical tales sweep the audience through a breathtaking journey across China’s 5000-year-old civilization.
Accompanying the beauty on stage are the memorable sounds of the Shen Yun Orchestra. Its all-original compositions blend Eastern and Western musical traditions in a remarkable fusion of strength, elegance, and harmony.
Audiences often wonder at the ingenuity of Shen Yun’s musical arrangements, so we sought one of its acclaimed conductors, Ying Chen, to share her insights into what makes the Shen Yun Orchestra’s performances so unique and powerful.
East Meets West
Shen Yun is well known for its revival of classical Chinese dance, which naturally requires Chinese music as accompaniment. Yet this creates a challenge. “If we were to use only Chinese instruments, we’d be missing important elements of harmony, chords, and counterpoint,” Chen says.
“Generally speaking, most musical works from ancient China are monophonic—there’s only one melodic line without harmonies or second melodies in counterpoint.”
Shen Yun’s musicians have managed to overcome these obstacles by combining the precision and grandeur of the Western orchestra with the mesmerizing expressions of a few select Chinese instruments, most notably the delicate pipa (Chinese lute) and the 4,000-year-old erhu (a two-stringed instrument played with a bow).
The result is a richer, more profound experience for the listener.
Chen explains that Chinese instruments are often relatively simple in structure. “They’re basically period instruments,” she says. Western classical music, on the other hand, is characterized by harmony, with an extensive system of chords, and it often involves counterpoint. Thus, the structures of most of its instruments are more complex and precise.
A fundamental challenge arises when ensembles combine Chinese and Western instruments. It requires the artists to blend the timbres and perfectly match the intonation of instruments from two different musical traditions.
The musicians need an excellent ear, as well as the ability to produce a variety of tone colours in order to create a harmonious musical experience. Overcoming this obstacle also requires team effort.
“Creating the beautiful blend of these traditions isn’t just a matter of the individual players, of course. It starts with an exceptional vision and the composition of the pieces; it also relates to the rehearsal process. Having imagination and creativity certainly helps too,” Chen says.
Behind the Music
The music of the Shen Yun Orchestra impresses audiences not only through the beauty of performance but also through its uplifting spiritual qualities. One audience member recently said in an interview, “Shen Yun is really a gift of life. It touches the depths of the soul. No matter how you feel today, you’ll get refreshed. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
This is the type of feedback the orchestra regularly receives.
“I think it has a lot to do with the messages and values we convey,” Chen says. “I think we highlight the best of the human spirit, and at times take people to a realm where heaven and earth intertwine.”
“At Shen Yun, we aim for something we call ‘chun shan, chun mei,’ which means ‘pure kindness, pure beauty.’ This is something our performers strive for on a personal level as well as in our performance. I believe this is a major reason why audiences feel so uplifted and inspired by Shen Yun.”
“Without spirit, emotion, and the other ideas being communicated, musical notes are empty and meaningless. Spirit and meaning give music its life and soul,” Chen says.
In ancient China, the words for music and medicine were homophones. People believed that good music had genuine healing power. Modern medical research has also shown that listening to classical music can improve memory, relieve pain, and contribute to the body’s healing process.
This is to say that music is more than entertainment. Even without words, it can communicate emotion and meaning that go beyond ordinary human thinking. But what gives music this power?
Ancient Chinese philosophers held that the five notes of the pentatonic scale correspond to the five elements of nature: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Thus, beautiful music brings harmony to people’s bodies. Such music elevates one’s mental state while simultaneously soothing stress. In ancient China, it was said that these sounds harmonized the listener with heaven and earth.
With such complex musical theory and so many details, it may seem daunting to grasp the intricacies of Shen Yun’s exquisite music. Yet according to Chen, the best way to experience a musical performance is to just “open up your heart and mind, feel what the music is saying, and let it enrich your life!”