Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 2

Chyi Yu, Nana Mouskouri, Vincent Van Gogh, San Mao, and Buddhism

I had begun talking about Chinese vocalist Chyi Yu here, lamenting that I didn’t have time to cover more facets of her varied career. (See Part 1 for discussion of Chyi Yu, Li Tai-Hsiang, and the meaning of the song “The Olive Tree.”)

In this follow-up I’ll usher the reader through a whirlwind tour of three periods in the life of this fascinating artist, whose best work is infused with spiritual feeling. Music videos will guide us on our journey…

I’ve written about the close artistic collaboration between Chyi Yu and composer-arranger Li Tai-Hsiang. Chyi Yu was to some extent his protégé, and they shared a belief in music without borders. Different styles of music were not separate islands, but formed a continuum. One could therefore mix styles freely and create something more meaningful. Let’s pick up the story in 1983, when after a four-year hiatus, Chyi Yu again worked with Li Tai-Hsiang in the studio. Here’s “The Sigh of Chrysanthemum” from her album You Are All My Memories:

Even today it’s hard for me to listen to this song without tears coming to my eyes. It’s such a perfect example of the synergy between Chyi Yu, Li Tai-Hsiang, and poet Hsiang Yang. As with much great art, there’s a combining of opposites: joy and sadness, innocence and experience. The style might be called light classical, the main instruments being harp, oboe, and strings, but with the addition of electric bass. As many times as one listens to this song, it’s always perfect, with not one note or inflection out of place. Continue reading

Joyce Hatto and Ethics

I began this blog by pondering whether ethics is masculine and spirituality feminine. If compassion and forgiveness are significant aspects of spirituality, they’re also qualities we tend to associate more with women than men. It’s not surprising, then, that the most compassionate rendering of the back story behind the Joyce Hatto scandal comes from Victoria Wood in her BBC treatment Loving Miss Hatto.

I’m working on spec on an article about Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe (known as “Barry”). There are some new factual developments concerning the U.S. side of what was a distinctly British scandal; but in this post I’m less interested in going over the facts than examining the ethics of loving (or hating?) Miss Hatto.

Wood’s treatment is based (very loosely) on “Fantasia For Piano” — Mark Singer’s definitive piece in The New Yorker. If you’re unfamiliar with the matter, that would quickly get you up to speed. The essence is that about a hundred classical piano recordings released under Hatto’s name turned out to be plagiarized in whole or in part from other artists. Head leper is William Barrington-Coupe, who had a dodgy past and is generally considered something of a con man.

Opinion about Hatto herself is more mixed, with those who knew her personally hoping against hope that she was unaware of the nature or magnitude of the fraud committed by her husband. Yet, by most accounts it was more than simple fraud; it was also a hoax (which has a somewhat different complexion than a fraud, implying an artistic playing with reality). And beyond either hoax or fraud, there remains the very real question of whether Hatto and hubby became potty in their senior years. Was the illusion that cancer-ridden septuagenarian Joyce nonetheless had a prolific recording career a form of folie à deux?

Continue reading

Charles Ives — “The Cage” and “Walking”

My little aside about the hamster in the cage not having learned to play the calliope reminded me of this 1906 song by Charles Ives:

The Cage

A leopard went around his cage
from one side back to the other side;
he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat;
A boy who had been there three hours
began to wonder, “Is life anything like that?”

Not a spiritual realization, but maybe an atonal precursor, since discovering how much life is like that — how much time we spend pacing our cages waiting to be thrown meat — may ultimately spur us on to seek a better way…

Charles Ives could write better (and more life-affirming) songs. Here’s a good one:


A big October morning,
the village church-bells,
the road along the ridge,
the chestnut burr and sumach,
the hills above the bridge
with autumn colors glow.
Now we strike a steady gait,
walking towards the future,
letting past and present wait,
we push on in the sun,
Now hark! Something bids us pause…
(down the valley, a church, a funeral going on.)
(up the valley, a roadhouse, a dance going on.)
But we keep on a-walking,
’tis yet not noon-day,
the road still calls us onward,
today we do not choose to die
or to dance, but to live and walk.

As a teen, I borrowed the music from the Donnell or Lincoln Center library and taped it (shhh!). I always loved the part “today we do not choose to die or to dance, but to live and walk.” Without knowing it, I was being led toward the middle path.


Welcome stranger, are ye here for the festival? Seriously, my first post with real content is A Study In Contrasts, but you dear reader deserve a special welcome for finding your way to this blog. While ethics and spirituality are my prime considerations, I expect there’ll be plenty of excursions into music, painting, and poetry. That’s sort of a given with me. And if I can find a way to drag in wry commentaries from britcoms, I’ll probably do that too.

The way this blog is organized, many of the most important or “featured” posts will appear in a carousel of icons near the top of the home page. Sorry, no carousel music — the little hamster in the cage doesn’t know how to play the calliope yet. It’s a thought, though…

Anyway, you can click on the icons in the carousel to read the featured posts. Other (non-featured) posts will appear in sequence on the home page like they normally do.

Thanks for visiting, and if you’re someone who cares about ethics, spirituality and art, then tell a friend about this blog. Disguise your voice if necessary, or speak in code:

Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 1

UPDATED! I first heard the music of Chyi Yu around 1986 or so. I had gotten interested in music from Taiwan and China thanks to Sounds of China, a radio show put on by Chinese students at Columbia University. That show still airs on WKCR-FM as part of its In All Languages lineup.

Music nourishes us with many qualities that we need or long for, and not all qualities are available from a purely Western diet of sounds. I felt thrilled that my aural and cultural palate was being expanded by listening to Sounds of China. I made friends with some Chinese students and learned more about the music they were playing.

From the moment I first heard her singing, I felt that Chyi Yu was a very special artist. There was a quality of purity and joy in her voice which suggested something spiritual. That quality proved elusive as I tracked her career over a couple of decades. Out of many albums she released, around seven from her early and late periods stand out in my memory. There’s a middle period not quite as interesting to me, but I’ll get to that…

Chyi Yu rose to prominence as a beloved figure in the “campus folk” movement that emerged in Taiwan in the late 70s and early 80s, coming out of schools like NTU (National Taiwan University). Campus folk was strongly influenced by the American folk music revival of the sixties, and indeed, one of Chyi Yu’s early triumphs was winning a folk-singing contest with her Joan Baez-like rendition of “Diamonds and Rust.” But most campus folk was sung in Mandarin, and Chyi Yu famously sang in that language with a clarity and purity reminiscent of Baez, but a voice uniquely her own. She still does. Continue reading

A Study In Contrasts

When designing the main graphic for this site, I already had it in the back of my mind that ethics and spirituality are related but not quite the same. We may think of ethics as having to do with moral codes, perhaps inflexible, carved in stone; while spirituality conjures up images more fluid and flowing. Then too, if we were to follow the custom of the romance languages and assign a gender even to abstract nouns, would ethics be masculine and spirituality feminine?

The challenge was to view them both within the same “frame,” and so what took shape was a study in contrasts: Socrates stone-faced and the word “ethics” tightly set in carved lettering, but the word “spirituality” done in a more flowing script, suffused with light and adjoined by a picture of Sri Sarada Devi, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna. Continue reading