Carolyn Chen: Interview

CarolynChenCarolyn Chen is one of the winners of the 2015 Commissioning Project, and we will be premiering her piece at our concert on Friday, Feb 24 at the Universalist Unitarian Chapel. Here, flutist Bethanne Walker interviewed Carolyn about her background, the piece she wrote for Wild Rumpus, and her upcoming projects. Learn more about Carolyn’s music at her website.

Bethanne: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! To start, could you tell me about your academic background? And where are you now, and what are you up to?

Carolyn: So I did an undergraduate degree in music at Stanford with a concentration in piano performance, and a humanities program where I wrote a thesis on free improvisation and radical politics. I also did a coterminal master’s degree in modern thought and literature at Stanford, and then I did a master’s and Ph.D. in composition at U.C. San Diego.

I graduated two years ago, and I’ve been living in L.A. since then, just trying to make music!

BW: Great! How did you come to find composing? Composing music, to me as a non-composer, seems to be one of the most intimate types of artform out there, but what people sometimes don’t know about written music is that everything that you personally have communicated is entirely temporal and individually sonic, which doesn’t always translate person to person, or group to group who is interpreting your music, and every composer is different in their style. When did you realize that composing music was the gateway to your inner voice?

CC: I started improvising in undergrad; I played in Mark Applebaum’s improvisation ensemble at Stanford, and that was kind of my route in. I played piano and clarinet growing up, but I never thought that composing was accessible to me. It just didn’t occur to me that I should be allowed to do it. So I joined this improv group, and I was hearing a lot of new music at the time. I never really heard live concerts as a kid, so it was kind of like Candyland when I got to college – I was going to every concert that I could, and the new music concerts were really weird. They were strange and kind of alienating, and I really wanted to understand what was going on, so I just kept going back. And then when I joined the improv group, I was playing clarinet and I hadn’t practiced in a long time, so my embouchure was gone, and I was making these sounds that I didn’t have complete control over–these squawky, noisy sounds. It was kind of like chasing a soccer ball down the field when it’s just a little bit too far out in front of you. But I realized I still had preferences in the midst of these sounds that I had thought were ugly growing up. There was a depth to them, and I was curious about the different ways that they could go, and how people were interacting and listening to one another. After improvising, I would go home and my brain would just be racing because of all the things I didn’t do, or all the other ways the music could have gone. So it was like this music that didn’t happen was stuck in my head, and that was exhilarating! That led me to think that I could try to set some ideas down and shape things a bit more.

BW: Congratulations on your Klangforum Wien commission, by the way! Your music is widely performed all over the world, which is incredibly impressive and really exciting. I’m curious to ask you if you have any advice for how a younger composer can get their music heard.

CC: That’s a good question! I’m not really running things –it’s like improvising, I’m just trying to keep up with the gifts that come into my life! I recently heard a more established composer say that the path just looks different for everyone. Some people are naturally great at talking to people and presenting themselves, and I am not one of those people, so it’s always a pleasant surprise that things happen. But I do think that everything happens through a community, and for it to be a healthy ecosystem, you need all kinds of personalities. Opportunities do happen through just doing the work and showing up and being a genuine person, contributing in whatever ways feel natural — probably more than half of what happens to me is from the generosity of my more successful friends and colleagues! Also, music is a long-term endeavor, so in the end, details like the rate of performances are incidental. A lot of my favorite composers made one amazing piece once a decade. In the end, if you believe in what you’re doing and it’s meaningful to you, that’s the most important thing. People can sense that, so it gets picked up.

BW: Can you tell more about your piece that you wrote for Wild Rumpus? How did you find the poem, what you inspired you to set this particular text, and how did you approach the text?

CC: I was at Colorado College for a residency last spring, and I visited the press there, which was so beautiful! I was browsing around on the website because I was so entranced by all of Aaron Cohick’s handmade work, and I ran into this poem by Divya Victor. I hadn’t known her work before, but this poem struck me as really humorous and beautifully made; the sound of it and all the internal rhyme are so charming, and so clever! I liked the idea of having this kaleidoscopic approach to what a mussel could be—she’s oscillating between the different spellings and the different meanings of mussels and muscles, so you have descriptions of the animal in its natural habitat, the muscles in your face and your tongue and how they move to spell the letters of the words “mussel” and “muscle,” and then these over-the-top foodie descriptions that are very San Francisco-appropriate. It struck me as really funny and a bit dark and edgy, but with a kind of buoyancy that I thought would make it fun to come back to in composing. I was also excited to find a living poet, so I looked her up, and she turned out to be this lovely, generous person who was really open to having her words set in a flexible way. She didn’t have any issue with rearranging, or obscuring different parts of the poem. There’s a little bit of simultaneity and talking-over, as I was imagining keeping all of these ideas running simultaneously. The energy of the language was really inspiring. The poem feels both formally very thought-through, but also very spontaneous in its inner workings, so that was something that I was thinking about in the music. The repeating structure also has lent itself to movements of different characters. It was sort of like setting the same poem through different lenses. Also, since it was for Vanessa [Langer], I thought that something about the fanciness of the foodie descriptions really fits the bel canto singing voice. I wanted her sometimes to have beautiful lines to sing, and the floweriness of that language seemed appropriate!

BW: I try to avoid comparing composers to other composers as much as possible, but I just have to say that your music has such a Hans Abrahmensen style of strength in its own fragility. You are able to sonically explore so much with potentially so little available without any use of force. Do you enjoy the challenge of writing for non-standard instrumentation, such as Wild Rumpus? How do you go about approaching such a project?

CC: I think something unfamiliar is always a creative stimulus. It’s sort of a Pierrot-like ensemble, but with trombone and electric guitar. I think there’s a some humor in combining this beautiful classical chamber music sound with outdoor and more popular instruments. It was definitely one of the things that appealed to me most about working with Wild Rumpus. The trombone and electric guitar are the most challenging for me because they’re the instruments I’ve written for the least often. I like the idea of a possible disruption, both within the music, and also to my own creative process.

Also, when I was writing, I saw this concert by Kidi band, this L.A. group that draws a lot from African music, and that was probably the most joyous performance I saw last year. Something about this way of rhythmically interlocking and being together as a whole felt very beautiful, and I was thinking of Thomas Mapfumo’s electric guitar sound, which is so clean, and springy, and rejuvenating. I have never really written a groove before, so there’s one movement here that’s the most groove-like music I’ve ever made.

BW: You have created an incredible open space for yourself and your work, and speaking of electric guitar, I feel like incorporating multimedia, electronics, non-western music in an otherwise potentially restrictive concert setting can be difficult, and yet I find that your music desires it to be a necessity to incorporate these types of mediums. Did you always think of expanding the setting of the concert hall, or strive to push the boundaries of what concert art music is perceived to be?

CC: In undergrad, I started out improvising and making little tape pieces and working with video all around the same time. I didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with concert music, but it seemed very natural to explore all the resources that were available. I don’t always aim to expand or interrupt the concert hall as a medium, because there are aspects of concert listening that are quite valuable to me. But I think as people living now, it’s part of the joy and responsibility of being alive to respond to the media and material we have around us. There’s also a long history of incorporating these things into concert music, or of taking musical activities outside of the concert hall. I think I’m working in conversation with all of that as it comes up.

BW: Speaking of outside of the concert hall, you have a series called “Music for People,” and I’ve also seen a piece of yours set in a grocery store. Could you speak more about this?

CC: Actually, that ties into the non-western music, because Supermarket Music was based on the guqin, the 7-stringed Chinese zither which I started studying in graduate school. It was traditionally an instrument for the literati, to play for self-cultivation and not public performance, so it’s a very quiet and private instrument. There’s lore and mythology about playing it in nature, over a rushing stream or in high mountains. There’s the idea that you play to get in tune with nature and escape the trappings of society, to tune yourself into the natural harmony of the universe.

So I was learning this instrument in Southern California without a car, and so I was thinking, “What is nature to me here?” And the one place that I visited every week because I had to was the supermarket. There’s Ralph’s, which is a Southern Californian 24 hour supermarket that has everything in it, not just food, but lawn chairs, and sometimes player pianos–if the zombie apocalypse happened, you could totally survive there. It’s just an amazing universe in and of itself that contains everything. I’m also really into produce: I managed produce and soy in my college co-op, so I like hanging out with vegetables! I was thinking about the grocery store, and there’s something hypnotic about the way it’s designed: the muzak playing overhead, and the fluorescent lights so there’s no shadows, and all the aisles are wide enough so you’re with people, but not forced to interact with anyone. There’s an ease and effortlessness about everything: the shopping cart does the carrying for you, and the conveyer belt does the moving of the objects… It’s like this dream space.

(BW: Whoa.)

CC: I was thinking about the supermarket as what nature could be – if I had to find the equivalent of a high mountaintop in La Jolla. All of this space enables a very private experience even though it is a social space. So that’s where that project came from, and I invited people to contribute pieces, and it became something much more interesting I think than if I had been the only one doing my solo silent music. Since I was an improviser, I was writing text pieces along with fully notated music from the beginning. I would sing with the refrigerators in the co-op and move dry goods around, and things like that. That’s sort of where that strand of work came from, and I think it’s nice because it’s mostly performable by people who don’t need musical training, and they can bring a an interesting perspective to performance.

BW: What is the project of your dreams?

CC: Oh, wow! There was a part of me thinking if we had an anti-gravitational chamber, we could throw people up into it and they could float around, because I think about push and pull a lot in feeling music. I’ve always wanted to do stuff in swimming pools and underwater as well. So one route into this question is the material resources aspect, but generally, it’s really just great to work with people who are fun to work with. I don’t know, I feel I’m really lucky because I get to do that! Every project where you’re working with people who are interesting and are interested in working with you–that’s the dream! That’s the best possible project that there could be. It really doesn’t matter if it’s for acoustic instruments or a deserted field somewhere…because people are so interesting.

BW: Is there anyone that you feel like our audience should know that deserves our attention? Anyone that has really inspired you lately?

CC: Mieko Shiomi: she was a part of the Fluxus community in New York in the 1960s, but all of her work is so subtle and deep. She finds the surprising in the everyday in this beautifully effortless way. There’s a really subtle sense of humor with this slow bloom: it seems simple on the page, but in experience, it just expands and becomes this luminous thing. Event for the Midday in the Sunlight (available in the Fluxus workbook) has directly inspired a few of my own pieces. I also love Smoke Poem and Disappearing Music for Face, amongst others.

Marian Zazeela: I love her calligraphic drawings, and I wrote a paper about this series of repeating initials. She’s just writing a row of letters: it’s so simple, but it’s like looking into an ornate embroidery, or an x-ray, or a ghost of an idea. You can actually see frequency, which says a lot of interesting things about repetition and continuity.


Thu Tran’s Food Party is a surrealist puppet cooking show that uses sound objects really expressively. Everything is alive!

OffTheIce: I don’t even know his real name, but he’s an off-ice figure skater, and he recreates the routines of famous figure skaters in competition, in particular Miki Ando skating to excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. He’s just standing in sneakers in a driveway, standing still in the poses and then jumping. The video overdubs the soundtrack of the actual competition, so you hear the Japanese commentators and the roar of the crowd when he does the jumps. It’s an amazing example of sound transforming the apparent environment, and it’s been very inspiring to me!

BW: Where can we listen to more of your music, learn more about you, and know about your future projects?

CC: I have a website, and I also have a SoundCloud. Or you can just say hi and I can tell you!

BW: Well, I wish you the best of luck, and thank you so much for your time. I’m very excited to perform your piece, and I’m looking forward to our performance!

CC: Thank you so much!