Screams, Music, Speech: An Interview with Composer Carolyn Chen

Supermarket Music at CYCLE Festival in Iceland October 28, 2016.
Supermarket Music at CYCLE Festival in Iceland October 28, 2016. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Carolyn Chen is a composer living and working in Los Angeles. She composes pieces that stretch our definitions of instrumentation and setting, incorporating human bodies, faces, shards of glass, spinning coins, abandoned buildings, supermarkets, as well as human voices and comparatively traditional instruments.

On July 20, 2017 Carolyn Chen and composer, filmmaker and video artist Kyle Johnson performed together in a show that explored how speech relates to new music, which was hosted by the wulf, an LA New Music nonprofit concert series. They interwove their performances. Chen presented “This is a Scream,” an audio essay, that is, an essay that she delivered and accompanied with recorded clips from Kanye West’s ”Monster” (of someone screaming), a phone conversation with her parents, and an ensemble’s interpretation of her own attempts to scream. Johnson showed “I’m not really much of a talker,” a series of his video pieces and music video, interspersed with biographical musings, scripted rantings, etc.…

In “This is a Scream,” Chen gradually disassembles the act of screaming and then puts it back together with the help of a collection of instructions from sources including her parents’ advice and the best results from a Google search. The piece provokes a range of questions about Chen’s work and interests, and she sat down with Soap Ear editor and fellow UCSD Triton, Lyle Daniel to answer a few one sunny morning at the Arlington Garden in Pasadena.

Lyle Daniel: First of all, do you mind if we start from more or less the beginning of things? I was curious at what age you started to have musical thoughts and to engage with music on a serious level or a not serious level?

Carolyn Chen: Oh, “musical thoughts” is such an interesting way of phrasing it. I’ve never heard that, but it’s very meaningful and I really don’t know what age. My mom put me in piano lessons when I was around three, so I studied classical music from then on. I played clarinet in school band and then I took up the Chinese zither in graduate school, but that’s my formal training. I guess musical thoughts implies some amount of volition or will or agency and I think it’s hard to identify when you’re studying classical music in a traditional means. I remember improvising in middle school jazz band and being terrified. It was just the scariest thing to have to have your own thought and to put it out there and most of all to be unhappy with how it came out.

But then when I started undergrad at Stanford, I had some friends in the improvisation ensemble that [Stanford Professor of Composition] Mark Applebaum leads. I sort of went along to one of the classes when it was starting the next year and the first thing he did was say okay why don’t we just play for a while without any instructions. So people had to start playing and I remember this thrill of terror because he didn’t tell us what to do and it was wide open. There was no discussion of genre or vocabulary or how to put things together. Then I realized people were just doing whatever and I could do that too. Then gradually through that class I realized that I had preferences between the things that I was kicking around, which were mostly noisy, half out-of-control things because I hadn’t practiced clarinet in a long time so my embouchure was all out of joint. I was making a lot of out-of-control sounds which kind of fit in with the genre of free improvisation, because people are sort of friendly to noise and maybe less friendly to traditional musical idioms.

So playing with that group was how I found agency and how I started to think about possibly writing stuff down and asking other people to do things because the whole enterprise seemed very intimidating before then.

LD: Cool. So I learned from your website that you do play the guqin and that you’ve taken it on as kind of a personal project also. We studied the guqin a little bit in this world music class I took with [composer and UCSD PhD candidate in Music-Integrative Studies] Yvette Jackson.

CC: Oh my gosh she TA’d for me.

LD: Really?

CC: Yeah, in music 13.

LD: So apparently she took it up.

CC: Wait I’m trying to think, I played it for her class I think.

LD: Were you the one, yeah. It was a while ago so––

CC: I know, I mean we didn’t know each other so it’s understandable. That’s so funny!

LD: That is really funny.

CC: Oh wow.

LD: Last year yeah.

CC: Yeah last spring. That is really awesome. She is a great composer too.

LD:  I really wanted to see one of her pieces at this festival in San Diego, but it wasn’t when it was supposed to be and so I missed it. But, anyway, on this theme of writing down music, adapting the form, I guess you were a graduate student when you took up the zither. I was interested in the transition from the notation that’s kind of different, right, to the western notation. How does it feel transitioning between the western tradition and the guqin tradition?

CC: Oh that’s a good question. Well I first started learning it through oral tradition and not through notation.

LD: That’s how I learned the banjo too.

CC: Oh okay, great. Yeah my teacher was Alex Khalil who was also a grad student at UCSD when I started. He’s doing research at the Neurosciences Institute now. But he was really kind and he started a guqin club where he taught people for free. He built us these wooden plank instruments for practice because we didn’t have real instruments at first. He would just play things and then we would copy them and that’s how we started. He did teach us the notation along with that, but it was a little bit too dense and abstruse to sight-read and even now I can’t really sight-read. But having played more of it, it helps as a memory aid.

Remembered Futures. Video first shown August 10, 2015
Remembered Futures. Video first shown August 10, 2015.

Most songs that I’ve learned since then are notated in both Western and traditional instrumentation, so you have both the pitch and the rhythm above. But they are both incomplete because guqin notation –– which is one of the earliest notation systems –– specifies in great detail what you’re doing with your hands, which finger and what direction they’re plucking and exactly where your left hand is depressing the string and what kind of vibrato. All these details that are missing from the Western notation. Traditional notation doesn’t say anything about time which Western notation imposes, so actually the notation is much freer in terms of time than what Western notation implies. Through oral tradition there are ways of feeling the time that are transmitted so you often see that in some books, they have the same song in a few different versions with different rhythms and timings.

So what was it like transitioning? You know, I think it’s a nice question because when I started guqin, I remembered that as a child learning piano I also learned by ear. At the beginning, you don’t know how to read music anyway. The ear is just a more immediate and direct way of receiving information before you learn the written rules about everything. Even throughout my musical education I remember piano teachers moving my hands around. Even after I learned to read music they would still play it to me and there are interpretive details and ideas about what musicality means and what it means to phrase something musically that are not contained on the page, and that were impressed upon me through the ear, or through them pushing my arms around and my shoulders and stuff like that.

I really do think that the Western classical tradition is also an oral tradition. It’s just that we don’t talk about that aspect as much because there is notation. It’s so convenient to be able to look at a score and to say things about the score because it will hold still. But there’s so much learning that happens through learning from a person.

I would say it’s very hard or maybe impossible to participate in that tradition without some sort of access to a real, live performer or a recorded performer. You would have to hear someone. I think if you would do it through just reading books in some kind of abstract world where you couldn’t hear recordings either and couldn’t see versions on YouTube, the music that would come out would be very different. It could be really interesting but it would sound very different from what most people would identify as classical music. So I think learning guqin put me in a mindset to see all the ways in which Western classical music exists beyond notation and the complexity of notation, and that’s how I kind of got into that piece about the supermarket and all of these pieces that don’t necessarily involve traditional instruments. I was doing them already but I think it gave me perspective to think about them and to see how even though we might be doing things without instruments, it’s still all in relation to the history of Western classical music and what it’s about because that’s the history that I’ve been brought up in. Piano is the instrument that I’ve played the longest, still.

LD: So you composed the supermarket piece in La Jolla? While you were doing your PhD at UCSD?

CC: Yeah, in 2010. One of the pieces I had done as an undergrad at Stanford was the one for pushing carts down the aisle and singing the contents. But the idea of kind of mounting an entire concert of these things came because [UCSD Associate Professor of Music] Anthony Burr had a class on transcription and arrangement and covers and just different ways of rearranging music, and so I made the transcription for guqin tuning as one of the class projects, because that was what I was learning at the time. That was what was relevant so I thought I‘ll  transcribe this but what would it mean to transcribe this? And I was thinking about the La Jolla Ralph’s a lot which––

LD: Yeah I’ve been there.

CC: It just contains universes.

LD: With their big Kosher section.

CC: They have a lot of sections.

LD: Yeah that’s very true. Switching gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about your performance with Kyle Johnson and how that show originated and the relationship you have with the wulf.

CC: Lets do the wulf first because I met them first. I had applied to CalArts and didn’t end up going there, but I visited and met all these people in this circle and then I saw [composer and founder of the wulf] Mike Winter at Ostrava. But that community around the wulf were the first people that I knew in LA. Everybody was so friendly and interesting that I think they made LA seem like a hospitable place.  So even though I was going to school in San Diego and living there forever, I would always think of LA as this sunny happy place where all these nice people from CalArts were making all these really interesting things.

I did do a couple of concerts there when I was in grad school. The first was a bunch of pieces without instruments was called “Boundary Music for Bodies” and it was a collaboration with [composers] Clint McCallum and Ian Power. Over a year we made all these pieces for each other and a lot of those pieces were really important to me. It solidified some ways of thinking that have been really important to me since then. We did that concert at the wulf, which was the first thing that I put on there.

The human wind chimes piece that we did at the wulf, we later did on the LA Road Concerts and at the Encinitas library and then at UCSD. Mocrep also did it at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in February, and then there was another group that [percussionist] Brandon Bell led that did it at the Menil Collection in Houston. Also, the piece for faces, Adagio, was probably [in air quotes]­­ my “greatest hit” in terms of subsequent performances.

I never thought this would be possible, because at the time all these things seemed so peculiar. I thought they would never happen again, who wants to pretend to be a dead body in 36 different positions in a room with flashing lights. They just seemed way too specific to ask anyone else ever to do again, but somehow there have been some ensembles that have started in the last few years that are interested in music without instruments. Maybe if you put anything out there for a while, it finds friends. Sorry, this is a really long aside. I was talking about the wulf, because it was sort of my gateway. It’s probably half the reason I moved to LA.

I guess I was just trying to say that first concert was important to my artistic development and knowing that there were friends here who might be interested in participating or coming to see it was really important to me in continuing to do stuff like that and in being slightly less anxious about the world disappearing when I graduated.

So I met Kyle in grad school and he was one of the most interesting composers at UCSD. From the beginning, he was doing things with video and with speaking in this sometimes uncanny or surreal way. He’s actually one of my main inspirations for doing pieces with talking. He always had this really distinctive voice.

He finished this piece –– possibly two years ago now –– and he did a couple versions in different places and he was trying to come up with a tour and so he asked if there was anywhere to do this in LA. I immediately thought of the wulf and I really wanted to open for him, because I loved his work in general, so I wanted to sort of introduce him.

But then I took forever to try to make a piece to open for him, and finally the first version of my half of [the concert] happened in January at the Coincidence Festival, because I had to come up with a solo set. So I thought ugh, its time because I had been thinking about it for years. And then we were thinking about how to arrange our pieces to put it on one show together and Kyle said we should make a blended family. So we met up and tried to integrate things.

LD:  Then you came up with this form of the audio essay, or maybe you didn’t come up with it but you named it.

CC: I was trying to figure out what to call it. I probably listen more to podcasts than I do New Music. I just like hearing the sound of people talking. It’s ideal if they’re talking about something interesting, but even if they’re not, I think voices are just fun to listen to. If the voices aren’t stressed out, which, on podcasts, they usually aren’t super dramatic or emotional, they’re sort of comforting or relaxing. It’s sort of like having someone else in the room talking even though you’re not listening to it full on.

I like the format of just listening to people talking and the idea of being informed about something. And I think in the context of New Music I’m particularly interested in it because new music is such a specialized genre and sometimes less hospitable to new audiences, so the idea that you can just talk to people was sort of appealing.

LD: Had you heard anything like what you were doing before? I mean, it’s a difficult question.

CC: I love reading essays. Is it kind of like a TED Talk? It’s just slightly less informative because it’s sort of personal. It wanders way more than a formal talk should. Another model is­ one I heard from Anthony Burr’s class on music in nature . He played this recording of North American frogs that was just like: “This is this frog: Mraa. This is this frog at night: raaa.” It was just the best thing I had heard and an excellent format.

The other thing is that I can’t hear musical form. I’m not naturally oriented to trying to parse it out. That’s not what I tend to do for fun naturally and if I’m not trying to pay attention for the sake being a good colleague, then I very easily lose track of the form. So the idea of having something that tells exactly what you’re going to listen to next before you can forget it, or even if you do forget it, that’s kind of what my pieces are anyway, except without the explanation. They just they sort of wander. I’ve never really succeeded in building up convincing momentum or trying to tell us that we’re getting somewhere and then getting there in a determined way. It always sort of loses steam or gets distracted or wanders off. I think it does change, but where it goes is not the crucial thing and I think that’s just a personality thing.

I want to try to push myself to grow as a human being, but there are some things that are innate, and my brain is not naturally oriented toward getting somewhere. It’s just better at hanging out. I frequently forget the form of my pieces or I can’t tell you what order things are in, because there are too many parts, but I also don’t mind, because that’s not the most important thing to me as a listener. So having an essay that just spells it out, this is what we are going to listen to next, seems helpful for me as a listener. I’m trying to think of people who do this. I’m sure people do this.

LD: You know, I’m embarrassed. I don’t have any exact parallels, but the thing that comes to mind is poetry that includes pictures in it, like Claudia Rankine’s books, for example.

CC: Oh I love Claudia Rankine!

LD: Yeah, and just what you were saying about these parts that fit together in an unclear manner. And also the losing steam: she’s talking and then there’s a picture suddenly and it somehow explicates what she been working on, but then it moves on a little. What she doesn’t do is say explicitly “this is a scream, blank,” but still there’s this mixture of mediums.

CC: Yeah I think that’s helpful because somehow the change of mediums or change of format refreshes you or it gives you a kind of landmark where this is the next chain of things to follow and it gives you something kind of concrete to hold on to. On the page your eye doesn’t get lost because it’s finite before there is a picture.

For me, this piece started as an attempt to write a program note for a piece about screaming from 2012. My advisor Katharina Rosenberger heard it and I was telling her I wanted the first part to be the sound in the scream with people exploring the sounds of the slowed-down scream, and the second part would be the feeling in the scream so the feeling was the crying and so they’re trying to find the sounds in the crying, and then the third part was the singing in the scream and that was where it became music. They’re playing together as chamber music. I explained this and she said, that was more interesting than what came across, that it wasn’t really clear and I should just say that. And I thought that was a pretty good idea.

LD: It’s funny because I was encouraged to have my publication be just a program note for other people.

CC: Oh for concerts that have happened?

LD: No, ones that are going to happen, but I said, no, it’s going to be its own thing.

CC: Well it kind of just becomes its own thing when you pour attention into it. I think If you give it the space it becomes its own thing.

LD: I had one more question if that’s okay. I was talking with a friend about what I was going to ask you and we were discussing in your work and in “This is a Scream,” how there’s an intimacy in your attempts to reconstruct a scream in your own voice with the limitations of your particular body. This diligent honesty opposes a tendency in early performance art of testing the limits of the general body. I was thinking of Marina Abramović’s piece where she and Ulay are screaming into each other’s mouths and other pieces by Abramović. I was wondering if you’d care to comment on the relevance of your more personal approach to things.

CC: Okay it’s about the limitations of my body as opposed to this universalized body. I wonder if it’s partially that way because they’re just better performers?

LD: Haha, no!

CC: Because that’s her main gig, right, to do durational stuff that’s hard or painful that other people wouldn’t want to do. That’s her matière, whereas I come from composition, where my body is usually off-line and hidden from performance –– so it’s more about the limits of my body.

Especially when I first started, I thought of composing as a way of getting beyond the limitations of my own body. For a long time I wanted to be a writer, but in college I was writing these stories and my teacher pointed out, “These people don’t have bodies.” There was no physical description. She said “I don’t know what they look like or what their ethnicity is,” and I realized I wasn’t comfortable with that because I wasn’t comfortable enough with my own body and my own specific cultural background to deal with that explicitly. I didn’t want the stories that I wrote to be Asian American. I mean, the truth is that other people categorize you anyway, no matter what you call it or whether you write in bodies or not, but at the time, writing instrumental music was an easier way of getting outside of myself.

Movement of Glass. November 17, 2012
Movement of Glass. November 17, 2012.

But over the last decade or so I’ve become more interested in the specificity of who I am and what I come from. It’s not that that has to be thematized in every piece, but I shouldn’t have to hide it. I am actually curious about these things and how much they do matter. Making pieces is a way of trying to test that out, to see what actually matters and where things are coming from, because writing is a way of working things out. You don’t always know where you’re going when you start, or I almost always don’t. And you don’t know what you’re going to find. It’s a form of research, of feeling out the world.

LD: Right, you’re trying to find your limitations.

CC: Yeah, and what they can be good for. Also, I find my parents endlessly entertaining and effortlessly avant-garde. They’re just more out-there in how they live than anything that could be done in art. They’re so weird. I love my parents. I also interviewed them for another piece for Emory planetarium a couple years ago, and then I was talking with George Lewis about the scream and he suggested I think about my family background to figure out why it’s so hard for me to scream.

My mom heard my first jury piece from UCSD, and she said “that doesn’t sound very happy.” And she was 100% correct. I realized that most music in my aesthetic environment didn’t sound very happy. And I thought that shouldn’t have to be off-limits. I am interested in how she hears. Not that I want to make everything for my mom, but she has an interesting ear. I want to talk to people who aren’t necessarily new music practitioners or learned audiences.

LD: You have to reach out.

CC: Or I’m interested in what happens if you do. Every project makes its own audience.

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