Andrew Chen, composer

Can you tell us any more about the inspiration and vision behind the new works you composed for Cheltenham Music Festival?

So I’m incredibly excited to have written two brand new commissions for Cheltenham this year: The first of these, ilk, is for the Gould Piano Trio, and it in part stems from a long-held artistic obsession of mine – namely, the ways in which we find a sense of ‘human’-ness or ‘entity’ within sounds, or even the extent to which sound can ‘become human’ – or, ‘anthropomorphisis’. By this, I don’t mean just posing questions in my music about emotional states or the classic human condition or what have you alone, but also alongside much more direct, expressive things – like the melodic and dynamic contours of speech, or the muffled harmonies of background chatter en masse, or the adversarial phrasing of mundane group conversation. The Gould Trio’s particular combination of instruments – piano, violin, and violoncello – are so crystalline, so iconic, that I felt emboldened to lean into that kind of discursive feel, where, over the course of the piece, even where the voices occasionally come to an agreement, they still remain individual. ilk as a result is like an unstable scaffold of fleeting thoughts and tenuous interactions – where different materials try and try and try again to find points of similarity between one another, only to resolve to maintain their differences (in variously both civil and not-so-civil ways).

The other work is for Merton College Choir and their performance at Classical Mixtape – it’s titled Should one of us remember, after a poem by Christina Rossetti (of In the bleak midwinter fame). I really love her poetry; so much of it has this striking, modern quality to it, and the themes of this text, particularly surrounding the uncertainty of one’s meaning to one another, is something that’s pretty timeless and quite moving in and of itself. I love too that the way she writes is quite abstract (scholarly interpretations of the text point not only to romantic love, but also to friendship, Rossetti’s relationship with faith, and a whole bunch of other things). I tried in my music to reflect this abstraction with a free-floating, unsettled-but-familiar kind of musical language – and there’s a little bit of inspiration from Gregorian chant and Duruflé in there too, spurred on in no small part by the amazing, all-encompassing acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral where this work will be premiered – it’s that kind of aura and atmosphere that I’m trying to match.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

At the core of my music is this inborn, visceral sense of momentum and flow – and all manner of shifting, swerving, acceleration and deceleration realised within it. No matter what the musical focal point is at a given moment, or if the overall feel is ‘fast’ or ‘slow,’ there’s always this underlying sense of activity and constant ebb – at its best moments, I’d liken it to (I hope) the sensation of taking a turn at speed on a rollercoaster, or flying through valleys and hills on a bicycle or in a car – even though in one sense you know exactly where you’re going, you still end up being physically pulled to and fro in ways you never quite expect.

Often, many aspects of my music – melodies, harmonies, and what have you – appear as if they emerge from these momentums and flows in the first instance, which lends the resultant sound a cohesive-but-murky, organic-but-uncanny kind of presence. Similarly, I’ve been told sometimes that my music is quite ‘textural’ – which I suppose is not untrue, but I’d qualify it by saying that my ‘textures’ occur like fuzzy, distorted edges outlining defined, interwoven shapes – much like trying to view the world through a pinhole, or through eyes near-shut.

It all marries up quite well with my more ‘conceptual’ interests, too, in things like ‘anthropomorphosis’ (the idea of music itself becoming ‘human’ or entity-like) as mentioned before, or how we can find beautiful sonorities in arbitrary places (particularly through non-JI microtonal harmony and inharmonic spectra) – but these are a bit of a jargony rabbit-hole probably best left for another day.

How do you work?

I’m still figuring it out to be honest, but, thinking back to when I’ve been at my best, my creativity takes on two distinct ‘modes’ – the first of automatic, intuitive, almost improvisational ‘vision’, where the music leaps onto the page; and the second of more measured, analytical, and thought-out ‘revision’, where I step back and reassess what the music wants to do and where it wants to go, and take my cue from there. Sometimes, instead of just alternating, it feels like the two modes take place at almost the same time, and it feels like pure magic, like flying – and, knowing this, I spend a lot of the rest of my time trying to set myself in the right frame of mind to get into these kinds of states of flow. So, as one might expect: going for walks, kicking around a football, reading, listening, performing, teaching, gardening. All of these, no matter how unrelated to the task at hand they might seem, always feedback in an incredibly positive way to the act of composing.

Of which works are you most proud?

This is probably a bit of a cop-out, but honestly, at any given time, the work of which I am most proud will be the one I’ve most recently completed! I’m still amazed day in and day out by this thing called music, and what all my peers and everyone out in the wider world are doing with it – it’s a privilege just to be able to contribute in some way to what’s out there. And, inevitably, whenever I complete a new work it likewise represents some kind of new foray in my creative practice, and there’s always something to be proud of there in and of itself.

Of course, I’m incredibly honoured and chuffed too to have been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Cheltenham Music Festival – it’s been a dream of mine since moving from Australia to the UK all those years ago and I’m still pinching myself a little.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

This is a tough one – not because I am totally without influences in my musical output or career practice or anything like that – but more that there are probably too many things to list!

I had the simultaneous blessing and curse of growing up through the ‘Golden Age’ of the internet, with too much of all kinds of information and music suddenly readily available at one’s fingertips (but still with a veneer of Wild-West-ish ‘underground’ impropriety to it all – this was in the heyday of filesharing and PHP Bulletin Boards / Forums, around the early beginnings of iTunes, and before you could find above-board commercially licensed music on YouTube – I probably clicked on the ‘Yes, I’m over the age of 13, etc.’ button to sign up for a lot of it at a time when that definitely wasn’t accurate). It’s strange looking back on the kinds of things I actively listened to at the time – a weird mix of acid/nu jazz, trip hop, video game soundtracks and remixes of said soundtracks, Blue Note records, a lot of 70s and 80s pop, drum’n’bass, and so on – because I did so voraciously and obsessively, and I still do love and cherish much of it, yet very little of it feels consciously borne out in the music I write today. It was such a core part of my childhood though that it must be in there somewhere, to some extent.

By contrast, my introduction to ‘new music’ (which I suppose is more what I do nowadays) came a lot later, in my teens, and the way I listened to things had become much more self-conscious alongside. I was still seeking out all kinds of works for the sheer joy, wonderment, and intrigue of it all in the first instance, but now there was this kind of nagging, competing aspect of my own creativity and ‘place’ as a ‘composer’ – sometimes positive, along the lines of ‘wow this shows what’s possible and is inspirational’; and sometimes less so, like ‘this is great and you should write like this, but not exactly like this because you need to be writing original music lest you be found out’ – particularly now being more aware of it, it’s something I do regret. Although nowadays I like to think that I’ve grown past this mindset, it means much of what I’ve loved in the intervening time – Takemitsu, Saariaho, Harvey, Lindberg, Furrer and so on – is music that, for better or for worse, I consciously barred myself from mirroring in those pivotal stages of my compositional development, and my creative voice has probably irreparably veered in a completely different direction as a result. Even now, where I think my listening habits are a lot more balanced and lie somewhere in the middle, the question of what is influencing my practice in a meaningful and lasting way is less clear than ever.

In that sense, I think ultimately the greatest and most important influences I’ve had, that have shaped all aspects of who I am and what I do to this very day, have been people – mentors, colleagues, friends, and family. Particularly, in the musical sphere, I have to credit my first ‘proper’ composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, Alison Kay, who has been a lasting influence on the way I think about art and creativity, and the philosophy of embracing music in as broad a way as possible – I don’t think I would be where I am today without her; the same is very much true, too, of my later College teachers, Simon Holt and Jonathan Cole. And then there are those who I’ve had briefer but still incredibly impactful and lasting learning encounters with, like Chris Dench, Liza Lim, Julian Anderson, and others – and, no doubt, these people all being composers, I absolutely adore their music too, although I’d find it awkward to ever say it to them directly!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I’ve alluded to it a bit but the greatest challenges I’ve faced have probably been in maintaining a healthy relationship with ‘music’ and the practice of composing overall. I’ve had bouts with mental health in the past that inevitably bled over into what I did creatively, and times where it felt futile or nigh impossible to make my work work; it’s something I’m still in many ways figuring out (and no doubt this rings true too for many others out there), but by the same token I’m always inspired and uplifted by how welcoming, supportive and positive everyone in the classical music sphere is – never have I felt like my career challenges have been imposed on me by others.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Working on a commission is a fantastic experience – of course as composers we all have our dream projects and love the idea-in-theory of having total creative freedom – but there’s something about a specific, commissioned brief that focuses you and spurs you on in the first instance. Having finite boundaries forces you to be creative in the way you’re creative, which we’re often not wont to do, being creatures of habit and all – and in any case, the very situation of being commissioned in the first instance is a great vote of confidence, too.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles, or orchestras?

Music for me is all about that sense of connection with others it can create, or even a kind of quasi-social element if you will. So even though it’d make sense, on paper, to think that challenges and pleasures arise depending on how your vision matches up with those of your musician colleagues, in practice, there’s a real joy to be found in working in a collaborative, responsive manner – taking on board (where possible) the interests and creative philosophy of the players and incorporating it into a resultant work. I’d go as far as to say that if you know who you’re writing for, and especially if you know know who you’re writing for, any element of challenge disappears entirely, and the best opportunities to be creative arise.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If you’re fulfilled or energised in what you are doing, musically, then you are successful. I think it’s tempting to think of music-making as we do about much more metricated or quantifiable activities, like say competitive sports (where you win based on your score), academic pursuits (getting good marks on an exam out of a maximum possible total), or commerce (making x number of sales per year) – but that would be a bit of a mistake – and this probably goes for most all artistic pursuits. In the grand scheme of things, there aren’t these rigid benchmarks telling you that you’ve ‘made it’ or even that you’re ‘on the right track’ – so it’s important in my view that any definition of musical success, especially given just how individual each of our own approaches to music-making are, isn’t dependent on comparisons to others, and is assured in oneself in the first instance. (Easier said than done of course.)

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Back yourself – what you do, in creating brand new music that can excite, move, affect, and stay with people beyond the time in which it is heard, is nothing short of magical, and you should never doubt that what you’re writing in the moment is worth hearing.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

In the very first instance, it’s about giving people the chance to meaningfully engage with and be exposed to classical music. There’s a prevailing and unfortunate stereotype of classical music existing as this isolated silo of elite interests – a kind of LARP for appearing ‘cultured’ or ‘intellectual’. (That’s not to downplay the important cultural and intellectual aspects of classical music, of course – it just, in my anecdotal experience, seems to be a common impression – where the phrase ‘classical music’ evokes these nigh-outmoded historical associations more so than anything to do with the music itself.)

And so, broader educational initiatives, alternative concert models, and practical opportunities for people to get involved (particularly for young people where perhaps these negative stereotypes haven’t yet stuck) are so, so crucial to classical music’s future – beyond their inherent good, there’s a strategic purpose here too to expanding audiences. And there’s a lot of really good work already being done on these fronts – especially with making the classical space a more diverse and representative one, one that can truly welcome in new stakeholders who can in turn make their own new, valued contributions to the genre. Without discounting the fact that classical music, as we understand it, spans centuries and centuries, it’s important we modernise the practice of ‘doing’ classical music to the standards of the 21st century.

It’s about being creative with messaging and distribution too, and actively seeking to broaden the ways in which we engage people – things like this series on this website, for example, or initiatives that cleverly engage with totally new audiences, like ScoreFollower – an online resource and collection of social media channels that aims to make new music accessible and promote the work of living composers – and, having seen some of the demographic data, captures a wholly unique, dedicated following, unlike anything I’ve comparably seen anywhere else.

Essentially – we see an incredible, diversified uptake of engagement with other semi-analogous art forms: modern art, film, theatre, and the like – and there’s no reason why it should be any different for music.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

Still doing what I’m doing, hopefully – composing, performing, teaching, collaborating.

What is your most treasured possession?

Being perennially homesick for Australia (where I was born and grew up), I’ve recently started propagating seedlings for a whole selection of native plants, like wildflowers, eucalyptus, wattles, waratahs, and so on – so my most treasured possession at this current time would be that seedling tray, although you’ll have to check back in with me in a few months’ time to see if any of them actually survive.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Too hard to narrow down, but I definitely love hiking, gardening, coffee-making, and playing football (not all at the same time, though).

What is your present state of mind?

Bouncing off the walls but in a good way, I think!

Andrew Chen’s new piece for the Gould Piano Trio, ilk, is being premiered at Cheltenham Music Festival on Saturday 9th July at Pittville Pump Room. His new commission for the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, Should one of us remember, will be premiered on Monday 11th July in Gloucester Cathedral as part of the Festival’s Classical Mixtape concert. More information

Andrew Chen is a Melbourne-born, London-based composer, whose recent works have centered on anthropomorphosis and percepts of ‘the human’ – particularly, the material sources, processes, and catalysts by which one embeds or perceives the embedding of agents or entities within a music.

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