Carolyn Chen is a composer living in the USA. Since 2004 she has composed and performed her ‘music for people’ works on locations outside the concert hall. In February 2018 she was in Belgium for a presentation at the Sound & Participation symposium, organized by Q-O2, Ictus ensemble and the School of Arts Ghent. This is the interview that we had in Ghent.
HR: In your work Human Windchimes performers wear clothes of recycled materials. These clothes are instruments, accentuating the movement of the performers. What place do you need to perform this work?
CC: I hadn’t thought what place I would need. The performance opportunity came up and I adapted to whatever space I had. There were performances in a school building and also a loft. In the end I was very glad for the experience of doing Human Windchimes on a sidewalk. This version was so much better because of the liveness of the environment. There was so much to respond to. Even the fact that the performers were being ignored for the most part was valuable to me, because somehow they were more authentic as a part of nature: they were just a part of the world. There was so much more to look at – suddenly the sidewalk was so much more alive to me than it would have been. I was really grateful for that experience. I think most other performances happened at a museum, library or some kind of art space but I like the street because it’s an unplanned meeting. People can just arrive without even knowing beforehand that something is going to happen.
HR: Is it the liveness of the world that attracts you in making music for places outside the concert hall?
CC: Yes, somehow it reminds me of the miraculousness of the world at large, how full of opportunity it is. This is hard to notice on a constant basis because you would never get anywhere, never get anything done. It is like a surprise party (laughs): you see a space with the idea that something might happen, you can surprise people with something they weren’t looking for; and the event will be spacious enough so that they can also move through it and get on with their lives.
HR: How different is composing, preparing and rehearsing a piece outside the concert hall, compared to one for a concert hall performance?
CC: For example, if a group says that they are interested in performing Human Windchimes, I feel like there is a lot of trust that I can bestow on them without having met them. A text score for an unconventional space is a different kind of communication, usually there is a lot more openness. Maybe that is not necessarily true, you could have a text score that is very specific. It is just not asking for a traditional musical interpretation of time and stuff. A text score is designed to spark the imagination, this is what you hope as a composer. Maybe you can leave a little bit more unsaid with greater optimism that somebody will take it as a freedom rather than an abnegation of responsibility. A text score asks more of the person interpreting it, it requires more.
HR: Is this an openness or a specific way of listening to the world?
CC: Maybe it is a willingness to seize agency and creative opportunity as you see it. This kind of imagination is not asked for in classical music and it is not necessarily a traditional part of the training. It was not part of my training, and I feel like I had a very classical music education. If you ask this willingness and imagination from people that are not used to this, it can make them feel uncomfortable; but if people like doing this, then it can be more fulfilling then having everything written out. If you play Beethoven your whole life for years and years, of course you find freedom in it and ways to interpret it. Over the amount of time that you take with this music, you are looking through different layers and making the piece for yourself. For most contemporary instrumental music that kind of time and attention is not part of the infrastructure. You don’t have that many performances, sometimes not even a second performance. There is a lot of attention and funding for premières and commissions and after that it is over. People learn scores quickly and are able to put them together in a convincing way on very little rehearsing time. I have respect for this kind of training but it is a different kind of training.
HR: Imagine an ensemble would be interested in performing your Human Windchimes or Supermarket Music. Which performance qualities would you expected from them?
CC: A lot of these pieces have been performed by people who were not musically trained. I think the main requirement is a willingness to invest your mind, the fullness of your personality and your attention. In performances of Human Windchimes two out of five performers were not from music. One of them was the most confrontational one. She was the most active and brought so much personality to the part. She was really in full character. It is mainly willingness, I think anyone can do these things, there is a category of things that don’t need traditional music training.
HR: Is it possible to share such a living and ephemeral performance outside the concert hall with people that were not present at the performance, without making an artificial, consumable reproduction?
CC: The room, the space, the mindset of the people that you can feel in a room, the different listening and attention modes of the audience, this whole situation is so vital to the contingency of what is going on. You lose the sense of contingency if the performance is on a recording because you can’t play it again. It is a problem, improvisers talk about this problem too. Such a live performance is hard to share but you have to do something.
HR: Would it help to revalue the score and consider it as a call to (musical) action?
CC: I have come to understand the value of both documentation and scoring more since I started doing these live performances outside the concert hall. There is a part of me that believes that the live moment of the performance is the most important thing, that is what you do it for. I don’t think that having good documentation is a prime motivator, but I have come to realize how valuable documentation is to these things ever happening again or to anybody understanding that something has happened. Such a performance does disappear so easily. If I don’t have good documentation, it is like it never happened, which is OK for me personally, but I guess, in terms of surviving and trying to get support to do the next thing, it is really helpful to have the best documentation possible. I didn’t always pay attention to this, I didn’t want to believe that the quality of the footage is that important. But actually, it matters so much to the immediate credibility that people give to something, because we are so used to judging things visually. In the beginning I had a lot of pieces that were in the dark with a lot of silence, and those were my first videos on YouTube. My mom saw them all, she was being so supportive and she said, I’ve watched all of your videos from beginning to end. But how come in your music you can’t hear anything and you can’t see anything? (laughs) Why is it just all dark and silent for the whole time? (laughs) This is not totally true: there are flashes of light and moments where something happens make the waiting matter. But it is hard to communicate the quality of the silence on a flat screen when there is nobody else around.
HR: If I look at your texts, videos and scores, I find a sense of animism in your works, the idea that everything lives. You talk a lot about classic music ideas like polyphony and you place these ideas in very different contexts. Do you recognize yourself in this idea that everything is living and that you can bring everything to life.
CC Yes, it is true, I do think about it in that way. I don’t think I ever crystallized it so clearly. It is looking for the secret life in things and looking for a way to illuminate what is there already, what its own nature is, that I can’t necessarily see from the outside or at first glance. Polyphony or counterpoint is something that I think about a lot. It is the training and it is impossible to step away from it. You can think about things in time, how they align together and often it ends up being spatial relationships. I have a piece for corpse position permutation: there is a person watching a body, there are flashes of light and they change position. The diagrams for this piece are like species counterpoint studies: there is a first (voice), you have a second, they move this way, and you think about who is watching whom, how much tension is there in that dynamic, how do you release the tension. It is really a traditional phrase structure, just in a different language, it is translated in a different medium.
HR: In this way you can compose with almost any material: everything is taking place and developing in time.
CC: Yes, you are trying to feel the harmony and the nature of the relationship between things.
HR: You also play the guqin in outdoor places, for example in a duo with Amble Skuse. Private music – music for the performer – exists in experimental music, for example in Tom Johnson’s music. But you also refer to the Chinese tradition of outdoor performances.
CC: Playing the guqin, getting into the aesthetics of it and the idea of merging with nature, have been very valuable for me. The idea of a private music isn’t that incompatible with my personality, I am an introverted person anyway. But to know there is a historical tradition of this legitimizes it. It is not entirely private, if I am playing on a sidewalk, it is opening the window. We want to do it in a non-confrontational way, the music is not that loud. People stopped sometimes, took a pause to listen for a few minutes and then kept walking. Or they just kept sitting next to us, because it is possible to co-exist without interfering with each other. I also like the idea that you can listen without full intention. This can be a valid way of listening, you can listen with distracted attention and there might still be a value in that, without the analytical ear, where you are kind of mentally scoring everything as it happens, so that you can organise its proportions and time from beginning to end. There is a lot of music from these traditions that is valuable to me: I could listen…. catch a piece of it … and have it matter.