Carolyn Chen has made music for supermarket, demolition district, and the dark. Her work reconfigures the everyday to retune habits of our ears through sound, text, light, and movement. Her studies of the guqin, a Chinese zither traditionally played for private meditation in nature, have informed her thinking on listening in social spaces. Recent projects include an audio essay on a scream and commissions for Klangforum Wien and the LA Phil New Music Group.
Described by The New York Times as “the evening’s most consistently alluring … a quiet but lush meditation,” Chen’s work has been supported by the American Academy in Berlin, the Fulbright Program, ASCAP Foundation’s Fred Ho Award, Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, Stanford University Sudler Prize, and commissions from Green Umbrella, MATA Festival, and impuls Festival. The work has been presented at festivals and exhibitions in 25 countries, at venues including Carnegie Hall, the Kitchen, Disney Hall (Los Angeles), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Institute for Provocation (Beijing). She has been fortunate to work with ensembles including SurPlus, Southland, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Aperture, andPlay, loadbang, koan, Dog Star Orchestra, The Reader’s Chorus, Pamplemousse, Chamber Cartel, orkest de ereprijs, S.E.M., red fish blue fish, Wild Rumpus, and The Syndicate for New Arts.
Writing and recordings are available in MusikTexte, Experimental Music Yearbook, The New Centennial Review, Leonardo Music Journal, Perishable, the wulf, and Quakebasket. Chen earned a Ph.D. in music from UC San Diego, and a M.A. in Modern Thought and Literature and B.A. in music from Stanford University, with an honors thesis on free improvisation and radical politics. She lives in Los Angeles.
I make music to look into the inner lives of things. For a decade, I have studied guqin, the Chinese zither traditionally played for private meditation in nature. In lore, the guqin is played without audience, on a mountaintop at midnight, to still the spirit and return to the harmony of nature. Its quiet silk strings often stop vibrating before a melodic line ends, leaving a listener to continue the music in their imagination. Through practicing this instrument, I have become particularly interested in remapping its unique aesthetics onto new environments, exploring how we hear place and intention in music, and how we locate or invent nature in a complicated contemporary world. This can take the form of music for traditional instruments in conversation with everyday objects (spinning tops on piano strings) and recorded sounds (an assemblage on falling interweaving video from falling cameras, interviews with physicists on gravity, and everyday stories of falling), or performances in social spaces (covert actions for a supermarket, and nature sprites built from sonorous heaps of recycled materials skiing down L.A. sidewalks).
If every sound asks for a different kind of listening, I am interested in the conflict and dialogue between these different listening worlds. Often I begin with found objects – an ornamental figure from a traditional piece, a half-remembered story, or a recording of a stomach gurgle. I bring these into a wider conversation with contextual cues and tangential materials, teasing out sonic implications by listening from different angles, through different frames. I work with sound as a physical phenomenon as well as a socially and historically embedded experience, weaving musical dialogue from unexpected neighbors.