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, image, and movement. For over a decade her studies of the guqin, the Chinese 7-string zither traditionally played for private meditation in nature, has informed her thinking on listening in social spaces. Recent projects include a marble chase 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 Fulbright Program, Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, Stanford University Sudler Prize, ASCAP, and University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, commissions from MATA Festival, impuls Festival, and Emory Planetarium, and residencies at Djerassi, Hambidge, and Kimmel Harding Nelson. The work has been presented at festivals and exhibitions in 24 countries, at venues including Carnegie Hall and the Kitchen (New York), REDCAT and the Geffen MOCA (Los Angeles), the Menil Collection (Houston), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Guggenheim Bilbao, PODIUM Festival (Esslingen), CYCLE Festival (Iceland), Tel Aviv Marathon, and the Institute for Provocation (Beijing). She has been fortunate to work with ensembles such as SurPlus, Southland, Pamplemousse, Mocrep, Talea, Curious Chamber Players, Chamber Cartel, Die Ordnung Der Dinge, Asamisamasa, orkest de ereprijs, S.E.M., red fish blue fish, and Wild Rumpus.
Recordings are available on Perishable, the wulf., and Quakebasket. Writing appears in MusikTexte, Experimental Music Yearbook, Psychiana, and China Academy of Art SIMA Journal. 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. This can involve the exploration of social spaces (covert operations in a supermarket or blindfolded navigation of a demolished house), or the physical mechanics of everyday objects in motion (spinning tops on a timpani, or rustling heaps of everyday detritus worn as wind-chime-armor on L.A. streets). My work brings music and sound in conversation with space, text, light, and action. Whether translating Orpheus into silent tableaux vivant in rhythms of light and dark, or a Bruckner Adagio into slow-motion facial gymnastics, I mine listening habits for less-traveled paths, working with sound as a physical as well as a social experience.
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 – a helicopter, a stomach gurgle, or a harmonic figure from a traditional piece. I bring these into a wider conversation with contextual cues and tangential materials, listening from different angles, in different frames, and weaving a musical dialogue out of unexpected neighbors.
Ongoing intermedia projects are based on aesthetics of the guqin, Chinese zither of Taoist-Confucian Chinese origin traditionally practiced for private meditation in nature. In lore, the instrument is played without audience, on a mountaintop in the middle of the night – practicing is meant to still the spirit and return oneself to harmony with nature. Over a decade of practicing guqin, I have been remapping its unique aesthetic onto new environments, examining individuality of place and the possibility for nature in contemporary urban life.