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 a commission for Klangforum Wien.
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, MATA Festival, impuls Festival, Stanford University Sudler Prize for Excellence in the Creative Arts, University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, Emory Planetarium, Wellesley Composers Conference, co-incidence Festival, Machine Project at the Hammer Museum, American Composers Forum, ASCAP, and residencies at Djerassi, Hambidge, and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. It has been presented at festivals and exhibitions in 22 countries, at venues including at Carnegie Hall and The Kitchen (New York), REDCAT (Los Angeles), The Menil Collection (Houston), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, PODIUM Festival (Esslingen), CYCLE Festival (Iceland), Tel Aviv Marathon, Film Festival Rotterdam, Conduit Arts (Melbourne), Institute for Provocation (Beijing) and the Great Wall (Gubeikou). She has been fortunate to work with ensembles such as SurPlus, Southland, Pamplemousse, Mocrep, Talea, Curious Chamber Players, Chamber Cartel, Die Ordnung Der Dinge, Dal Niente, Ensemble This Ensemble That, Asamisamasa, NorthArc, Now Hear, orkest de ereprijs, Ostravska Banda, S.E.M., Prague Modern, Gliss, thingNY, Red Light, red fish blue fish, New York Miniaturist Ensemble, Silent Book, and Zwo.
Recordings are available on Perishable, the wulf., and Quakebasket. Scores and articles appear in MusikTexte, Experimental Music Yearbook, Psychiana, China Academy of Art SIMA Journal, Closet Music Works, edited by Janet Oates, and A Small Book of Rounds, edited by Larry Polansky. 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.