Earthquakes, colliding galaxies and slugs sliding down a wet window: Audrey Chen interviewed

AUDREY CHEN is a second-generation Chinese/Taiwanese-American musician who was born into a family of materials scientists, doctors and engineers. Parting ways with the family convention, she turned to the cello at age eight and voice at eleven. After years of classical and conservatory training in both instruments, with a resulting specialisation in early and new music, she parted ways again in 2003 to begin new negotiations with sound in order to discover a more individually honest aesthetic. Since then, using the cello, voice and occasional analogue electronics, Chen’s work delves deeply into her own version of narrative and non-linear storytelling.

A large component of her music is improvised, is completely un-processed, and her approach to this is extremely personal and visceral. Her playing explores the combination and layering of an analogue synthesiser, preparations, and traditional and extended techniques in both the voice and cello. She works to join these elements into a singular ecstatic personal language. Over the past decade plus, her predominant focus has been her solo work with the cello, voice and electronics, but she has more recently begun to shift back towards the exploration of the voice as a primary instrument.

Aside from her solo concerts, Chen performs currently in a duo with Phil Minton; as Hiss and Viscera, with modular synth player Richard Scott; as Beam Splitter with trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø; as Mopcut with Lukas König and Julien Desprez; as a trio in Sen Ryo No with modular synth players Tara Transitory and Nguyen Baly; in a duo with electronic music artist Kaffe Matthews; and as the duo Voice/Process for voice/live digital process with Mexican sound artist Hugo Esquinca.

How did growing up in a family that was from a scientific background of engineers and doctors lead you to embrace art and music?

This story is intertwined with being a child of immigrants, because it’s another level of pressure in terms of career choice and philosophical ideas about how one should make a living and live one’s life when you have parents that are from a completely different cultural background than your own. My mother was born in mainland China. As a child, she and her family were exiled when Mao Zedong took over and they escaped to Taiwan. My father was born in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. They met while at college in Taiwan and subsequently moved to the US in the late sixties to get their master’s and PhD degrees at the University of Minnesota. Shortly afterwards, my sister was born, then my brother and me. How did their story influence my future? – I guess it’s because they gave birth to an American kid and I was the youngest of three. Perhaps I was given more latitude than my two older siblings, although I felt a lot of pressure to in some way follow in the footsteps of my brother and my sister, both being very scientifically and mathematically inclined. Of course, my parents wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer – something useful. I had a very different way of thinking, which was more Western, more individualistic. I was given the opportunity, or rather I took the opportunity – by being born in and growing up in the States – to choose my own path.

In retrospect, I think the whole music thing came about because I chose something that could be my own and created a space that I could take refuge in. A child of immigrants and a member of a minority in the US, I grew up in a very small town, which was basically all white. And the way that I dealt with this sort of exclusion in school was to find something that was all my own. Through that I discovered music, especially through listening to the radio and then being able to start playing a string instrument at school. I chose the cello at the age of eight. I took part in youth orchestras and found singing when I was 11 while attending weekend rehearsals at NEC, Boston. Eventually, I went on to study voice in college in both New York and Baltimore. I found my place in classical music, which created a space where I could concentrate, hide away, and also develop skills and a rigorous technical foundation for both my instruments.

And then you had another transgressive moment in 2003, when you embraced a more experimental type of music production.

In 2000, when I was 23, I gave birth to my son and consequently, my life turned upside down. I hadn’t even graduated from conservatory at that point, was living in Baltimore, and I happened to meet some people who introduced me to a different process of playing and listening to music, a way to rethink what was beautiful and what was ugly, how to think beyond the binary and try to understand social conditioning in music and aesthetics. I was young, had a young child and didn’t know what was possible in terms of how to build a career given this new format. And I didn’t understand how to combine this with being a young mother. It was exactly around this time that I discovered that another (and similar) sort of improvisatory process – young parenthood – could coexist inside of the music I wished to create and the career I began to envision, and I basically improvised my own sort of path.

It’s also interesting that these changes in terms of new paths in music could be seen as an expression of a strong personal will or reaction to external circumstances that you were trying to deal with.

I was introduced to this process of being able to make music while not knowing how to navigate any of it in a practical way. This new foundation of my practice is and was being able to switch quickly into a state of doing, becoming fully present. It’s a lot about presence and deeply occupying the moment and the now, which is a perfect way to work when you have a kid. My practice developed in tandem with being a young single mom. I had to bring my son on tour with me a lot. And it wasn’t easy. Being a single mom, especially in the States, was a struggle. There wasn’t very much external support. I had a lot of part-time jobs alongside touring, while trying to hold onto some semblance of financial stability. It gave me strength and made me resilient and creative in every single way. I continued to pursue my practice and be as present as I could for my child while he was growing up. He’s 21 this year and has not only survived, but has flourished. He is my biggest accomplishment to this date, and remarkably I managed, even with his completely unstandardised childhood, to raise an extraordinarily smart, empathetic, kind and well-balanced human being.

I guess experimental music, especially in the early 2000s, 2010s, was quite male-dominated. Men were able to continue their artistic practice even while having families, unlike many of the women in the field.

There were almost no women who had kids at that time. I felt very isolated, although I met some mother musicians here and there, a few in New York, but not in Baltimore, and especially not my age. What I see here in Berlin, around Europe and in the States these days is that younger women in their late twenties and thirties are having kids and they’re able to continue their careers. There’s more support for that, it’s more accepted and it’s really awesome to see. Festivals are thinking about it and being more supportive of these women, and so are their partners.

When you perform / improvise, do you feel fear? Especially not knowing sometimes what you’re going to perform? What sort of feelings do you have?

It’s my work and my life. And it’s not that I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, I just don’t plan that moment out. There is a little bit of fear, but I think that’s healthy. The adrenaline and endorphins kick in, and then I arrive on stage and amongst the audience, I feel quiet. From that point, I am carrying the responsibility of the moment and I feel grateful. I find it actually much more daunting to speak in public than to make sound because in sound, I am creating an alternative language, which helps me to more deeply express all the underlying intentions, emotions and thought processes.

I think a lot about how to open up my own story to others in order for them to feel more free.

So, you have in mind an interaction with the listeners.

When I perform, the audience is part of the action and life of that moment. And while they listen and witness, I am right there with them, letting the moment unfold. And in terms of the wider audience, I think about how my decisions can have an effect on their lives. It’s not that I’ve always thought this way, but it sort of developed. I think it’s partially because I’ve been a mother for basically all of my adult life. I think about how my actions have affected my son, how he’s turned out… I am constantly sussing out my usefulness and why doing what I do has meaning. I believe that my lived life has meaning, my parents, my grandparents and what they’ve given me. This all is inextricably intertwined with my artistic process and the sonic language I create. The act of sharing this, that’s important to me.

In an older interview, you mentioned that communities and scenes can be damaging. Do you still think this way, do you feel part of a certain, let’s say experimental scene?

I guess that was ten years ago and I’ve changed my viewpoint a bit since then. I think scenes and communities are very useful for people, depending on who you are and what you need. A lot of people really need community in order to flourish. And it depends on what kind of community. I suppose that I’m part of a global community. And actually, I feel very interconnected with a lot of people in a lot of different places, although personally I don’t feel I belong to any community in particular. I kind of dip into different scenes in different communities and I like having that freedom.

I just feel I have my own trajectory and I don’t like my path to be dictated by others. For the majority of my life, it was really busy enough for me to just try to make a living and raise my kid without being caught up in lots of other things. Now I find myself in this weird spot where I’ve kind of gone through this transition of empty nesting, and I have to find a new role for myself. I’m still trying to figure out how to be an adult without a child, so to speak.

Also, it’s a weird time for this process because we’re in this pandemic period. I’ve been separated from my son, a student at UCLA, a lot longer than we have ever been apart, which has been very difficult, but miraculously we’ve become a lot closer through this very particular trauma, keeping even more closely in touch than before.

Do you feel that all of this is influencing your art?

Totally, it’s always been interconnected.

Is there anything concrete that you are producing now, or that you are channelling at the moment in terms of your sound work?

Recently, I made a video that premiered for ISSUE Project Room in New York. They commissioned me to do a piece for the ‘With Womens Work’ series, which was inspired by a specific composition in a collection of works called ‘Womens Work’, compiled by Annea Lockwood and Alison Knowles in 1975.

I have a lot of different projects, actually. The sound language I use exists in a similar sort of way in all the projects, although each context is quite different. I’m working with Hugo Esquinca, who was part of the SHAPE platform last year. We have a recording that we produced last year as part of a live recorded performance inside Savvy Contemporary’s platform Bodi No Be Fayawood, a program within Jazzfest Berlin 2020, and we’re looking for a label to release it. And then with MOPCUT, which is with Lukas Koenig, who’s also part of the platform this year, and with Julian Desprez, who is a SHAPE alumnus. We’re working on finishing a new album. I’m working with Tara Transitory and Baly Nguyen on a new album as well. And I’m quite proud of the one recording released during this last year that represents my first collaboration with Kaffe Matthews, ‘Breathing air as dark swallows’, released on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku label. It sort of represents this entire period of recording material very closely miked with headphones, a kind of process I hadn’t inhabited so much before, being a primarily live performing artist. The entire album is breathing, entangling voice and oscillating electronics.

One thing I’ve been doing throughout the entire COVID period thus far, almost weekly or bi-weekly, has been a Zoom improvisation correspondence with Phil Minton, who’s based in the UK. He hasn’t been able to go anywhere for over a year now because he’s 80. He’s fully vaccinated, but we’re just waiting for gigs to restart. This has been a kind of diary of improvisations we’ve been putting together. I’m not sure what to do with them yet, but it’s been really inspiring work and a meaningful regular outlet for us both.

There’s this really nice quote by Phil Minton on your website: “Singing with Audrey is like working with all the possible noises of the universe and beyond, earthquakes, colliding galaxies and slugs sliding down a wet window, very quiet.” The voice is also a very important part of your work. You form sounds that are sometimes very surreal and pliable. You also said that the voice can be alienating and attracting at the same time.

Many of the sounds I make began with very pedestrian and simple sounds. When my son was a baby, I started to notice how he explored his new reality with all his senses, and he had an immense freedom in how he tested his voice in the world. In a sense, from the very beginning, we were improvising together all the time, a mother-son duo. He inspired me to explore all these simple sounds and use my technique to push them further and further. I found it curious that his perspective developed in line with my explorations and my changing attitudes towards sound and language. Being so symbiotically linked, we grew together, and even as the more normative social influences crept in, he was able to maintain his openness.

He’s in college right now, studying to become a mechanical engineer, which is a totally different career path, but his ear is very open because he’s grown up around so much weird music. I think it’s a lot about education. What you perceive to be beautiful and ugly, what you perceive to be the sound of something organic or not, what sound is centred and what is othered. These perspectives are so flexible depending on where you’re from and what your experiences have been.

These various techniques of voice alteration are widely used in pop music nowadays; people have become accustomed to digital modifications of the human voice.

It seems that people more readily accept these digital modifications than my physical alterations/hyperextensions of the voice. I don’t use any effects on my voice at all.

I create these techniques with my body in a weird muscular way. When people hear something auto-tuned, for instance, that’s recognisable and they kind of accept it. But if I make an inhaling, clicking sound, utilising a constriction of my vocal chords, people sometimes get a little bit freaked out. It’s an issue of perspective and expectation.

In terms of the techniques that you work with, are you planning to change them or work with technology in the future?

I have worked with people who have used technology in order to enhance my sound. Hugo, for instance, processes my voice. I don’t do it myself and leave it to the experts. I use some analogue technology, but not to alter organic sounds that I make. My process is to try to create and manipulate sound ’manually’, without the help of technology. I want to use my body to physically invigorate or trigger a sound that resides within me and my capabilities, which is ever growing. There’s much more territory for me to explore. My voice has already transformed over the years and it will continue as my body and mind grow older. When I had my son at 23, my entire voice changed due to the hormonal shift. So, even while working in a ‘classical way’ with my voice, I had to relearn a lot of things because the whole placement of my voice lowered. I started as a soprano and then I went down to being more of a mezzo and alto. And all of this was directly affected by the process of childbirth.

And how do you see the next few months? Do you think that concerts will restart? Do you have any expectations, or do you think about what will be the aftermath of it all?

I have some things planned and some that are pending. I’m just waiting to see if they’re postponed or cancelled. Today I have to go to Cologne and give a workshop for a vocal ensemble and then next week I’m in Marseille for a live performance, but not for the public. It’s a lot of waiting. But that’s okay. I’m a bit impatient, but at the same time, I’m ‘in my mid-forties’ impatient, not ‘in my twenties’ impatient; time passes differently.

As frustrating as it is, because culture has been so muted in the last year, I feel quite fortunate to be in Berlin as an American because there’s a lot of financial support that you can apply for. Last year, I actually applied for grant funding, which I have almost never done in my life. So yes, I’m patient because I can afford to be patient, but also, I think if I was in the States, I would feel much more desperate. So, I feel quite grateful to be located here right now. My son is okay and although he’s had to do all of his studies online, things are opening up now and he should have a more or less normal senior year. And my parents are fine, they’re safe in Taiwan where they have very few COVID cases, although I won’t be able to see them until they’re fully vaccinated.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

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