Interviews

PRXLUDES | Andrew Chen

Andrew Chen, ‘ilk’ (2022), commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society for the Gould Piano Trio and Cheltenham Festival 2022. Performance at Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, UK, July 2022.

“[It’s] almost like a very slow improvisation… I like to think of the music as writing itself. I’ll have ideas of fragments, chords, sketches, but I’ll listen to the music and what it wants to do, and follow that instinct, rather than trying to impose a pre-defined structure.” -Andrew Chen

Andrew Chen is a Melbourne-born, London-based composer and jazz pianist, whose recent works have centered on anthropomorphosis and percepts of “the human”. He is a current Royal Philharmonic Society composer of 2021-22, and has worked on projects with Wu Wei, Explore Ensemble, The Hermes Experiment, Ensemble Offspring, and most recently with Cheltenham Music Festival. Andrew is also a prominent jazz pianist, having performed at the Barbican, Royal Albert Hall, and Band on the Wall, alongside the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Hermeto Pascoal e Grupo, among others; he also sits on the Ivors Academy Classical Council and Youth Council, and is a producer and curator for YouTube platform ScoreFollower. Andrew spoke to PRXLUDES about his philosophies of anthropomorphosis and the human, communicating meaning in music, self-promotion in contemporary music, improvisation as compositional process, and more…

Photo credit: Ella Ronson

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Andrew! Hope you’re doing well. We’ve just come away from the premiere of your fantastic piece ‘ilk’ by the Gould Piano Trio — I absolutely adored it! How are you feeling?

Andrew Chen: Hiya Zyggy! I’m feeling great. This is the first proper premiere I’ve had in a good few months — especially in terms of properly commissioned, publicly premiered work. I’ve been doing lots of small bits and bobs with friends [and] colleagues, but this is the first one that’s really been out on show for a while. It’s nice. It’s a nice feeling. -laughs- It feels a lot more real, once you’ve experienced it in the concert environment.

Tell me about working with the Gould Trio — how receptive were they in the rehearsal process?

That first run-through we did when I saw the trio before, I was just like — “ah, this is amazing!” — and they were like “do you have any comments? Was it sounding good?” — and I was at a total loss for words [and had] that inescapable “…yeah…” -laughs- I do admit, after you’ve written a piece, it’s always a 50/50 [as to] whether things come off the way you expect them to in ‘real life’ — it’s part of the job — but the trio are absolutely phenomenal to work with — so receptive, so engaged, and devoted to the music. Devoted to the quest of performing it in the best way possible, not just for their own aesthetic preferences or whatever, but thought for the music in itself. They’re lovely people, as well.

It’s funny, because the way the piece is written… A lot of it is people playing, ostensibly, in different tempi, and a lot of the rhythmic stuff is written out as strings of grace notes. There’s a strict lack of strictness at some points, which really lends it to being open to interpretation. The trio’s attitude towards new music is [often] to be as faithful as possible, to be faithful to the music, to try and bring out as much of what’s marked in it… [to] be accurate. And a lot of the rehearsal process was almost like “actually, you can be freer with this… take your time, you can muck around with this, don’t worry if this entry doesn’t coincide exactly.” That kind of thing.

I can completely understand that — there’s almost this learning to let go of the idea of exactness, right?

I was speaking to them afterwards, and they enjoyed playing it as a result of that, just because it’s so different; you look at the rest of the program and it’s all so rhythmically precise. I don’t presume to know, but I [imagine] the impression of ‘ilk’ — to an audience that doesn’t know how it’s written — is that it must be really densely and precisely notated. It is and isn’t true. -laughs- It’s a bit of an illusion. But I guess for the sake of not only achieving the aural effect that I wanted, but also make it practical to do one or two rehearsals on it, and be able to comfortably perform [it] and still feel like, as a performer, you’re getting your personality into it. If I can be: I feel quite proud of the piece, actually, because it’s managed to do that in a way I was unsure it would. I didn’t know the trio before the commission coming through from the Royal Philharmonic Society. So I really lucked out, in that regard.

You could tell they were really enjoying themselves with the piece, as well — it’s great to see performers like the Gould Trio and festivals like Cheltenham really throwing themselves into it, rather than having a new piece “for the sake” of new music.

Yes, absolutely. Without saying anything too definitive, there is definitely a genre of piece that is specifically commissioned to fill the obligatory new music slot. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing — and it leads to a lot of the performing and institutional bodies having that attitude towards it, that “we’re commissioning new music because it’s a good thing to be seen to be doing”, rather than any of the other possible benefits. Although, the other argument is [that] it’s still being commissioned — it’s a net good — so who cares what the means are? I still haven’t figured that out.

You’ve mentioned much of your work centres on anthropomorphosis and creating “the human” in music. Was the compositional process of ‘ilk’ also within this aesthetic idiom?

It’s a bit of a funny one. When I talk about my interest in “the human”, and anthropomorphosis… Much [more] of that has been brought out in my larger ensemble music, or music that involves electronics, just because there’s more flexibility timbrally [and] orchestration-wise. I think I might have written this in the programme note, but [the] piano trio [has] very established forces: each instrument is so distinct from one another. You can tell the difference between the violin and cello playing in the same register; the piano is its own thing in the back. There’s no way to do this “smeared-ink-fast-blurry-shapes” kind of subtle blending that I like to do normally.

But I still ended up writing the piece in my [usual] method, almost like a very slow improvisation… I like to think of the music as writing itself. I’ll have ideas of fragments, chords, sketches, but I’ll listen to the music and what it wants to do, and follow that instinct, rather than trying to impose a pre-defined structure. There’s that back-and-forth between [having] an idea of where this is going, and “this might completely not work, let’s start again.” I don’t think that’s necessarily too different from how people do it, but it’s certainly there as a kind of conceit — seeing if the music has an agency unto itself before it’s even being performed, in the way that it abstractly sounds. Even if metaphysically it probably isn’t true, I always like to think of it that way.

Do your ideas of “the human” naturally fit into your slow-improvisational process — at least with ‘ilk’ — or do you see them as separate?

With the way that “human” aspect comes into the music… It’s partly gestural. The idea of the piece, and the ensemble interaction, is very much conversational. I described it [to the Trio] as like having a conversation at arms’ length. -laughs- Talking over each other, talking past each other, [with] occasional moments of harmonious and inharmonious agreement and disagreement. Playing around with all the possible shades and subtleties you can find within that. But also, the much more “direct”, oblique human aspect comes in the way that it’s notated, in the way that — still within the confines of fairly standard notation — it’s designed to give a bit more freedom in terms of interpretation, timing of events, timing of things together. To draw it all together: you have these conversational clouds of not-quite-melody, not-quite-harmony going on, that are also directly impacted by how the performer’s feeling.

I don’t normally think about [my music] from the performer’s end in the first instance, but for this one, it felt more pertinent… I really like the idea of abstract processes or concepts — like conversation, or agency — not just treating them as a thing to themselves to then develop out of, but interposing them, seeing how they might affect each other. I don’t tend to write in a systematic way. It tends to be more intuitive in first instance, and any formalisation of that comes afterwards.

The structure fits around the piece, rather than the piece fitting around the structure.

Yeah, I’d say that. Naturally, I’ve had those pitfalls where I’ve had to write in say a conservatoire environment, [where] it needs to be this amount of movements, or this many minutes… It’s always felt unnatural to work in that way, for me. But I’m still figuring it out, as well. None of us are a finished article, in terms of artistic vision, or statement. It’s in our nature [as] artists to continue searching, and continue being creative.

Andrew Chen, ‘Selfsame’ (2021), for prepared 37-reed soprano descant sheng. Performed by Wu Wei.

On the subject of anthropomorphosis: how would you personally define that, musically?

At a baseline, it’s about the ways that we can perceive aspects of humanness in sound: in the same way that we see faces in rocks, or in trees — the phenomenon of pareidolia — or hearing the sound of whispering in the wind. Whilst I wouldn’t describe myself as a prescriptivist on many things, I have a feeling that we, as humans, are geared towards picking up certain things. It’s like the uncanny valley. We’re very good at recognising traits that are similar to those of our own — and traits that are very clearly not our own. Not many of us are good at drawing, but we can tell if a drawing of a hand is proportionally inaccurate. It’s just something most of us can do.

So my thinking is: there’s something inherently compelling and affective within this idea of human forms in sound, and in playing, that might be of useful musical substance. In the same way that theorists have been talking about chord progressions, or ways of serialising tones… You know, every theory kind of leads into that aspect of “ah, maybe there’s musical fruit to be found” — and that’s what I’m trying to do at the moment. But it manifests in a lot of different ways; it’s not just Janáček kind of conversation-rhythms, it’s not just pitch contours. I did a research project during my Masters — it’s getting published in the [Royal College of Music Research Repository], hopefully soon — about synthesizing whispered human speech via only acoustic instruments. So [by] using certain string techniques, like damping or rauschen or white noise, in very specific ways in massed sections, I’ve essentially found a way to imitate certain vowel sounds, sibilants, fricatives. That was a big research focus of mine. I’m trying to fit together the big orchestral piece that will use that at some point — but in an integrated, interactive kind of way, rather than [as] a sound object [in] itself.

The success of that as a project also belies the annoying complexity of treating this “human-ness” as a concept; because that kind of formant synthesis in [an] acoustic context — synthrumentation is the word…

I’ve not heard of synthrumentation before.

It’s a Clarence Barlow term that I’ve re-adopted. He used it in a very specific way. Actually, the credit should go to Julian Anderson as well, who got me onto all of this… It’s the idea of using instruments to synthesize sounds. It’s been used in a few places. You can think of a lot of spectral work as doing that as well.

I get that — I guess the difference is that the things you’re synthesizing are both natural, but also so of ourselves. There’s so much uncanniness there…

There are all these degradations in between. That’s what I love about it: you’re listening to an orchestral work, let’s say, and suddenly you hear what sounds like voices calling out to you, but there aren’t any voices, and the performers aren’t speaking. Surely that’s got to be compelling in some way, a way that is different to what we’re used to in normal acoustic contexts. But to take it back: the annoying thing is that it’s just one thing that you can only do with enough strings — so even though that’s an interesting part of [effecting] anthropomorphosis, it’s not like I can apply that to every single piece. It’s just one example. It’s a bit like mentalism in card tricks, and stuff: the idea of forcing people to pick certain cards, or think about certain numbers.

It’s hard to know, as well, [with] a piece like ‘ilk’; again, thank you for saying it lends itself to anthropomorphosis, but who’s to say one would feel that way without reading the programme note? We can’t do a blind A/B study between two alternate realities where you have and haven’t read that. Maybe there’s something to it, maybe there isn’t… -laughs-

That’s interesting though, because the programme note becomes not only part of the piece, but an integral part of the whole experience of the piece. You’re conditioning the audience’s mind, in a sense.

Yeah. I think it’s unavoidable, anyway. This is very funny; undergrad me — in first and second year, before I got into any of this [and] before I was writing even half-decent music — was very much this angsty teenager, like “ahh, can we really communicate anything in music by the music alone?” I was really into reading books about obscure symbolic aesthetics and stuff… -laughs- I mean, not that it wasn’t of any value to look into that, but ultimately, whether you’re listening to a CD or whether you’re in a concert hall, there’s always going to be some sort of sensory element other than the sound, and you can’t avoid that. Like, listening to Beethoven’s Fifth in the car on the drive home is going to be a different experience — that changes how you perceive the music — compared to listening to it in the comfort of your living room. As composers — unless we’re doing site-specific works — I don’t think we can get too hung up about that kind of thing. That’s what I would say to my younger self: don’t worry about it, you’re not gonna discover anything profound or ground-breaking that way. You’re gonna do more of that by creating! -laughs-

It’s the kind of question where, if you’re gonna worry yourself about that: should everyone listen to concerts with blindfolds on?

Well, that’s what Georg Frederic Haas did. He’s done a few pieces in total darkness — ‘in vain’ and ‘Solstices’, I think. Again, who’s to say specifically what effect it has on the experience? Obviously, it does, and it’s integral to the music — he’s made this conscious choice, in at least these pieces — it’s interesting to think about. But I got to a point where I was sick of thinking about it. -laughs-

This is very tangential, but we had a visit from Chaya Czernowin back when I was in my first or second year. I popped the question [to her] — she has quite evocative titles, like ‘Lovesong’ — like “how do you find you communicate meaning in your music, if someone hasn’t had the privilege of seeing the title, or the programme note?”. She said [she doesn’t] think about it too much, but: there’s me, with my intent for the music, there’s the performers, there’s the audience… The meaning, the effect, or whatever gets transmitted out of some kind of weird triangulation between all of those three things. She said something to the effect of she was happy to just let it happen, in the way that it naturally wants to arise, rather than try to force a certain impression.

That’s the thing, actually, to go back to the anthropomorphic thing that I’m trying to do: ultimately, even if that’s successful, what other people mean to ourselves is entirely up to the individual. If I am successful in forcing that image — or even if I’m not — it still ultimately has that intimate, personal effect, which is what I want. Something that’s personal to them, even if it’s “I hate it.” — at least it’s something.

Of course. At least in my opinion, it doesn’t matter what it’s contributing, necessarily; as long as people can think something about it.

All good art does that, I think. At worst, it’s a conversation starter, and even then that’s a pretty good thing to be.

Andrew Chen, excerpt from ‘Inhabitant’ (2021). From a workshop in April 2021, performed by Explore Ensemble.

Tell me about how you approach timbre; do you find it easier to realise your ideas with large ensembles?

I think it’s the flexibility. I don’t necessarily find it easier to write in the sense of like actually putting the dots on to paper, but in a larger ensemble, you have more scope for dynamic change, timbral change, textural change… all that kind of stuff. It’s a sheer numbers thing. But my issue is: I don’t have much up online. There’s probably an irony to that… -laughs- There are a few things on the backburner which are much larger, which I’ve been able to work through — at least [with] individual parts. I’m trying to get more stuff recorded, [because] I’ve realised recently how little stuff that I’m “happy” with that 1) I have in the first place, and 2) the stuff that I’m happy with, not much is out and available. I feel like it’s a constant work-in-progress… -laughs- This whole internet presence, self-promo thing. You’re never doing enough, are you?

No-one ever feels like they’re doing enough.

And there’s no easy benchmarks to say “I’ve ticked all the boxes for today.”

There have been times, at least from my perspective, where I’ve got recordings on my website I’m not happy with, but I feel like they have to be there.

You have to have stuff. I only set up my website properly a couple years ago, but I didn’t have work examples on it for a while, because I [didn’t] have anything on Soundcloud that I wanted to embed, that was like “this is the first representation of my music that you hear.” At the moment, I have two excerpts… -laughs- They’re both for six, seven instrument combos. They’re both [excerpts] that I’m happy with, but they’re both pieces that don’t exist in a complete state; they’re [pieces] I want to gut, and finish in a way that they’re deserving of. I think my issue is writing fast enough — feeling like works are complete, at the time that I complete them.

Even ‘ilk’ was a bit like that. In hindsight, I feel silly for having thought that, because it felt like a complete piece when I heard it — it resolved itself — but at the time, when I was writing it, I wasn’t 100% with [it]. Learning to let go, I suppose.

There’s so many different perspectives on what happens when someone performs your piece. Like, do you relinquish ownership of the piece? Can you do that while also putting your material online?

It’s a bit of [you], isn’t it? It’s hard to separate yourself from the online — not, say, persona, but — museum-exhibit. That’s what us composers [are] now, in this day and age. We’re in the business of making museum exhibits for ourselves. -laughs- Maybe at a time when we don’t really deserve, or need one.

I love this idea of our own online presences being our own exhibits…

They’re there for posterity. I don’t know. I think it’s wrong to think of it as like an inextricable part of ourselves — but it certainly does mean something. I think some people can be dismissive of the whole online thing, but maybe that’s a generational thing. It serves that functional purpose, too for better or for worse — probably for worse — but it’s a convenience thing. I understand why a commissioning body or an ensemble would want to look at your splash page, and listen to some examples, rather than get to know you over the course of days, weeks, months, that kind of thing. It’s the demands of capitalism, or the real world — dare I say. I think we’re all bereft of the ideal amount of time it would take to do all of these things properly…

Andrew Chen, ‘Owt to See’ (2021), for jazz octet. Winner of the 2021 Dankworth Prize for Jazz Composition (Small Ensemble).

Tell me a bit about your musical background — I heard you have an upbringing as a jazz pianist as well as a composer?

Well… certainly, in terms of performance stuff, jazz in the most that I do. I started out — like any “good boy” — as a classical pianist, doing my grades up to Grade 8, and my diploma, that kind of stuff. I caught the composition bug quite late into my teens, and ended up [studying composition] on a whim; it was very much by chance I was able to do it. I came over here to study from Australia, and the irony is, coming over to study at a specifically classical institution — the Royal College — in those first four years, my classical chops went from being quite good to absolutely non-existent, because I stopped practicing… I didn’t have the time — or felt like I didn’t have the time, anyway. Ironically it was through classical conservatoire that I picked up jazz, almost accidentally, because there was an opportunity to do it; I happened to have a circle of friends that [had] the perfect instrumentation for a [jazz] quintet.

My siblings both learnt jazz piano to a high standard; my brother actually went on and studied in the States. So even though I was never confident enough to engage with it while I was younger and still at home, now it was like “if they can do it, I might have a knack for it as well.” So it was through [studying at RCM and forming a quintet with friends] that I properly picked it up; it’s turned out really well, from a pure getting-to-perform stuff, getting to play gigs [standpoint]. Like, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra stuff, as well… that was really recent, with Hermeto Pascoal at the Barbican. Things I never imagined I’d be doing. I didn’t think I’d come over here and do any performing. It’s been really lovely for that, and you discover more about yourself and your creativity [doing it].

Currently, what I do as a jazzer, as it were, and what I do in the classical, new music sphere… They feel like two different branches that have split off from the same [tree]. It’s not to say they’re unrelated, but I think purely from the logistics of it, they are separate at the moment — but ultimately, I am still one creative person. I think there is some overlap — not necessarily in the musical language, but in the process. I talked about my almost-improvisatory “music writing itself” kind of [process], and I think the freedom and immediacy of jazz improv has bled a bit into the way I write, and given me a bit more fluency. Allowed me to give less flips about what I’m writing in the moment. -laughs- That’s the liberating thing about playing jazz — obviously, you do the hard graft, you learn the scales, the patterns, the licks, how to read — but when you’re improvising, you’re throwing things at a wall, and you don’t give yourself time to second-guess yourself. You come up with the idea and you execute it in the moment. Both subconsciously and consciously, when I’ve felt like I really needed it, I’ve tried to carry that over into my “classical” music.

In terms of process, how does your improvisation impact things like form, and gesture — both in your jazz work and more “classical” composition?

That’s an interesting one. With the creative process… I would say that [by] happenstance, the melodic and harmonic writing I do in a jazz way, and the way that I play jazz, is much more “conventional” — whereas the “new music” kind of stuff, I guess there’s a conscious attempt to be a bit more original with it. But it’s still borne out of that improvisatory mindset, even if it’s happening over longer time periods. I forget who said this to me, but improvisation and composition [are] essentially the same process, just happening over two different timespans.

That’s a really interesting way of putting it.

My gut instinct, when I heard that, was “No! I disagree! I do both of these things, I should know!” — but you think about it more, and actually… essentially, they are. I’m not sure if you find this as well, but sometimes the best moments in composition [are] either when you’re not thinking, or when you force yourself to think a bit slower, and not race ahead of yourself. Like, work at the same pace as how you actually work [on an instrument] — in the same way that we can’t think slowly when we’re improvising at a piano.

In terms of the structural implications of that mindset, I think I work in these cycles of vision, the improvisatory, intuitive splashabout; and the revision, the methodical assessment [of] what bits you like, what bits you don’t, step back… See [if] this lends itself to being a branch, a root, to grow out of. But sometimes it doesn’t work, as well; we all encounter writer’s block, mental blocks. It’s a matter of keeping yourself fresh enough to work through it.

I completely understand — it can be hard to find that sense of flow, right?

I wish it was a thing that you could sit down and do three minutes of, and then come back [to] in my fifteen minutes spare [time] between last thing and next thing… It’s just not like that, is it? That’s one of the big inefficiencies of composition — you do need to set aside more time for it. You can’t know how long your creativity is gonna last in that spell, or whether you’re gonna need more days to mull things over. It’s all so spontaneous, by its nature, and unpredictable.

Andrew Chen, ‘Should one of us remember’ (2022), performed by the Merton College Choir at Classical Mixtape, Gloucester Cathedral, as part of Cheltenham Festival 2022. Gloucester, UK, July 2022.

Tell me a bit about your work as a curator for ScoreFollower. How does that platform impact your practice, if it does?

[I’ve] been doing it for quite a few years now. ScoreFollower is really interesting, because they manage to capture such a different demographic to a lot of these classical and new music [outlets]. It has a significantly younger demographic, and a very global reach.

I started volunteering with ScoreFollower back in 2017. It was on the video-production end. I’ve been a producer with them longer than I’ve been a curator; production purely on the video side, things like putting the score videos together, getting them ready for upload, taking part in the juries. It’s been really nice as a way to get exposed to so much music from people that I wouldn’t have otherwise had any contact [with]. It’s really good for discovering stuff. I’m both ashamed and kind of proud to admit that probably the majority of new things I end up listening to are through those calls for scores — you find some real gems in there.

The nice thing, as well, [is] that we’ve got a really diverse board of volunteers, producers, curators… Especially the people who sit on the juries for all these score calls. You get a really good representation of [music] — not just in terms of who the composers are, but also the genre and style. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but ScoreFollower has slightly moved away from the really hardcore, ultra-complexity kind of thing…

I have noticed that, actually!

And it’s not been explicit. There’s just been a sort of broadening to encompass a lot of things, rather than very much [being] about that. Certainly when I joined, there was a bit of a stereotype of the kinds of pieces that would go up of being “of a certain type”, or “of a certain visual” — but nowadays, it’s very much down to shifts in direction, and more people at play in the background. It’s funny sitting on these juries, because there are some things that I completely disagree with! But that’s part of it. And that’s a really good way to decide on curatorial direction.

I didn’t necessarily come on board as a curator in the context of that, but I wanted to do some curatorial work — I see heaps of awesome stuff happening in London that isn’t necessarily [seen], and ScoreFollower is a more US-based organisation — so it’d be nice to get some works up of people whose works I’ve had the privilege to see in person, in the local scene. It goes with the responsibility of that kind of thing — though I’m still very new to it. It’s a very exciting thing to be a part of. They’re a great team, really good bunch of people.

In terms of what’s coming next: in addition to ‘ilk’, you’ve also got a piece premiering1 at Cheltenham Festival with the Merton College Choir?

Yeah! That was direct from Cheltenham [Festival]. It was a last minute thing — a short three-minute piece for the choir. It’s much more “conventional”, very different to ‘ilk’. I’d frame it as a “guilty pleasure” piece… -laughs- But it was fun to write! I wrote it after the trio piece, and I think it was good to be working in a different mode for that. You know, keep it fresh.

Do you have anything else in the pipeline at the moment?

One thing I do have coming up, actually — and I’ve not done any formal announcement yet — but I’ve managed to land some grant funding from the RVW Trust to record and release a piece. It’s a saxophone octet that I’m heavily revising, and it’s getting recorded by a mixture of [musicians] with the Laefer Quartet. But we’re not going with a commercial release, as such. It’s going straight free-to-air onto ScoreFollower, with the scope to maybe Bandcamp release it, or partner with a label… Do it in a slightly alternate format than the straight-to-commercial thing.

More of Andrew’s work can be found at:

ScoreFollower’s next call for scores starts on the 15th August 2022 – more information and how to submit:

References/Links:

Footnotes:

  1. This interview was conducted two days before Chen’s premiere with Merton College Choir at Classical Mixtape in Gloucester Cathedral (11 July), as part of Cheltenham Festival.

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