On …à… (2019) for piccolo, electronics, video, and scent and Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie”

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Opening sequence from …à… (2019)

…à… (2019), a 35-min work for solo piccolo, fixed-media electronics (field recordings), video, and scent, is my first collaboration with Paris-based Taiwanese flutist Shao-Wei Chou and was created, poîetically speaking, for both her and myself.  It was premiered in April, 2019 at the CNMAT of University of California Berkeley as well as the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles.

I started out the project with the idea of making a film.  Or, to be precise, an image-and-sound-driven temporality.  At the conception stage of the project I watched (after waiting for its DVD release for 5 years) Belgium director Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie – a full-length movie, her last, that was shot mostly with a phone and a hand-held camera.  No Home Movie is visually strung together mostly by sceneries from Akerman’s mother’s home in Belgium and those from an anonymous, desolate desert landscape (possibly in Israel), occasionally seasoned with few scenes from hotel rooms where Akerman conversed with her mother on Skype and few from the flowing surface of a dusty green river.  The general quality of the images is poor and the framework static, and often the composition of the frames is done by the positioning of the camera at an angle that takes in physical frames such as doors, windows, hallways, or the outline of a sofa.  What fascinated and at the same time moved me greatly in this film is the melancholy.  It’s a melancholy invoked not by a sad storytelling, or a dramatic arch, or devastating visual stimuli, but by a flux of stances at once self-absorbing and self-reflexive, which in turn projects the author and the subjects as both vulnerable and humanely egotistic.

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Scene from Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2016)

While the critics often like to describe Akerman’s work as “hyperrealistic” or “hypersensitive”, what struck me the most is not the manneristic repetitions and presentations of the daily life across many of Akerman’s films and how these supposedly represent women’s identity in society, which everyone loves talking about, but the poetic yet meticulously thought-out formal arrangement in each film.  It is poetic because the logics behind the sequences are not representational nor taken-for-granted; it is meticulous because how these sequences interact with the viewing eyes and with time is  beyond cinematic – it is, if nothing else, highly figurative, highly psychotic, highly dialectical, and highly musical all at once.  The formal ruptures and departs between the Belgium home scenes and the desert scenes are semantically ambiguous and narratively abstract, yet they invoke in the audience’s mind a discontinued yet associative experience centering around an emotional and meanwhile conscious awareness of the intersecting, doubling dichotomy of home and not-home.

I felt as if I found a resonance or an affinity in the film as I was working on my own project.  …à… is a semi-collaborative work I created with and for Taiwanese flutist Shao-Wei Chou.  Shao-Wei and I are both expatriates, having left our home country in the early 2000s and lived mainly in another for all these years (she lives in France and I in the US).  What we both experienced is a sense of instant belonging and permanent alienation.  In …à…, I wanted to formulate this hybrid condition of placement and displacement propelled by my experience of expatriation; in a sense the title of the piece “à” (in French) can mean “of”, “at”, “in”, and “to”, which expresses the multifurcation of my self-understanding from such life experience.  In music, traditionally, placement and displacement are of course associated with immersion and discontinuity, narrative flow and contradiction, sound carpet with slow harmony and erratic, ephemeral, and self-referential episodes, and, more objectively and very generally speaking in “layman style”, atmosphere and abstraction or other disrupting devices that might be musical or -extra-musical.  In …à… I didn’t want to constrict the construction of the experience purely based on a musico-logic.  In fact, I wanted to create a choreographed, temporally contingent sequence of perceptions via various, interchanging sensory forms, procuring a self-contained experience (aesthetic only depending on each person’s definition of the word).  My reasons for involving various sensory, perceptual forms are

  • It increases the multiplicity and complexity of the “meaning” or the “speculation of a meaning” of each moment, since the simultaneous arrangement of two or three medias offers the possibilities of semantic or gestural layering and dialogue (along with other potential relationships).  This particularly heightened yet sometimes topically diffused state of perception (or perceptual demand) (perhaps here the word “hypersensitivity” would work well) is especially effective in part because of the imbalance of perceptual sensitivity we in the industrialized society today manifest in our many, various sense faculties.  Most of us are generally a lot more sensitive and competent in visual perception but not so in aural perception, even less so in olfactory perception.  For example, it is precisely this imbalance that prompts our “reading” of the various signals sent our way fraught with charming mistakes and subliminal truths.  While most people can “read into” a visual stimulus or message with great confidence and often semantical interpretations, the “meaning” of such interpretation becomes faulty or mysterious while juxtaposed over by another signal of, say, an aural perception which on its own has another expression, either reinforcing the visual one or not, hence a multifarious and dialectical state of perceptual simultaneity.
  • It provides greater options for formal ruptures and departs since the switching to or addition/omission of one perceptual faculty or the other is in itself a rupture and depart. Formal ruptures and departs, especially at a meta level, are particularly important in my work in general since they break off not only a linear thought-process but also the linearity and narrative formation on a continuous conscious plane.  The “placement” and “displacement” I could evoke in the arrangement of such formal ruptures and departs can be a lot more extreme.  For example, it can resemble the effect of that when one is suddenly woken up from a dream in a REM state, or that when a woman’s personal agency is suddenly destroyed due to an event of physical assault, or that when the political and intellectual discourse is in one night disrupted when the current US president was elected in 2016.  This kind of ruptures and departs at a meta level questions and exposes the vulnerability of the author, the subjects, and the audience.
  • Subsequently, it enables a dream-like logic with which the audience traverses both passively and actively through a minutely triggered topography of the senses. The distance between the work and the audience is constantly shifting, very much like how when one dreams, even if self-conscious, one observes oneself as a puppeteer or third person and at once or at times participates as the protagonist.  This choreographed morphing of the acoustical and visual distances is to enable changes in the audience’s perception of space – for example, is the space operatic, theatrical, or cinematic?  Is it in the 1st-person, 2nd-person, 3rd-person, or pedestrian bystander?

In …à…, I collected video footages shot from various locations in three continents, some I filmed myself during my travels throughout these recent years and at home, and some were filmed by my friends in different countries upon my request (credits : Shao-Wei Chou, Liwen Chen, Mai Morimoto, and Julien Malaussena).  I also use some of the corresponding audio recordings and some other isolated recordings.  The piece is in total 35 minutes long and is roughly divided into two parts in time.  The first part resembles a film in format, and the flutist appears with live actions only very briefly few times, however, she appears, with her baby, in a home video largely in sound for an extended sequence, during which the audience can hear her practice an altered version of my written score of the second part of the piece, on a flute instead of a piccolo.  The flute practicing, heard clearly in sound accompanying the visual sequence which mostly eludes the physical presence of mother and child, is exactly like how it is – practicing – and is often interrupted by the crying sounds of the baby which forces the performer to put down the flute and to switch her role into that of a mother’s.

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Home practice video scene from …à… (2019)

In the first part, at two of the few instances when the performer actually does something onstage, she turns on a video call and the audience can see what she does both live onstage and in the live projection of the video call to another person.

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Video projection parallels the live camera projection (here seen in post-reproduction of the performance) of the live video call between the performer onstage and another person offstage.  From …à… (2019).

Other sequences are visual, demanding the audience to focus mostly on the visual part of the film as film, and the audio part is largely fixed-media with occasional superimposed live performance.  Like in je tu il-là elles (my 2017 electroacoustic work composed for Ensemble Adapter in Berlin after Akerman’s earlier film je tu il elle) the often mismatched or alternatively-combined audio-visual relationships are at play here.  Also important is the spoken speeches and written text that are in languages (Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and French) other than English, without subtitles.  For those who understand one or more of these languages, the semantic reading of the video and/or the corresponding audio, if any, rightly or mischievously seduces the said audience to impose extra-musical meaning onto those perceived instances.  On the other hand, for those who don’t understand any of those languages, the attempt of semantic guessing forces them to extract meaning from other visual hints on screen and from the sound, therefore misunderstanding or haphazard understanding occurs; in addition, this situation also resembles nomadic individual’s or new expatriate’s experience of being in a country in which an unfamiliar language is spoken/used.

The second part of the work consists of largely an extended sequence that combines the visual scenes from multiple bookstores in Taipei in the style of browsing or window-shopping with live piccolo performance of a score, recording of the score, recording of the practicing of the alternate score from the aforementioned home practice video, structured improvisations using materials from the score, and field recordings from the home practice video as well as others.  (There’s a bell choir recording from Zurich and a thunder storm one from Los Angeles, for example.)  This part is called “Wander.Lust”, and it has two main premises – the orgy of books and of otherworldly landscapes, and the musical narrative that is at times personal and at others object to repositioning, objectification, and interpretive transformation.  Unlike the first part, the aim in the second part is to maintain both a visual and sonic continuity the formal ruptures and contradictions of which are more internal and subtle.

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Scenes from …à… (2019)

It might be of interest for some to mention that, between the first and the second part of the work there exists a distinct rupture in form, context, and perceptual demand.  While the first part formally and expressively more or less resembles a montage, the second part is in no way similar to such approach despite the pasting-together of various footages.  Instead, in the second part the visual sequences, more integrally corresponding to the sonic part which in itself is a much more through-composed and autonomous entity, are performing almost in the function of abstraction with occasional formal indicators.  Interestingly, this part would (and should) appear in a completely different light to the audience who do not read the Chinese language which much of the visual images in the section inevitably capture and present.  While I just pointed out the function of “abstraction” in these sequences of the second part, I also understood that it is exactly in this part the composition becomes “open” and I am facing (or risking?) the “unknown”.  I am immensely curious to know how each of my audience (who does or does not read Chinese) responds to, or simply perceives, this part.

Watch the documentation video of …à… (created from the original film, live audio recording from the LA premiere performance, side-by-side display of the live video captures, and few complementary live performance video footages) here :

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Coro (sur un terrain inconnu) (2018) premiered by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart at Ticino Musica

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First time spending time in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland.  In an unusually heated summer Lugano for us was a boiler, stifling and hot most of the time with a searing sun above, especially past the train station, up the hill, around our temporary abode and the conservatorio.  Occasional thunderstorms were a treat, during which the nights cooled down just enough for us to sleep a good, sound few hours.  What’s desired weren’t alcohol of any sort, but bitters and chinotto and Rivella and fizzante, served in glasses over ice.  Pasta became a nightmare for its sleep-inducing virtue, and we were served precisely that at every single lunch, good old white carbs fed to us as if we were at an old-school canteen, with color-coded meal tickets and all.  Ticino Musica’s second edition of composers’ workshop proceeded on like this, in full summer heat and in carb-effectuated siesta perfuming the early afternoon lectures.  The artistic director and the guest composer, Oscar Bianchi and Bernhard Gander, amazed us by their persistence and energy; they were always there, always ready to support and give consults.  Otherwise, the composer pinched herself; the composer persevered; the composer drowned herself in endless coffees and teas; the composer, however, always woke up by the evening breeze of the lake and the cool ambrosia served on rock with a slice of lemon!

Despite all that, the highlights of the festival for the composer were the two concerts with the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, one at the Museo Vincenzo Vela in Ligornetto and the other at the LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura), both took place at the end of July.

It was an honor working with the renowned Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, the vocal ensemble for contemporary music today.  Prior to my arrival at the festival I had composed a piece for three vocalists (high soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass), Coro (sur un terrain inconnu) (2018), for the ensemble.  Meanwhile, developed on-site in a collaborative, lab-like manner, along with the dancers from the Ticino in Danza (collaboration assisted by choreographer Katja Vaghi), were my 5-min miniature HUMANITY : a miniature (2018) for lyric soprano, countertenor, and three dancers.

Coro (sur un terrain inconnu) (2018) is an 8.5-minute poetry for voices that unassumingly aestheticizes the kinetic motions of preys silencing themselves upon the arrival of a silent, presumed predator and of the said predator, presumably silent, music-ing unwittingly merely by its moving about.  It’s a music that can be perceived by sound and by sound and sight both, as the movements of the singers connote yet another screen for dramatic perception, while the music along in sound suggests spatiality and situations.  On the other hand, HUMANITY : a miniature (2018) is and was meant to be a project of the absurd and subtle confrontation.  Camus’s Sisyphus, beautiful acoustic jargons of contemporary music, Rick Astley, bride of God, and a series of aborted vocalising from a banal K-pop song were scrambled together by the composer, mildly deranged by the heat, to bluntly and rudely smile-toothily at the elegant audience of the Museo Vincenzo Vela.

Working with the vocalists of Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart was a fruitful, insightful experience, and the dancers of Ticino in Danza were simply marvelous!  All these I will take with me in my future creations and processes — the inspirations that will help shape what I do as both a composer and an artist!

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Final revising and editing of Coro (sur un terrain inconnu) (2018) in Zürich early July.

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je tu il-là elles (2017) in collaboration with Ensemble Adapter, premiere December 14th, 2017, Berlin

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In collaboration with Ensemble Adapter, my new composition for flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, and electronics je tu il-là elles (2017) is to be premiered by the ensemble tomorrow, December 14th 20h30, at the ExRotaprint in Wedding, Berlin.

A winner of the Adoptions 2017 call-for-proposal, the project of je tu il-là elles will be performed alongside four other projects by Mathieu Corajod (CH), Piotr Peszat (PL), Heather Frasch (USA), and Jacek Sotomski (PL) respectively.  The Icelandic-German Ensemble Adapter consists of Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir (harp), Kristjana Helgadóttir (flute), Matthias Engler (percussion), and Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson (clarinet).

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「遶境共聲」(The Pilgrimage) – theater for new music and multimedia premieres and lectures

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Being a Taiwanese composer yet having received formal music education primarily in the US, I am glad to announce that, after fourteen years of composition life – studies and career combined – and having my music heard mostly in the US and Europe, I will finally debut in Taiwan at the end of this month!

Commissioned by the Innovation Series 2017 (新點子樂展) of National Cultural Center (國家兩廳院 National Theater & Concert Hall, Taipei, Taiwan), speckled deep ∆ Force Majeure (2017) (星塵 ∆ 浩蕩的未知) for 11 solo voices, 2 percussionists, piano, and electronics, my 9-min piece written specifically for the music theater program “The Pilgrimage” (「遶境共聲」)will be performed in three consecutive days at the Black Box of the National Theater in Taipei on September 29th, 30th, and October 1st! I will also be giving a lecture at the 國立臺灣師範大學 National Taiwan Normal University during the festival. (Lecture title : “沉浸、哲思批判、與以個人主體展現文化性”)

“The Pilgrimage” is an one-and-a-half-hour abstract music theater involving full-staged and lighting design, scenography, mobile sound installations made out of anthropological objects from several key industries in the Taiwanese past, segments of freshly composed music by seven Taiwanese female composers of different generations, and a narrative loosely linked to a sequence of events in the Taiwanese history. The program features a team of fantastic artists, composers, and musicians, the full list of which can be viewed via the attached link.

The sonic narrative of the program is made out of music by Chia-Lin Pan, Shih-Hui Chen, Ching-Wen Chao, Yi-Chen Chen, Mei-Fang Lin, Yu-Hui Chang, and me (潘家琳、陳士惠、趙菁文、陳宜貞、林梅芳、林慕萱、張玉慧). The program was conceived by composer Ching-Wen Chao (趙菁文), and the final production is created by the up-and-coming director Ding-Yun Huang (黃鼎云).  The stage and mise-en-scene was designed and produced by the World Stage Design 2017 gold medalist Cheng-Wei Teng (鄧振威).  The performance features conductor Peiyao Wang (王佩瑤), percussion soloist Aiyun Huang (黃皚雲), and an amazing team of vocalists and musicians!  A friend of mine, author Michael Harris Cohen, lends his captivating voice in the reading of my poem “Force Majeure” which will be heard substantially in the electronic part of speckled deep ∆ Force Majeure (2017)!

Innovation Series 2017 also presents “The Hours of Flowers” (Morgenstern Trio and Nina Janssen-Deinzer) and “In the Eyes of the Nomads” (Atlas Ensemble).

For more information and ticket information, see HERE.

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UPDATES : New Projects for 2017

After my winter trip to Asia (Taiwan, Japan), I returned to a United States that was about to undergo an exhausting trial of civil resistance against the rescindment of humanity.  Life goes on yet is now again charged with a strong awareness of our existence as human individuals and as the living beneficiaries of our Earth.  Within an interconnected web of matters and consciousnesses, I look ahead upon my upcoming composition projects with heightened focus, reflection, and sense of artistic responsibility.  On the other hand, having suffered from a long and devastating drought, Los Angeles is finally rain-drenched for the season.  Perhaps the poppies will bloom wild this spring in Southern California!

Innovation Series 2017 (新點子樂展) – the 30th Anniversary of the National Performing Arts Center of Taiwan (國家兩廳院) Edition : Music Theater Concerts     (Taipei, Taiwan)

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I was commissioned by the “Innovation Series” of the National Performing Arts Center of Taiwan (國家兩廳院 “新點子樂展”) to participate in the special music theater program marking the 30th anniversary of the Taipei National Theater & Concert Hall.  Curated and initiated by composer Chao Ching-Wen, the concert-length music theater program involves six nationally and internationally known female Taiwanese composers, a theater director, a lighting and set designer, an installation artist, a percussion soloist, a pianist, ten vocalists, and a tonmeister.  It combines and synthesizes the abstraction and expressive powers of contemporary music and non-narrative theatre, and conceptually centers itself upon experiential vignettes, memory imageries, and imaginations of latent or future history of Taiwan.  This is my first time undertaking such ambitious semi-collective project — besides the 10-min individual piece for voices, percussion, and electronics I am composing for the specific segment of the program, I am also contributing sound materials throughout other parts of the program.  It is also a highly experimental and inspiring process working closely and collaboratively with emerging Taiwanese director Ding-Yun Huang (黃鼎云), whose work is characterized by its evocative visceral poetry and complex, juxtaposed symbolism.

The concert will take place at the Black Box of the National Theater in Taipei, Taiwan on September 30th and October 1st, 2017, preceded by a press conference and followed by panel discussions.

Collaboration with Ensemble Adapter    (Berlin, Germany)

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Selected as one of the five composers for Berlin-based Ensemble Adapter‘s commission program “Adoptions 2017”, I will collaborate with Adapter for a new composition for flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, and electronics which will be premiered and recorded in Berlin in December this year.

My composition, titled je tu il-là elles, will figuratively project and interpret the theatrical scaffold of Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s 1974 film Je, Tu, Il, Elle, which operates on the signaling trigger that is “hunger” and the awareness of Self in relation to Others.  The brilliance of Icelandic/German group Ensemble Adapter resides in its members’ unusually mature and personal instrumental sounds, as well as the group’s quietly reflective yet highly progressive artistic trajectory.  It is my honor to be able to work with such ensemble in a highly collaborative manner!

Selected as a Composition Fellow for the Summer Akademie at Schloss Solitude 2017 – working with Ensemble SurPlus    (Stuttgart, Germany)

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Selected as a composition fellow among a competitive pool of 200 candidates, I will participate in this year’s Summer Akademie for Composers at the Schloss Solitude directed and instructed by composers Chaya Czernowin, Johannes Schöllhorn, and Samir Odeh-Tamimi.  For three weeks in August, 2017, the composition fellows under the direction of the three master composers will gather at the Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany and engage in an intensive and critical discourse of contemporary music composition.  In addition, I will compose a new work to be performed by the renown German ensemble Ensemble SurPlus at the closing concert of the akademie period.


Pale Fire (2015) Selected and Featured on the Hear Now/PIE Concert, April 28th, 2017, as part of the Hear Now Festival 2017    (Los Angeles, USA)

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Pale Fire (2015) for solo piano and electronics is selected to be performed on the Hear Now/PIE (People Inside Electronics) concert of the Hear Now Festival 2017 in April!  Hear Now is a premium historic festival showcasing Los Angeles-based contemporary music composers.  Each year the program consists of works anonymously selected among submissions collected through invitations.  It is my pleasure to have Pale Fire (2015) receiving its third performance in Los Angeles, again performed by the virtuosic pianist Vicki Ray who commissioned the work in the first place!

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Collaboration with Ensemble Adapter in 2017

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Ensemble Adapter.  Photo courtesy of Ensemblekollektiv Berlin

I am honored to be selected as one of the five composers for Berlin-based Ensemble Adapter‘s commission program “Adoptions 2017”!  I will collaborate with Adapter for a new composition for flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, and electronics which will then be premiered and recorded in Berlin late next year.

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Pale Fire (2015) German premiere as part of the Next Generation konzert at Donaueschinger Musiktage 2016

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As a winner of the Call-for-Score, my solo piano and electronics piece Pale Fire (2015) will receive its European premiere as part of the Next Generation concert at this year’s Donaueschinger Musiktage (Donaueschingen Festival), featuring pianist Talvi Hunt, with electronics controlled by Emilio Guim.

Thursday, October 13th, 15h30
Konzertsaal der Musikhoschule Trossingen
Trossingen, Germany

Free Admission

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