As origin stories go, Audrey Chen‘s is a rather fine one. Born outside of Chicago in 1976 to a family of scientists, doctors, and engineers, Chen learned to play the cello at age eight, and trained soon after as a conservatory soprano. While most kids pedaled bikes around the block on the weekend, she was bent over sheet music in her bedroom, practicing for the next oratorio. Conjuring a storm which would baffle a conductor, the music Chen currently creates defies her childhood background. Rather than performing pre-written scores, she composes instinctively, merging voice and cello in hair-raising improvisations.
The change was transformative. In 2003 Chen was introduced to Baltimore’s invigorating arts community. Inspired by her left-field peers, Chen began to create her own music, realizing that improvisation could be honest in its spontaneity. Chen has recently focused on creating music using her voice as a lead instrument, realizing that it allows her to experience her body as a “recording device” from the inside out. It’s a decision, she explains, both conceptual and practical, resulting after a surgery made it difficult to tour with the cello. Chen’s vocals employ the tongue and mouth, of course, but also thoughts and feelings, reflective states of being.
Her recent collaborative projects map how sound moves within, and between, human bodies. Her collaboration with synthesizer player Richard Scott, Hiss and Viscera, could soundtrack an arcane ritual by an urban dervish. Scott’s synthesizer atomizes Chen’s slurps and chirps, the two swaying in fissures and flashes. In tandem with British singer and jazz trumpeter turned left-field improviser Phil Minton, By the Stream sources sound solely from wordless vocalizations, spelunking the seemingly fathomless pit that is the human body. For the uninitiated, it may resemble a barista whipping up a latte, or maybe hysterics from jungle primates. (In other words: it’s guaranteed to drench the nearest microphone.) Exchanging humidity for airiness, her Beam Splitter collaboration with trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø fruits like a desert flower. Chen’s vocal cords twine delicately with brass horn, sputtering in spasms between form and formlessness.
Chen’s debut solo album from 2006,
Glacial, protrudes with a craggy purpose. Arcos of cello tremble like splinters lodged beneath the fingernails. Plucked bass notes loop beneath vocals resembling the Middle Eastern zaghareet, shrieking passionately. Elsewhere blasts from analogue synthesizer blow through a tundra chilled by tongue trills. Chen’s second solo album, 2018’s Runt Vigor, slithers where Glacial explodes. If left out overnight, it just might curdle milk. Lathered in saliva and bristling with hair, Chen’s vocals loom like the walrus décollaged on the album cover. The instruments rarely appear in their native form: bowed cello cross hatches claxon-shrill synth drones; plucked notes skip a stuttering jump rope of squelching electronics. Runt Vigor‘s atmosphere evokes the alien landscapes of H. R. Giger, dank vistas crawling with unseen menace, leaving one clutching one’s chest in fear of rupture.
For Chen, vigor is a virtue when conceiving music within the venue of the human body. Fragile yet ferocious, her sonic rituals buzz with primal energy, uninhibited. Fifteen years ago, Chen discovered an invigorating alternative to classical music, ushering in a role change from
instrument player to music creator. Since then, she has passionately pursued the catharsis that instictive music making provides. Her freedom is our discovery, a transformation recruiting every organ, tissue, and bone along the way.
The following interview was conducted by email and Skype during the summer of 2018. Chen found time to answer questions, somehow, during her tireless, globetrotting journey: while working in Upstate New York as an alumnus-in-residence at an artist residency; then while performing in New York City, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Ecuador, back in Los Angeles, Berlin, Norway, and home in Berlin, again. With such commitment to her craft, I hope she flies first class. Don’t forget your passport, Audrey.
How would you describe your music to others who are unfamiliar with it? Do you still feel that you create “music” proper? Or is your work closer to a form of performance art, sound art, noise, or, perhaps, more generally, a form of personal expression or exploration which just happens to use sound as its medium?
I guess what I do incorporates all of the above. I don’t want to create a definition. Even the point of my not using words is linked to my endeavor to explore something that is inexplicable. Labels, boxes, words… all feel too specific for something that I feel is much more unspecific.
There is a beauty that I find in those in-between spaces. You might be able to feel something, and it’s familiar, but it’s not definitive, like when you have three or four emotions at the same time. I have to put a lot of trust in what comes out of my subconscious. I have to trust my instincts and in my technical and decision-making capabilities. But I especially have to trust in these things that aren’t tactile that I can’t define.
When I talk to people about my work, the easiest and most inaccurate way is to say that what I’m making is experimental music that is improvised. But I really don’t feel that what I do is “experimental”. And I don’t believe that improvising is a genre. I’m a deep believer in not wanting to categorize my work. Part of what I’m doing is trying to break down assumptions.
Maybe there’s some energy that drives me to push beyond boundaries to make something honest and unique. But it’s not unique for the sake of being unique; it’s unique for the sake of trying to find out why I am what I am and why I do what I do. Part of my work is about self-reflection, philosophy, and how I live my life. I try to get as close to that as possible in the way that I produce sound and hopefully I make this evident for the listener as well.
In contrast to free improvisation music, which often disengages from empirical grounding, rarely beginning or ending anywhere terrestrial, your work dwells entirely within your flesh—spittle-fleshed and flush with capillaries. Can you describe your approach to embodying music through your self-described “oral/aural histories”? How aware are you of everyday experiences as source potential for artistic expression?
At the core of what I do are my voice and my body. I try to keep a close intimacy between these two, my decisions that I have made throughout my life, individuating and discovering all the flavors, sensations, emotions that make up these histories and what I will become. I don’t necessarily view what I do as a body of work, but an endeavor to more clearly reflect, to be deeply attuned and to accept what is happening and what is carried through me. This is the body acting as a recording device, in a constant embodiment of my biological, physical, intellectual, tactile and experiential past, present and future.
Please elaborate on how “personal primitive rituals” connect you to a deeper source, engaging mind, body, and spirit. What are these rituals and what role do they have in your concept and practice of music making as both an art form and means of primitive communication?
Ritual exists daily for me as well as in the performance moment. I connect what I do so holistically to how I live, that it’s hard to distinguish any of it as separate from my artistic practice. I have described before that “my material is taken experientially and through feeling and listening — even subconscious hearing — stored as an accumulated mass of muscle memory, knowledge and personal biography.
When performing, all this mass becomes expanded once again through a kind of physical, technical process/release, which is part intellectual, ritual and part primal athleticism.” The voice is linked to the physical body and in the performance; I am in this “constant state of internal triggering and invocation” of bodily and emotional memory.
What, if any, lasting influence has your classical training had on your current work—either mechanically as a tool (through methods of performance or maintenance, such as vocal lessons, warm-ups, scales, etc.) or aesthetically as a vehicle for a certain type of formal content (within the context of an extensive music tradition)? Is your background something that empowers you, or something that you willfully react against?
My relationship with this part of my past has changed over the years. I started working with the cello and voice over 30 years ago. My reasons for continuing and then transforming my practice have moved in tandem and have been directly linked with my coming of age, moving into adulthood, motherhood (which has occupied all of my adulthood thus far), and decisions that have shaped the depth of my experiences. The stringent study and repetitive practice in my youth have changed but inhabit me completely. Training provided skill and with the technique, I gained deeper access to coordination and fine muscle control, which can be used to dissect and manipulate timbre, volume, and dexterity.
I needed and still depend on all this foundation to further push my physical limits with the voice and cello alike. Whatever formal content I may have ingested during that time… it has more or less merged together with everything else that I have heard at this point and more than likely still informs me.
Is there a political or socially-conscientious component which binds your music to a larger continuum of life? Why does art still matter in the 21st century?
What I do isn’t necessarily political in content, but I believe that my responsibility to the “larger continuum” is found relevant through the way I live through my music and vice versa. My performances are unabashedly honest, raw and visceral. I give my all every time. I own myself.
I am a woman of color, a second generation Asian American, for most of the last 20 years, a single mother of my now 18-year-old and bringing him on tour with me for much of that as well. I have had to make a lot of difficult decisions, had to push against what was expected of me, what was assumed I should limit myself to being and have tried to do all this with as much grace and dignity as I could muster. I compromise and am uncompromising.
I hope that I can convey this kind of self-belief and drive to others by example and experiencing what I can give in the moment of performance, a moment for which I take full and deep responsibility. I hope that I can inspire others in this way to live their lives with strength, love, compassion, passion and unwavering commitment to what you believe in.
Whether intentional or not, Glacial, your first solo album from 2006, alludes to the ongoing crisis of global warming in both title and in harrowing musical effect. Your most recent solo album, Runt Vigor, seems more enigmatic, perhaps more personal—or at least more direct. Are you conscious of how your relationship to the social environment (considering variables such as gender, ethnicity, class, etc.) influences how you experience or perform your music?
In reference to the solo albums you mentioned, Glacial, was in fact recorded live in an enormous medieval sanctuary in the Czech Republic in the middle of winter. It was frigid in the room… so much that I could see my breath as I was performing.
Runt Vigor was a more carefully conceived album but no less improvised in the moment. What I mean to say, is that while I live my life in a way that I am conscious of how I represent myself, living with the goal to be as honest with myself as possible, with integrity and clear intent, when I perform, I move almost wholly into a kind of subconscious state. My decisions are apparent, my motives wide open, but abstracted beyond any literal sense.
The fact that I lay myself open in this way, displaying my strength, sadness, fragility, skill and lack thereof speaks its own volumes. The social environment, of course, has had a huge effect on my life, all those aspects you mention. They weave their way into what I do because they are a part of me.
Many of your projects feature the interplay of the performing duo. Even your solo albums reflect this twofold force, albeit between yourself and yourself, pairing your voice with cello or synth. Is the duo dynamic sheerly a practical consideration, or is there virtue in reducing the input variables to just yourself and a single collaborator?
I adore the duo format. The dynamic resembles much of how I feel when having a one on one, a heart to heart with another person. There is a kind of openness, intimacy and fragility that can occur that becomes less apparent when more variables or voices are added into the mix. Just as the relationship changes depending on individual personalities, so do these interactions.
Also, the instrumentation from full percussion set up, modular synthesis to one other voice or trombone, can heavily influence the way the reciprocation will manifest. I tend to gravitate towards material that’s heavy with an unspecific implication, sounds that you can feel in a visceral way but don’t necessarily remind you of anything you can put your finger on.
Regarding your collaborative project, Beam Splitter, with Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø, an unusual duo pairing his trombone with your voice, you mentioned that “It is sometimes a challenge for me to find my way inside of the almost austere use of his sound language, but it also creates a kind of unusual tension and release which often achieves compelling result.” For both listeners and performers, navigating this palpable tension requires an acceptance of what is other or unknown. Please discuss some of the greater challenges and rewards of your work thus far. And what have such experiences of “unusual tension” taught you about your nature as a musician or as a person?
The key word is “challenge”. This is a part of my personal nature, a deep tendency towards following a more difficult path, for better or for worse. Since childhood, I have often made decisions that would bring me more experience, flavor, change and not just a small amount of hardship. I’m drawn to these situations and maybe subconsciously addicted to the kind of struggle that ensues… because I learn from them. “Tension” is a part of life and we learn daily to overcome it into release. In this process, I am constantly discovering solutions and new ways of being.
You’ve spoken of how values such as honesty and integrity drive your work. For a form of music that is created without the use of a score, and is free of lyrical content, can you describe how such values are embodied apart from a classical canon or a common tongue?
This aspect, which I think you’re talking about, is most effectively experienced in a live performance setting. Although I have some recordings out (few in comparison to many others), what I do is really built for the animated, breathing space, which is shared in the moment. Much of my sound world is created with an extreme physical investment, which becomes most apparent in that situation. The material is honest, direct and extremely visceral because it is generated for the most part, from my body. I think people can feel this, at least… I can.
Your music seems largely indifferent to ideals of symmetry in its celebration of the bizarre. In some ways, it resembles a sonic equivalent of Antonin Artaud‘s poetry: a theatrical force embracing the monsters of mundanity. Is there an ideal that you strive to embody within your work? Is beauty still possible, or even desirable?
Aesthetics take a second place to my need for self-honesty and going through the process of living. What I do is an aural/corporeal reflection of my life, my temper, my cravings, my choices… mundane or inspired. I think that I don’t entirely ignore the idea of beauty. It’s just that my definition of it is pretty wide and fluid.
There’s no lofty ideal or end goal. I’m learning, re-learning, striving for something always, something I hope I never really find out what that is, even when I die.
Where do you currently find inspiration? Besides art, what else motivates you to rethink your connection with your body, your work, or the world?
In regards to my influences… It’s all very experiential and biographical, more than anything to do with any concrete artistic inspiration. For me, life is much more inspiring than any piece of art that somebody can make. Of course, this is not to discount my experiences with artworks, compositions, and performances, which have at moments in my life been truly inspiring. It’s more of an inclusivity of all the mundane junctures that connect every action of the day, my changing temperament.
The biggest motivation in my life thus far has been my 18-year relationship with my son and my experiences as a single mother and a woman of color. I had him on my own for many years. I’ve brought him all over the world on tour with me so I could keep him close, so he could taste the world with me. There have been so many challenges and extraordinary adventures that we lived together.
But also, as many may know, having a child is also a huge collection of everyday obstacles that we must try to gracefully overcome. We lived in a warehouse where he rode his bicycle to the bathroom daily; we’ve been in Valencia on the beach at midnight after Paella; in Tokyo at a searingly loud noise show where I performed, and there was pole dancer that he just took for a dancing ninja; cherry blossoms; Route 66 southern BBQ; long highways and pit stops galore… We lived a lot together already, mother and son. And now he’s embarking on his adulthood, studying chemical engineering at UCLA. We both survived. And this immense pride and closeness I have with him also deeply extends into my practice.
My practice is my life. I had mentioned before this idea of my body acting as a recording device, a barometer for the changes occurring continuously. As I live and age, I’m fascinated by all the nuances that move me through my days, my taste, the ebb and flow of my energies, my ability to feel, think and improvise in all circumstances and aspects of life.
Of course, in one way it’s very self-involved because I’m basically going through a therapeutic invoking of my subconscious as I’m working through this very physical process. I don’t use any sound processing with my voice. It’s like an extreme sport using the inside of my body. I’m pushing to see how far it can go, accessing all of these areas, these parts of my body which carry memories.
There’s no finished work. There’s no end goal, no end story, no end game. I just keep on going, inhabiting this physical body until I don’t anymore.
At this moment in your life, what part of speech (or, if you prefer, preposition or phrase) best describes you as a person or as an artist?
I am, I was, I will be… states of being, the verb “to be”.