Interview with Yuan-Chen Li

On January 13th, Kaleidoscope will kick off the new year with an eclectic array of new chamber works. Yuan-Chen Li, one of the three composers featured in this concert series, will have her West Coast premiere of Wandering Viewpoints alongside Patrick O’Malley’s Paths Penumbra and Oliver Lewin’s Dialogues. Generously donating her time, I was able to sit down with Ms. Li and not only talk about the inspirations and influences that went into writing Wandering Viewpoints, but how her passion for learning about the similarities between cultures, traditions, and musics of the world has become the driving force behind her compositional goals of creative a sense of global unity.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started with music?

Yuan-Chen Li: I have a very typical background with music, nothing special, and started playing piano when I was four years old. While learning the piano I started improvising, but by the time I was nine I was introduced to formal composition techniques and started writing music.

CR: Wow, so you were young when you started writing music!

YCL: Yes. I grew up in Taiwan with two different sound worlds, one having been the learned Western canon, and the other just by hearing Taiwanese music around me.

CR: I see. When did you move the United States?

YCL: I came in 2006.

CR: How has the experience been for you? Do you miss home at all?

YCL: I find the US intriguing in many ways because its multicultural and multiethnic society is intense and inspiring. The most interesting thing to me is that the issues here are very different from Taiwan because Taiwan is a country primarily informed by East Asians’ culture. In addition to the regional, traditional, and agricultural value, there is also the international, Westernized, and industrial perspective. But overall, I like the US too. I’ve been treated well, and people are respectful and are open. I don’t go back to Taiwan often, but I do miss the food and the traditional music, which interestingly enough is a kind of chamber music. However, there’s a large Taiwanese population on the West Coast so I’m excited to go to LA and interact with people from my home country!

CR: I’m excited for you, too! Does Taiwanese music follow the pentatonic structure like in Chinese music?

YCL: Not at all. Like I said, Taiwanese traditional music is a type of chamber music, and our traditional music is actually the most provocative kind of genre emphasizing harmony. It consists of a mixed ensemble like bamboo flute, one or two strings like the Erhu, and other two plucked stringed instruments. But Taiwanese music does not follow the pentatonic scale so exact much as it does different modal scales and tunings.

CR: Do you try to incorporate Taiwanese music into your own music?

YCL: It depends on what I’m writing, but yes, I do use materials and styles from Taiwanese music. In the case of
Wandering Viewpoints, the piece has a large amount of heterophony that comes from the influence of a Buddhist free chant. In fact, in a review I got for the world premiere of this piece they thought it sounded impressionistic. At first I didn’t understand how, but I later learned that Debussy actually drew inspiration from Southeast Asian music. He being one of the most famous impressionist composers in the Western canon, I can see how to a Western ear the textures in my piece may be most relatable to that place in music history, but technically the material used for this piece derives from a heterophonic Buddhist chant.

CR: Very interesting! Specific to the structure, can you offer a guide to the readers on what they may experience upon hearing and seeing your piece performed?

YCL: It’s titled Wandering Viewpoint because I was curious about channeling the audience to the sound perspective of two ensembles performing at the same time across a larger physical space. The audience will also notice that there’s a cello soloist who plays almost all the time with the ensembles, and our soloist, Mr. Kaufman, is almost acting as a middle man. Unlike most times with soloists, the audience focus will shift to and from the soloist, wandering here and there between the two ensembles and the cellist. In relation to the actual music, the very beginning mimics Tibetan throat singing in the string instruments which will make very subtle vibrations. Over the course of the piece, there will be reiterations of the same tune about three or four times which you will hear evolve. The first iteration is very sporadic, the second starts to come together, and the third is contrapuntal, so there’s a revolution amongst the tune that has some cultural association.

CR: I can’t wait to hear it! Never having worked with a conductorless orchestra before, what are some of your expectations? What are you excited or nervous about?

YCL: Well, with this performance I really wanted to experiment more with the spacial arrangement. The world premiere everyone sat too close together, and when that happens the ensembles blend together too much. What I’m hoping for this time is that by further separating the ensembles and the soloist we can really hear the different counterpoint, as that much more adheres to a true viewpoint that wanders.

CR: Absolutely. So, Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

YCL: There’s so much commonality in the world’s music that I want to explore in my career and share with others. For example, the pentatonic scale is a common scale that a lot of folksongs share in various cultures, and in learning these different folksongs something new can be created and pieced together. Additionally, in another piece of mine that has Taiwanese influences, the flute player who played for me was from Russia. When he played it, he said it reminded him of Romanian music. Music, no matter where it comes from, has a way of bringing us together in its shared commonalities despite all other variables.

CR: Very true.

YCL: Yes. In the case of Wandering Viewpoints, I think that this piece will speak to people in this way. Religion is a very communal experience for so many people, but when people think about religious music they mostly think about church music. Buddhist chants count as religious music as well, and I want to bring attention to that. That’s the overarching vision I have for this piece, that no matter what instruments you play, what styles you’re playing, where you’re from, what you grew up with, musicians and audience members can find a common ground; to me, this piece represents unity amongst communities.

CR: That’s wonderful that the piece is so inclusive, and that you as a composer value unity. Speaking more to yourself, what are some of your hobbies?

YCL: Well, when I eventually go back to Taiwan I want to leave with the least amount of souvenirs as possible, but I love to make ceramics. I’m very interested in that process from start to finish. As a composer I don’t really touch what I’m creating, it’s more about listening, so I want to have something I can touch and create with my hands, too. The other thing I like to do is watch live stream videos of cats *laughter*; I love cats.

CR: *laughter* That’s amazing! Do you have a cat?

YCL: No, which is why I watch the live streams *laughter*

CR: Ok *laughter* If you did, what kind would you have?

YCL: I like Calicos and orange cats.

CR: Great! What’s something you’d like to leave with our readers as a final statement?

YCL: It’s quite natural to be aurally attracted to the soloist of any piece, but the journey I want to take the audience through extends beyond that. Make sure to try and experience the spacial aesthetic of the piece!

CR: Great! That’s all the questions I have, thank you for talking!

YCL: Thank you!

Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.


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Carrie Rexroat