Interview: Audrey Chen | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Audrey Chen is a musician who was born into a family of material scientists, doctors and engineers, outside of Chicago in 1976. She turned to the cello at age 8 and voice at 11 and after years of classical and conservatory training in both instruments, she began experimenting with sound in order to discover a more individually honest aesthetic. Her music, which is mainly improvised, uses the cello, voice and analogue electronics to present non-linear storytelling that is personal yet captivating for the audience watching. Audrey is performing at Friday 11th October (9:30pm) at Sage, Gateshead as part of Tusk Festival 2019 so we caught up with her to find out more.

How much would you say your upbringing in such an academic family has inspired your music? 
I am a second-generation Chinese/Taiwanese American from an academic immigrant family. The youngest of three children, I began my studies with the cello and voice just three years apart at 8 and 11 years old. By this time, my sister was already applying to medical school and my brother taking after my parents by way of his strong inclinations in science and mathematics. Music came to me as a kind of refuge and rescue, stealing me away from familial expectations and protecting me against the social antagonization in a mostly then white society in rural New Hampshire. While my decision to make “music” may have caused a rift in my family relations, it is not entirely uninfluenced by their decisions and past. 

My mother’s father was a general in Chiang-Kai Shek’s Nationalist government and my grandmother (his wife) also a highly educated woman and mother of five. When they escaped the Communist regime in the late 1940s, they arrived in Taiwan and struggled to get a footing in this new country. But they managed to create a life for themselves, and all 5 children, including my mother, went on to get their doctorates. My mother was the first woman in her college to get an engineering degree. She met my father in those years, also an engineering student. I know less about my father’s family history, but he was the youngest of nine children, born in Taiwan and of all his siblings except one, went on to get a higher degree. He was also the only one to leave the country when he and my mother left Taiwan together in the mid-60s to both attend the University of Minnesota, eventually get their doctorates in the Material Sciences and immigrating to the US in pursuit of a better life.

I recognize that this is only a small part of the story which makes me who I am but their decisions and movements have influenced me in a profound way. My music is deeply intertwined with my personal narrative and about perceptions of process and time. It has been shaped by isolation and a kind of vigour and persistence which comes from the energy of my parents and theirs before them. 

What inspired you to marry traditional instrumentation with such a modern style? (I’d be interested to know if there were any other musicians you admired that perhaps led you down this path?) And you’ve explained that your music is now veering more towards experimentation with the voice as the primary instrument, can you explain a bit more about why you’re interested in pursuing this?
The reason for using the cello and voice in respect to this is/was process-oriented and rather a renegotiation of my relationship with both instruments which I have been working with for over 30 plus years. And for now, the cello has been on hiatus for the last few years in order to delve deeper with the more simplified unprocessed voice and analogue electronics set up. The temporary removal of the cello element removes an aspect of expectation and historical baggage that is so strongly intertwined with that instrument.

Addressing your question in parentheses; I haven’t been influenced directly by specific artists but in general, by those I have met and performed with during the last 17 years. The strongest influence for me resides more in my narrative, my histories, my life as a single mother, the child of immigrants, and my ancestors’ stories; their trauma and mine. My story extends back beyond what I can even remember but is alive in my body and triggered by the extreme physicality of my voice. 

What can the TUSK festival audience expect from your performance?
It will be a completely improvised performance using unprocessed, amplified voice and an analogue electronics instrument called the “Fourses”, built by Peter Blasser. Beyond establishing these parameters of sound, every performance is informed by the moment… so the audience and I will discover this together. 

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