Mian Chen // Composers of the WSYO Project

October 26, 2016

Earlier this year the CMC and the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra (WSYO) established an orchestral reading program for early career composers. In this series of blog posts we are profiling the composers who are taking part in the first edition of the project.

This week I chatted with composer Mian Chen. Chen had a connection to music from an early age, but comes at composing sideways as she presently spends a good amount of her time focusing on scientific studies. Thus she appears in her profile picture wearing a lab coat while playing the organ—I jokingly speculated this would make for an amusing photo, and without hesitation Mian agreed.

While we chatted on Slack, Chen shared more about her interest in scientific research, her musical background, and the piece she is developing for the WSYO in consultation with conductor Peter Wiebe.

mfava [8:29 PM] Where are you based now, and what are you studying?

mianchen93 [8:32 PM] I'm doing my masters degree at Stony Brook University in New York, actually this area is called Stony Brook because of our school. My major is Biochemistry and Cell Biology, so I go to the lab to do research everyday as well as take classes. I have actually never been in a music program, but I have always been closely connected to the people in music departments. In particular when I first started writing I was motivated by my teacher Roger Bergs, and I have been lucky enough to connect with many wonderful artists in Toronto, including composers, performers and a few conductors.

mfava [8:32 PM] Awesome!

[8:33] Before we move into music I have to ask about your studies. What systems do you work in? Plants, animals? Do you have a particular focus for your research?

mianchen93 [8:34 PM] I'm in the Biochemistry and cell biology department but actually my lab's focus is more "developmental biology" based. We study embryonic development by using zebra fish models.

mfava [8:36 PM] I am not sure how to frame this question

[8:36] but I am wondering about science as creativity

[8:36] whether the way you think about art is the way you think about science: hypothesis, observation, refinement...

mianchen93 [8:37 PM] That's an interesting question!

[8:41] I do not think about science when I'm composing, but music is always on my mind. If I'm performing an experiment, I have a tune in my head. Most of my inspiration does not come directly from science I guess. I always think that the scientist-me makes me rational, while the musician-me makes me emotional. I am particularly fond of Bach's music, and polyphony. Listening to fugues actually makes me relaxed because of the complexity. So I guess that is the connection between science and my music.

mfava [8:41 PM] Interesting. I have two superficial questions before we dive into music more directly

[8:42] you can answer one

[8:42] or both!

mianchen93 [8:42 PM] Sure :)

[8:42] No question is superficial ;)

mfava [8:42 PM] 1) What is your favourite sketching science sketch

[8:42] OR

[8:42] 2) Is Finding Nemo required viewing for your lab?

mianchen93 [8:43 PM] Lol I don't really have a favorite sketching science sketch to be honest, so I would answer the second one.

mfava [8:43 PM] sure thing!

mianchen93 [8:43 PM] Finding Nemo is not required viewing for my lab though I have watched both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory and I love them!!!

mfava [8:43 PM] haha

[8:44] Did that movie influence your choice to join your current lab?

mianchen93 [8:44 PM] No. I joined because I always liked developmental biology and fish.

[8:44] :)

mfava [8:44 PM] Haha. Amazing.

[8:44] Now, earlier you mentioned Roger Bergs.

[8:45] Can you elaborate on your introduction to music, and some of the people like Roger who shaped your relationship to music?

[8:45] Also, where does organ playing fit into that story?

mianchen93 [8:45 PM] That is indeed an important question.

[8:48] I was introduced to the piano by the age of four and have been a pianist since then. But I didn't really like music when I was young. It was not until high school that my interest in music suddenly emerged, and proceeded to grow into a passion for playing the piano and strong eagerness to compose. Back then, I joined the marching band at my high school and since there are no pianos in the marching band I was trained as the percussionist. I played the snare drum. This is the first part of the story.

mfava [8:49 PM] Nice.

[8:49] As a quick aside, I was also in the category of child-enrolled-in-piano-who-despises-piano-lessons.

mianchen93 [8:53 PM] Then, I took basic music theory lessons from Lusiana Lukman and Mark Andrews at the Classical Music Conservatory. They were my first theory and composition teachers. I was a bit frustrated by the fact that my family was not supportive of me going into a music program for undergrad back then. Lusiana was encouraging, and told me that I should not give up no matter what. Then, I met Roger Bergs, and began to take composition lessons from him. At first he taught me everything in a traditional approach, but soon he encouraged me to find my own style.

[8:56] Because I am Roger’s private student we took lessons at Knox Presbyterian Church where there is a very nice pipe organ. That's where I learned to play pipe organ, once again with Roger. Later I also received instructions from Kevin Komisaruk at U of T. My organist experience is really helpful for my growth as a composer, especially for orchestral music writing, because the biggest "problem" for pianist-composers, I think, is the fact that piano does not sustain notes. But in organ performance the timing of notes are important in the same way with string, woodwind, and brass instruments in the orchestra.

mfava [8:58] I figured the organ playing would factor into your composing. Pretty much every organist I know is a strong composer as well.

[8:58] Perhaps I shouldn't form a generalization based on selective observations...not very scientific.

[8:58] ANYWHO

[8:59] I did want to ask about the WSYO project!

mianchen93 [8:59 PM] Some of my favorite composers happened to be also organists too. I.e. Vaughan Williams, Mendelssohn, and BACH!!!!

mfava [8:59 PM] NICE!

[8:59] OK...before the WSYO project....

[8:59] I need to know your go-to pieces from those three composers

[9:00] The pieces you would listen to on repeat

[9:00] The pieces you turn to for comfort

mianchen93 [9:03 PM] I enjoy playing Bach everyday: on organ, on piano, and on harpsichord. Here at Stony Brook I have access to some really nice harpsichords! I’m a huge fan of pretty much every piece composed by Bach. Notable pieces include Well tempered Clavier, BWV 532 (prelude and fugue in E flat major for organ), and Brandenburg concerto No. 3. But again, there are too many pieces I like and would put on repeat...

mfava [9:03 PM] Totally fair. Jealous about the harpsichord!

mianchen93 [9:04 PM] For Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis!!!!! Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus!!!! And sometimes Lark Ascending when I have a very tiring day.

[9:06] Mendelssohn and Chopin are the two composers I really liked back in the day. I still love them but listen to more Schostakovich now lol. For Mendelssohn, Fingal's cave, Midnight summer's dream, Scottish symphony, and String quartet Op 80, Piano trio Op 49 and op 66.

mfava [9:06 PM] Do you feel these composers shape your musical language?

mianchen93 [9:09] Yes, and in different ways. I compose modal music just like Vaughan Williams, although I composed in this style before I knew Williams’ music. Back in the day, Roger would always say I remind him of Vaughan Williams and that's why I searched for some of Williams’ music in the first place. Bach definitely made me want to incorporate fugal sections everywhere, and polyphony is always a big part of my music. It's hard to say how directly Mendelssohn influenced my music, but it definitely shows up.

mfava [9:10 PM] Tell me about your WSYO piece. Are some of these characteristics appearing in your early sketches?

mianchen93 [9:12 PM] Yes. My WSYO piece is also composed in a modal minor (actually a mixture of two). And some parts have polyphonic writing but maybe not as much as a typical piece of mine.

mfava [9:13 PM] I forget, have you written for orchestra before?

mianchen93 [9:15 PM] Yes I have. Several pieces actually. I love writing for the orchestra. But until now I think I still have limited amount of experience because of the lack of real performances for the "longer" pieces. Hart House orchestra and my high school marching band have played my shorter pieces before.

mfava [9:16 PM] I'm curious to see how it turns out!

[9:16] I have one additional question for you

[9:16] It is about the idea of a music community.

[9:17] You have clearly found ways to explore music, and find mentors, teachers, and outlets for your music.

[9:18] I wonder whether you feel the WSYO project is an opportunity to connect and sustain a relationship with a wider music community (given the involvement of the CMC, WSYO, and other composer peers with various music backgrounds)?

mianchen93 [9:21 PM] Yes, definitely. I treat personal connections very seriously because I love connecting to people who share the same love for something. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to grow as composers and connect to each other, and hear what our peers write. I have always kept that in mind.

[9:21] I have one more thing I want to say about my WSYO piece that's not related to the "style" of the music, but remains a special part of it.

[9:22 PM] I have mentioned my high school marching band several times because that is one of my best memories.

[9:25] Members from WSYO are in the age range that I was in when I played in the marching band. I have decided that the music will contain a loosely related story from my past. In one part of the piece some instrumentalists are going to "march out" from the backstage. So some elements of the marching band are borrowed for this orchestral piece and I hope it turns out to be a good mixture of two.

mfava [9:26 PM] I can't wait to see/hear that!

mianchen93 [9:26 PM] (I have told Peter about this and he knows about it. It's doable.)

mfava [9:26 PM] Doable!

mianchen93 [9:26 PM] Thanks :) :) :)

mfava [9:26 PM] No problem!