Traversing Musical Boundaries – An Interview with Churen Li | The Flying Inkpot
Ding Yi Music Company, known for its inimitable blend of the traditional and contemporary in Chinese chamber music, opens its 2023 season with a concert that features 2 conductors, 3 soloists and 4 world premieres – by Cultural Medallion winner Phoon Yew Tien, Ding Yi’s composer-in-residence Jon Lin Chua, Singaporean composer Koh Cheng Jin, and Chinese composer Gao Wei Jie. The fascinating programme for the evening captures the central themes of Ding Yi’s 2023 concert season: rediscovering aspirations (初心), seeking fresh and unique voices (新音乐), and bringing together musical talents in collaboration (汇集). The Flying Inkpot talks to Churen Li, who will be performing Phoon Yew Tien’s new arrangement of the piano concerto “Youth” (originally written by Liu Shikun, Sun Yilin, Pan Yiming, Huang Xiaofei), about what inspires her and why the way forward is to push boundaries.
Interview by Aileen Tang
The Flying Inkpot: Churen, you’re known as one of the most exciting young Singaporean artists in recent years, with your intriguing blend of classical and contemporary, East and West – and everything else in between! What were your musical influences growing up?
Churen Li: Wow, thank you! One of my earliest musical memories is playing my composition, “To Mother with Love”, at the then newly-opened Esplanade, which I had written as a birthday present for my mother. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz, and I think some of that musical language makes its way into how I improvise and compose now.
After graduating as the youngest of my cohort at the age of 19 from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, NUS with my first degree, I moved to the US and UK for my Masters’s at Yale and Cambridge respectively. There, I explored different things like avant-garde experimental music and music academia. All of these explorations have enriched my approach to the piano.
Usually, classical musicians are expected to play what is written on the page. But for me, composing and creativity have always been at the heart of how I play piano and are so intrinsically linked to every aspect of pianism — creativity in sound, connecting soul to mind, balancing rhythm, form and freedom. It doesn’t matter what genre of music I am playing because all music is music. But I will give it my 200%.
TFI: What inspires you to challenge the boundaries of what people expect from a “classically-trained concert pianist”?
Churen: It might seem odd for us to imagine that now, but classical music composers like Liszt and Rossini were the equivalent of pop music superstars back in their days. The passing of time has caused the music to be ossified in terms of perception and performance traditions, but what we consider “classical music” was ever-changing and alive back when it was written. Franz Liszt caused women to swoon at his concerts, Rossini made millions from the success of his operas. They were actively responding to culture and people. We’ve lost a bit of that nowadays, and that is what I think classical music can “learn” from other genres of music, because the way we present classical music hasn’t changed since the 20th century. Sitting in hallowed silence, never applauding between movements, wearing concert black? I believe we should be using all tools at our disposal to tell the story – whether it’s with social media, fashion or stage design.
TFI: You will be performing Phoon Yew Tien’s new adaptation of the Piano Concerto “Youth” with Ding Yi Music Company at the end of this month. What persuaded you to say yes?
Churen: I have much respect for the elder Mr Phoon’s work — and his son, Phoon Yu [Ed: also a composer], is a good friend of mine. Being able to premiere one of his new arrangements is a huge honour. Additionally, the unique combination of Western classical music with Chinese chamber music elements, as performed by Ding Yi, is particularly intriguing for me. As an Asian who has spent her life exploring Western classical music, which is deeply rooted in the cultural history of Europe, I am excited by this opportunity to re-discover my Chinese heritage through music.
In addition, working with artists of diverse genres and media gives me a lot of inspiration — I believe the core of why we create is similar, but the ways we express what we want to say are different, and that is really interesting for me. Traditional Chinese music has its own stylistic features and aesthetic that will be new for me and I look forward to being stretched beyond familiar musical boundaries in a genre or medium that I am less familiar with.
TFI: What are your thoughts on Ding Yi’s distinctive style of Chinese chamber music?
Churen: I really appreciate how Ding Yi seeks to push the boundaries of traditional Chinese music while still retaining its essence. It’s refreshing and innovative, and to me, this perfectly encapsulates the spirit of being Singaporean-Chinese — Western-influenced in thought but retaining our Asian soul.
TFI: Western classical piano concerts and Chinese chamber music typically reach different audiences. What are your views on Singaporean audiences’ willingness to explore arts performances outside of their comfort zone? How can we better nurture a culture of curiosity and exploration when it comes to the arts?
Churen: Collaborations between diverse genres and modes of music-making can help to nurture new audiences and cross-pollinate interest between these different arts groups. Arts festivals and events help to promote accessibility and interest in performances from different genres or cultural backgrounds. It’s always easier and more convenient to collaborate with the artists whose work we are familiar with — one speaks the same language and employs similar methods of working — which is why I am doubly grateful to Ding Yi for reaching out and giving me this opportunity to collaborate with and learn from them.
TFI: If you could magically be proficient in an ethnic musical instrument of your choice overnight, which would it be and why?
Churen: “Magically proficient”… I think part of the joy of doing anything really is in the process and journey of getting very good at it. It’s an attractive thought, but I’m not sure if I’d want to skip past the tears and frustration of learning how to play an instrument. That being said, if I had to choose one instrument to be good at, it would be traditional Chinese singing. I have always been fascinated by how stylistically different that kind of singing is — everything from the phrasing, nuances, facial expressions and aesthetic of communication, vocal quality and outfits.
Tickets for Traversing《心 • 音乐 • 汇》are available from SISTIC
Sat 29 April 2023, 7.30pm
Singtel Waterfront Theatre
Dedric Wong De Li, Conductor
Joshua Tan, Guest Conductor
Yvonne Tay, Guzheng
Churen Li, Piano
Chua Yew Kok, Pipa
Ding Yi Music Company