5 Questions to Han Chen about Migration Music

When pianist Han Chen moved from Taiwan to the United States, it didn’t take long for him to become curious about how other musicians might understand their own transitions into new geographies. In “Migration Music,” Chen asks composers — Huang Ruo, Clarice Assad, and Vivian Fung among them — what it means to write music through and about their experiences as immigrants. In short interviews, Chen explores how the composers “found or rediscovered themselves through immigration,” and how the “immigrant experience deepened their selfhood and connection to home.” Each interview is paired with a performance by Chen, newly informed by the emotional connections shared in conversation. This project is presented by the Metropolis Ensemble.

Were there any goals/ideas that guided your choices of composers to feature or questions you asked them?

I started Migration Music because my friend Reinaldo Moya asked me to record a movement from his piece The Way North. It is a 40-minute piano cycle with 13 sections, and Reinaldo collaborated with 13 pianists to create an online performance. It was deep in the pandemic when every live performance was canceled, and I thought it was such a brilliant idea to do such a project. So I asked Reinaldo to do a Zoom interview with me, along with the recording, it came to be the first episode of Migration Music.

As the title of the piece shows, The Way North is about Central Americans migrating to the United States. Although it is a different immigration story from mine, it got me reflecting on my newly obtained permanent residency. At the same time, anti-AAPI hate crimes got unprecedented coverage in the media. All these incidents prompted me to ask my fellow immigrant composers about their immigration stories, creating music in America, and COVID’s impacts.

Now that I look back on the lineup, there is little surprise that I talked to many Asian-American composers. They are all musicians who I look up to and feel honored to include in the series. I also feel lucky that the last two episodes have involved world premieres of new pieces written by Jonah Haven (co-commissioned by Metropolis Ensemble and me) and Chiayu Hsu (a piece reflecting on people’s psychologies dealing with COVID).

You write in your introduction to Episode 5 with Huang Ruo that you wondered how immigration stories might have been different 20 or 30 years ago. How do you think your own experience fits within that longer history?

I definitely feel that when I came to New York, I was at the beginning of a “studying-abroad” boom. When I was at Juilliard, there were so many high-school classmates of mine studying there that I never felt alienated or lonely. It was starting to feel normal to leave your country and study abroad, and it became a common thing to do. As a result, it was easier for international students to adapt to a new environment, and chances were some of them would then find jobs and settle down.

Coming to a foreign country was also easier for me because we already had social media. I remember vividly that I was able to connect with some future classmates via Facebook even when I was still in Shanghai. We created a group to meet each other online and discuss how to prepare for the big move. So the first day when I arrived in New York, I already had friends waiting for me. I can’t believe it has been 12 years now! Somehow virtual meetings already happened back then without me realizing it.

Again, my immigration story is so personal and happened in a specific way that I am not saying it is all easy for everyone. But compared to 20 or 30 years ago, the whole process does feel less intimidating due to the internet, better economy, or just simply more people doing it. We are lucky that we don’t feel like we are walking in the dark when studying abroad because of the precedents carried out by the last generation.

Moving to a new place has been the norm in my life. Since I moved to Shanghai from Taiwan when I was 9-years-old, I have moved around with my family or myself ever since. However, I remember feeling that I was part of this global village where people all around the world could come together anywhere to study, work, and live harmoniously. As much as I am concerned about immigration in my work right now, I also hope that one day it will become less of a political issue, but rather a topic of culture and heritage.

Has your experience making Migration Music affected the way you approach creative tasks like interpreting, curating, and framing or describing music for your listeners?

Making Migration Music has been an eye-opening experience for me in many different aspects. The project lends me the right to ask the composers about some of their most personal experiences, which can be almost inappropriate in daily conversations. I learned that there are no two identical immigration stories, and they are always intertwined with all other things going on in life, things I just wouldn’t know without doing this project.

The level of connection I built with the composers gave me extra intimate feelings when performing their music. I guess all new music performers love what we do because of the relationships we can have with the composers. Doing these interviews talking about big issues takes everything to a new level for me, where I understand how important it is to know each composer’s heritage before I can really make the music speak closer to the composer’s tongue. This impacts me beyond the series, as I am now striving for the same level of understanding when playing other music, as well.

It is also because of the series that I built such a special repertoire. It broadened the way I can program my concerts while knowing how they may fit well together. It definitely makes me talk more personally about the composers, and that also brings the audience closer to the music. The composer’s stories created an entryway for me and the audience to engage with the music.

Do you envision performers continuing to engage with similar born-digital projects as you incorporate more in-person events in your programming?

I believe that performers will continue to develop different ways to engage their audience digitally. As much as I love in-person performances, I see digital content as a different art form. Of course, some of the best live streams that happened during the pandemic gave such wonderful replicas of live performances, but I still think digital content is a different creature.

There are different ways I look at digital content, one of them being the way of building a community. The online community became more vital and palpable during the lockdowns, as it was the only way people could connect. However, such feelings were already prevalent in the younger generations, especially those who grew up meeting people online. Connecting with people online is no longer the alternative, but in some cases the main resource. If there is one thing that digital content can do better than live performances, that would be creating a larger community without the restraint of locality.

I also look at digital content as virtual installations that reflect the artist in reality. Artists who make stuff online are creating installations in the virtual world, which can be seen as the representation of the artists and developed throughout the time. It is a continuous effort to create a presence online, but it is also a great way to express oneself. In the 21st century, I do feel a bit scared that the virtual world sometimes overshadows reality. What I mean is, if one thing can’t be found online, its existence seems to become questionable. We are all navigating through this coexistence of online and offline identities, but I do see that performers will (or need to) continue to create more digital projects.

Han Chen--Photo by Zhenwei Liu

Han Chen–Photo by Zhenwei Liu

Are there any lessons or takeaways from Migration Music that you hope your artistic community will build upon through their own creative practice in the future?

I am still learning along the way. I had the luxury of time to learn everything, from recording, filming, hosting an interview, to editing the video. But I wouldn’t have learned all these if I didn’t start Migration Music. We live in a world with so many professionals that sometimes we can be too afraid to do anything. However, it shouldn’t be the reason to stop any artist from creating something. I encourage anyone to start any project right away if it feels close to the heart. Try hard to make it happen, but also allow yourself to make mistakes.

I feel extremely lucky to have so many composers who agreed to the project. The musical community is so supportive of each other, and one just has to ask to be supported. I guess sometimes pianists forget that the musical community is an interdependent ecosystem, and the beauty of it is that everyone gets to support and be supported. It can feel intimidating to start new projects without many credentials existing in place, but no one can tell whether things will work out without actually doing them.

I want to especially thank Metropolis Ensemble for supporting the series. When they heard about the project, they saw its potential and jumped in to help with so many things. Without their help, I wouldn’t have created so many great memories working on the project and met so many amazing composers.


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