Yuan-Chen Li first arrived on the contemporary music scene in Taiwan with her very personal use of instrumentation and style in her chamber music piece Zang (the funeral) in 2000. In 2003, the expression and orchestration of her orchestral work Awakening won the prize at the 2003 Asian Music Festival in Tokyo from the Asian Composers’ League, and was subsequently premiered by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

In recent years, Yuan-Chen’s music reflects her transformation of processes and concepts in Chinese phonology, Taiwanese chamber and aboriginal music, Asian traditional arts, literature, and Buddhism into a compositional technique for solo, chamber, and orchestra of both Western and Chinese instruments, offering new experience to her audience and collaborators with the cross-cultural and cross-disciplined approach to musical time, space, and drama. With her virtuosity in instrumentation and fluency in converging and synthesizing contrastingly cultural, musical, and conceptual ideas, her treatment of the space of sonority, temporality, texture, and syntax have engaged musicians of different practices, critics, researchers, and worldwide listeners.

Today, Yuan-Chen is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists. Read on to…

Who were your first favorite artists growing up?

I used to watch lots of music videos on MTV and listen to movie soundtracks. While growing up, other than many lovely voices from Disney movies and musicals such as Jodi Benson and Aileen Quinn, I remember listening to the recordings of Enya (Irish singer/songwriter) and Michael Jackson while traveling for the first time in South Africa in early 1990s. As I recall, I must have listened to Enya on the road the whole time, and since then I have collected many of her albums. 

When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?

I knew that I wanted to take music as the primary subject of my study when entering middle school. And instead of considering a teacher’s college, I applied to only one music conservatory in Taiwan for college admission. I was steadfast about creative and performing arts being the output of my life. 

What was your most unusual performance?

In the winter of 2017, I visited LA’s Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra for the west coast premiere of my cello concerto “Wandering Viewpoint.” I followed the group to the homeless shelter for the run-through of my piece. It was like a typical setup of everything for musicians, but the unique thing about this occasion was the audience. People who were desperate for a better situation for their life were provided a moment of music. I was so touched by such an encounter, and the image of this performance has since then been a keeper in my memory. 

What is your guilty pleasure? 

Bubble tea!

If you could make a living at any job in the world, what would that job be?

It would have to do with music and it must be for the community!

If you could spend creative time anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I would need a room with a white writing desk, a tree in front of the window, and located in a place reasonably walkable for a break. 

What is your favorite instrument to play?

My answer is usually the piano when people ask me what my instrument is. I can play music from memory, improvise, and collaborate with musicians on piano. Besides that, I enjoy very much playing double bass in the orchestra and wind band. I like them both! 

What was your favorite musical moment on the album?

Oh, it is quite indescribable. I felt somewhat uncanny about the sound made by Jessica Maxfield (the soloist in Tell) when I first heard of it. As I had hoped for, the solo sounds like a superhuman combination of singing and saxophone sound. Jessica nailed it, especially in the last 40 seconds with a Pow-Wow-like moment.

What does this album mean to you personally? 

I feel that I have moved beyond self-expression and am onto something. The album is a marker that I am giving my compositional voice to the story of others (the natives of North America and Taiwan). It is terrific that Navona Records has been so supportive of my project, and committed to bringing my sounds to the world along with many other exciting works by composers around the world. 

Tell on FIGMENTS 2 is now available for streaming or purchase through Navona Records. Click here to explore this new album.