YANG CHEN IS CULTIVATING HAPPINESS
By: Laura Stanley | Photo by Evie Maynes | Art by: Laura Stanley
Over the wretched winter of 2020/2021, a pandemic period marked by lockdowns and loneliness, Toronto-based percussionist Yang Chen longed for community.
In December 2020, Chen conceived of a collaborative project that would allow them to reconnect with the friends they so dearly missed. By the new year, Chen decided to quit their job as an administrator at a music school to focus solely on writing a grant proposal that would fund the project. Chen sent what they characterize as “an infosheet” to friends who are musicians, composers, and improvisers that expressed how much they missed them and invited them to collaborate on a piece together. Chen also included an artistic prompt: “What are you longing for?”
Chen received the grant money, and the resulting project is their debut longing for _, a genre-blurring album of percussion-centric works, released this month via People Places Records.
“I think that this project could have only happened like this over the pandemic,” Chen says. “During that time I was also renegotiating with myself and asking, ‘How do I sustain relationships with anybody? I love seeing people in person, but now I can only see them on the screen. How can I connect with that?’ Sustaining creativity was right alongside sustaining friendships. At that time, these collaborations were like a lifeblood for me.”
Chen has always been drawn to how music facilitates community. In the early 2000s, Chen’s family immigrated to Toronto from Nanjing, China. Their family moved around a lot because of Chen’s dad’s work, and while living in Texas, Chen joined the school’s marching band. As a self-described “quintessential marching-band nerd,” Chen loved the structure and the camaraderie it provided. Later, when the family moved back to Toronto, the city may have lacked a marching-band culture, but that passion for percussion still helped Chen form relationships. These days, Chen spends their time gigging with orchestras and ensembles, playing taiko with RAW (Raging Asian Womxn) Taiko Drummers, and is the drummer of folky R&B/pop band (and “pioneers of soft mosh”) Tiger Balme.
“Playing music really helped me to not feel lonely,” Chen says. “I could connect with other people in a group—or even if I was playing solo, I could connect with the composer in some way, which I think is a theme that is still central to the music that I make today.”
With longing for _, Chen exemplifies the breadth of their friendships. Over the course of about a year, Chen and eight artists scattered throughout North America and across disciplines exchanged ideas, experimented, and grew as artists. While grant requirements meant that the project had some hard deadlines, Chen ensured its timeline put the artists’ well-being at the forefront.
“There was a lot of trial-and-error to accommodate growth, but I also wanted to tell people that if what we record on the album is a recorded iteration or version of your piece, that’s okay. I really believe in investing in artists,” Chen says. “I really value—especially in this project—people’s personal joy and what they are proud of showcasing. If that means they need an extra two weeks to master their electronic track so it sounds exactly like how they want it to sound, then that’s okay. That was time that was built into the project. When we’re happy, we’re happy, and then we put the piece on the record.”
“I wanted to give people the opportunity to work on a project that was by their design and to fulfil their artistic goals,” Chen adds. “I was seeing a lot of musicians and artists burn out during the pandemic, and I just wanted people to find something in the project that could compel them to continue to be artists because that’s what I was looking for myself, too—something to keep driving me.”
Multidisciplinary artist Andrew Noseworthy is one of Chen’s collaborators on longing for _ and he mixed and mastered the record. Chen gave Noseworthy, who previously had only mixed and mastered a few EPs as well as his own recordings, the opportunity to develop his audio engineering skills. With the grant money, they helped Noseworthy upgrade his home studio set-up and gave him the time and encouragement to learn.
“Something that I really appreciate about Yang is how fluid, multi-faceted, and sensitively they approach everything they are involved with,” Noseworthy says. “No matter what the situation is, they’re very good at giving people the space to be who they want to be and do what they want to do.”
The process of composing each piece varied with each artist. “It’s hard to talk about this album as a whole because each one of the pieces really exemplifies a very unique relationship that I have with the composer,” Chen explains. “crank/set,” a collaboration with composer Stephanie Orlando, a textured mélange of sounds that includes the whir of bicycle wheels, was a pretty standard commission. Chen asked Orlando to write a piece of music set for five minutes, and she delivered it.
“Silt,” a piece by flautist and improviser Sara Constant, was, as Chen describes, an entirely unique creative exercise. “Sara is a really dear friend of mine, but she was like, ‘I’m not really a composer.’ I know that she has a background in improvising, so she gave me 15 or 20 little cards with grey watercolour images on them that she had created, and she said, ‘I want you to interpret each one of these cards as a graphic score and record something from that, and we’ll go from there.’ That was the beginning of a process of discovering each other through improvisation.”
The other side to longing for _ is each track’s short film. From conception, Chen wanted to include a visual component to provide multiple levels of engagement. “I don’t want to call them accompaniment because they really are one unit—the video and the audio,” they emphasize. After seeing videos that other contemporary classical artists were releasing, Chen set out to make something different.
“I kept watching these livestreams of concerts that were trying to get as close as possible to a concert-hall experience. For me, it’s nowhere close to sitting in a concert hall with other warm bodies in an acoustic space. I kept watching them because I was supporting my friends, but then [came] away feeling dissatisfied,” Chen says, adding with a laugh, “kind of like when you eat chips, but you really want steak.”
To help facilitate a different approach, Chen turned to friend and filmmaker Serville Poblete. Mirroring the creative process of the music pieces, the videos were rooted in experimentation. Poblete ended up producing three of the videos and producers Christy Kim and Michelle Ngo developed the others. In the dizzying Poblete-directed video for “EUPH0RIC,” a collaboration between Chen and interdisciplinary artist Yaz Lancaster, a dancer moves gracefully among tulle that hangs from the ceiling until finally they stand free under a warm light as the words that Chen speaks at the beginning of the piece still ring in your ears: “I am worth more than my labour.”
“I really felt that in the wider artistic community people were suffering financially and that was something that was driving other factors, like people that I really admire quitting the music field or mental-health stress. So I was like okay, I want to involve more people in this project, and I thought if we’re going to produce all of this digital art, we’re going to do it in a way that’s actually meaningful,” Chen says.
Given that each track is a collaboration with a different artist, it follows that the pieces on longing for _ are tonally disparate. “All Good Pieces Have Two Things,” a joint effort between Chen and Noseworthy, contains some of the record’s harshest moments, thanks to his outbursts of distorted electric guitar. “til the dam breaks,” on the other hand, is an R&B track that features Chen playing the steel pan and Sarian Sankoh warmly singing an urgent-sounding melody.
What ties the pieces together, of course, is Chen. Although they admit that any aesthetic cohesiveness of longing for _ was unintentional, when each piece is built with the same foundation of love, friendship, and joy, the end products share an inherent connection.
“I realized in the pandemic that I don’t have to do music as a career,” Chen says. “I could go be a baker, an electrician, or a paramedic—but I didn’t go and do any of those things because at the end of the day, music is what makes me happy. I am driven by happiness, and I hope to cultivate that in others, too.”