Departure by Belle Chen is an exciting journey of preternatural sounds both familiar and foreign.

Listening to Departure by Belle Chen is like exploring a remote soundworld. Although her palette is acoustic the sounds that she produces from the piano are alien and diverse. Her tactful use of song titles and field recordings also gives the album an aura of naturalism. Sometimes, Departure is unsettling because Belle Chen uses sounds that are uncommon and techniques that are mysterious. As a result, each track feels like a unique encounter and Departure as a whole feels like a journey into the unexpected.

Belle Chen uses a technique called the prepared piano. It involves altering the sound of a piano by placing objects between its strings. For example, Belle Chen uses metal screws, tin foil, sticks, and tin cans. It’s a bewildering sound. She takes it a step further by scraping, hitting and strumming the strings by hand. On Departure’s 4th track titled “Shui”, Belle Chen bowes the strings with horsehair, strikes them with hammers and plucks them by hand. Although anyone can place something into a piano and create an unusual sound, It takes a special kind of awareness to constrain the possibilities and create something deliberate.

A close up of Belle Chen's Prepared Piano, Photo-Credit-Burke Turner

Given the infinite sonic possibilities of the Prepared Piano, how did you constrain and find your pallet?

At the very beginning, I wanted to explore whether it was possible for the western piano to create sounds similar to that of traditional instruments, or instruments commonly featured in ‘world’ or traditional music. I experimented extensively on the piano. Each time, I noted down new findings. At times I also took references from composers such as John Cage and George Crumb. Eventually, I constructed my own bank of ‘traditional instruments’ on the piano. As such, each sound or ‘instrument’ on the prepared piano really came from a single vision and from that single point the palette grew!

Once these ‘instrumental’ banks were established in my mind, I searched for each sound’s variation in order to suit the expression and emotional landscape within each piece. For example, I use horsehair to bow the piano strings in order to achieve erhu-like sounds. Once I settled on this technique to be used for the pieces ‘Shan’ and ‘Shui,’ I began experimenting with its variation. For instance, the speed of which the hair is bowed, the length of the horsehair, the thickness, and the register bowed on the piano. Each variation gives corresponding and varying versions of attack, dynamics, and overtones. At this particular stage, the palette was influenced by considering the overarching emotional landscape and textures of each individual piece.

Belle Chen's sound is uncanny.

In visual art, the term uncanny characterizes work that produces an unsettling feeling. As an illustration, consider the LA artist Mike Kelly, who curated an entire exhibition on the uncanny for Tate Liverpool. The exhibition included unsettling figurative sculptures, mannequins, and humanoid forms. The combination of the familiar and the foreign creates an eeriness. Departure is uncanny because Belle Chen takes the familiar sound of the piano, distorts it, and turns it into something unfamiliar.

Beverly Edmier 1967, Keith Edmier, 1998, Photo: © Tate, London 2019
Pauline Bunny, Sarah Lucas, 1997, Photo: © Tate, London 2019
The Doll, Hans Bellmer, 1936, Photo: © Tate, London 2019

As an observer, you can’t help but feel intrigued and slightly horrified by the uncanny. Belle Chen’s palette is similar because it retains pieces of its essential piano quality while simultaneously becoming supernatural. However, the curious listener will persist and soon realize that past ones fear of the unknown is a powerful work of art.

How do you contend with and find beauty within the unsettling nature of new sounds?

I am a firm believer that there is beauty in every sound. Even with everyday sounds that one may find unsettling, such as white noise, ambulance siren, cries of a child. If we remove the context of these sounds and recontextualize them (perhaps by placing them alongside a delicate melodic line, or perhaps by harmonizing the sounds through the piano), they have the potential to become very beautiful.

This is also my starting point when experimenting with a new sonic palette on the piano. When I find a sound that I am drawn to, which probably means that I find it beautiful in the first place, my second reaction is to begin considering how the sound can be contextualized to create specific moods. In Departure, the core moods were ritualistic/paganistic, philosophical, sweet and free, cheeky, and surrealistic.

Belle Chen in the Studio, Photo Credit Burke Turner

Departure by Belle Chen would make an excellent soundtrack to a science fiction film.

Her music builds a sound world much like a science fiction author conjures a fantastic universe. There is a new sub-genre of Science Fiction called the “New Weird”. Writers of it use the uncanny to manipulates genre conventions. They hybridize horror & fantasy, science and mysticism to create unconventional stories. Take, for example, author Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy recently adapted into the movie Annihilation. In the story, four women enter a mysterious infected zone of the earth called “Area X”. They discover that the laws of physics are askew and the biology of humans, plants, and animals gradually metamorphose. Departure is a similar experience. Belle Chen creates a thrilling solo-piano encounter that resides somewhere between fantasy and horror, light and dark, grotesque and beautiful.

The Southern Reach Trilogy - Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer,
©2014 VanderMeer Creative, Inc.
A still from the film Annihilation as the
characters enter the "The Shimmer."
© 2018 Paramount Pictures

Do you want your music to convey a sense of journey and discovery?

Yes, absolutely!

Compared to my previous works, Mademoiselle and Mediterranean Sounds, I have been less specific with the intent of each track. On Departure, I wish to provoke the imagination of listeners. I want listeners to form their own emotional bond with the tracks.

I originally sketched an A3-sized visual that represented what I saw in my head with each track of Departure and I had wished to include the drawings with the release. Eventually, I scrapped the idea of sharing my journey with listeners. As opposed to Mademoiselle, inspired by loss, or Mediterranean Sounds, by location-specific sounds, Departure is born out of my curious spirit. I wanted to keep that spirit of curiosity, exploration, and discovery alive for the listener.

The contemporary sub-genre of Classical music is exciting for its sense of discovery. This characteristic is also what makes it sometimes difficult to access. Every experience of it is an expedition through the unknown. It’s different with every listen and every listener. Belle Chen’s work perfectly illustrates this point. Departure is exhilarating because it encourages us to listen and trailblaze our own path through the wilderness that is Classical Music.

Support and learn more about Belle Chen’s music and sound art at bellechen.com

All instruments performed by Belle Chen. All tracks (except Milonga del Angel) composed by Belle Chen. Milonga del Angel composed by Astor Piazzolla

Recorded at Master Chord Studio, London Engineered and Mixed by Dougal Lott

Mastered by Dave Darlington at Bass Hit Recording, NYC 

Produced by Belle Chen and Burke Turner for Eito Music

Photography by Burke Turner

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