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.
Given the infinite sonic possibilities of the Prepared Piano, how did you constrain and find your pallet?
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.
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?
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.
Do you want your music to convey a sense of journey and discovery?
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.
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
Photography by Burke Turner