Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
When I was young, I was extremely shy around people. I felt more comfortable when I spent time at the piano, and the more time I spent exploring the sonic worlds of different composers and the instrument, the more I fell in love with music. Music became a vital way for me to communicate, and there were no second thoughts from then on pursuing a career in music.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
As a pianist, my teachers and mentors throughout every stage of my development- Ian Fountain, Oleg Stepanov, Helen Dobrenko, and Neville Baird- have all shaped my sound on the piano and approach to classical music repertoire. I also look up to strong female role models during my period of learning- including the wonderful Joanna MacGregor who has been a real inspiration and who is ever so encouraging during my time at Royal Academy of Music, and the equally inspiring Natasha Vlassenko from Queensland Conservatorium.
Stylistically speaking, I listen to a very wide range of music and am constantly taking inspiration from great artists of other genres. For example, the structural construct for my new album ‘Mediterranean Sounds’ was inspired by Frank Zappa’s ‘Civilization Phase III’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. In terms of sound design, I also look up to Brian Eno and take inspiration from his treatment of sounds and samples.
When it comes to how the samples are integrated with classical music and performance presentation, I observe the practices of a wide range of artists (and their producers) and DJs ranging from Miles Davis, Gilles Peterson, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Gypsy Kings, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding, right up to Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, and more recently the phenomenally talented Jacob Collier.
In the end, I am a bit like a sponge, always absorbing sounds and formulating new ideas to integrate these with classical music language. There are many influences on my music and sound- all important and always evolving!
I think equally as important as influences are the people and new friends that I encounter and meet while sourcing my sounds. I am always curious about people, and encounters often allow for a glimpse inside their respective worlds and lives. Observing people’s stories and shared experiences very often provide the fuel and motivation for my works.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I am a sensitive person, and it is always an internal struggle to stand strong and firm in my artistic visions amidst challenges and criticism, especially in my more experimental works. It has taken me a very long time to find a sound and style that is ‘me’- something that satisfied my need to create and communicate my own voice and experiences- and not merely perform the masterpieces.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
So far, I have been lucky with the attention that came from my first EP- ‘Listen, London’- which was an integration of sampled sounds captured around London with piano works by Poulenc, Sibelius, Liszt, Ginastera, and more. It has been a long hard road though, I remembered when I first showed it to a couple of people and recording stores, it caused them some very genuine confusion. “What, was this recorded in a car park?!” was one of the remarks… It was quite a challenge to power through the critical remarks in the beginning, as I had taken a leap of faith and poured my heart and soul into the project. But nevertheless, it was a great learning curve and I feel stronger as an artist because of this.
Since then, ‘Listen, London’ was handpicked by Brian Eno for Curator’s Choice in 2014 NOISE Festival, and then subsequently led to my recent win of 2015 London Music Awards’ Classical Music Rising Star Award. This year it was picked up by BBC Introducing, and aired on BBC 3, BBC 6, Classic Radio Finland and so on.
I am following ‘Listen, London’ up with ‘Mediterranean Sounds’- a concept album that integrates soundscapes in a slightly different manner that is less intense and more poetic than ‘Listen, London’. I am also immensely proud of ‘Mediterranean Sounds’- it has taken my 2 years to bring it into fruition!
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I play the works that speak to my heart and personal experience the best.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Repertoire choices are often chosen after research and experimenting to find what fit the best in designing a particular experience through a programme.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I think my favourite concert venues are associated to the audience in it… I love all venues large and small, indoors or outdoors, when the chemistry and vibe between the audience and the stage is strong!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
When I was young, I listened to Ashkenazy’s recording of Rachmaninaff Piano Concert No. 2 & 3 with the Moscow Philharmonic a lot. It is partially because it was the first classical music recording that I owned, and it remains a recording that I hold close to my heart.
Right now on my iPhone music library are: Astor Piazzolla, Juan de Marcos & Afro-Cuban All Stars, Los Amigos Invisibles, London Symphony Orchestra, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Michael Kieran Harvey, Pascal Roge, Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Band, Esperanza Spalding, Erykah Badu, St. Germain, The RH Factor, Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Vikter Duplaix, George Benson, Jacob Collier, and a list of Greek folk music that I am currently investigating.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are so many! Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Brian Eno, Quincy Jones, and my more recent fascinations are as mentioned above!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There have been several memorable concert experiences- the hilarious moment where I tripped over my own dress on stage, the touching moment when I could hear an audience member sobbing from on the stage (I was relieved when she later told me it was because she was touched… phew), the sweet moment of a very young girl climbing onstage to dance to a waltz and handing me a flower that she had picked from the garden… in midst of the intense heat and humidity of regional Australia… and very recently the surreal moment of doing a sound-design & piano set at Latitude Festival in the middle of the woods…! There are many great memories.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Find your own voice.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I have a passion for travelling and exploring different cultures. I always source new audio and visual material when I travel and construct little pieces of sonic documentary as I go. I hope in 10 years time my portfolio will consist of sounds and works inspired by all seven continents!
Belle Chen’s new album Mediterranean Sounds was released on 8th September 2016
Spice Market in Istanbul x Fazil Say
Listen, London: The Opening (Poulenc)
Winner of Classical Music Rising Star Award at the inaugural 2015 London Music Awards, Australian-Taiwanese pianist Belle Chen has been enjoying a busy international schedule, performing a diversity of programmes ranging from classical piano recitals, chamber music recitals, to experimental collaborations with sound design, visual art, theatre, and dance.
Belle is a piano soloist for the prestigious Park Lane Group Artists in their 2015/16 season. Her festival appearances in recent years include: 2015 Newbury International Festival, Deal Festival, Australia & New Zealand Literature Festival, Shanghai World Expo, Bloomsbury Festival, Taipei Fringe Festival, and Teneriffe Festival. In 2014 & 2015, she toured UK as pianist in Concert Theatre’s production of Romeo & Juliet/The Rite of Spring, and as a solo recitalist in Taiwan and UK.
Belle’s performances have also been broadcasted and featured by media such as BBC Radio 3, BBC China, Monocle 24 Radio, Classic Radio Finland, Classic FM, ABC FM, 4MBS, and Dateline (TV). Belle graduated from Royal Academy of Music (United Kingdom) in September 2013 with Master of Music in Performance with Distinction, and has since been handpicked by Brian Eno for as a winner of Curator’s Choice for Music Award at 2014 NOISE Festival, awarded the 2014 Finalist Award for The American Prize for Music in Chamber Music, and winning the 2015 London Music Award.
Since 2016, Belle has been endorsed by Arts Council England under the Exceptional Talent visa scheme. She is currently a guest lecturer in Multimedia and Piano Performance at the Royal Academy of Music, where she was previously endorsed as a Graduate Entrepreneur after her degree. Belle is the founding director of Eito Music, where she leads a new generation of self-producing talents in classical and experimental genres.