Pianist Churen Li wants to redraw the lines of classical music

It’s hard to overstate Churen Li’s success as a pianist. The 26-year-old has won several international competitions and performed in countries around the world, including Austria, Italy, Korea and the United States. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at 19 – becoming the youngest of her cohort – she went on to earn a master’s degree in music from Yale University as well as a master’s degree in philosophy from Cambridge University. . In 2021 alone, she performed more than 80 solo concerts with the Candlelight series.

Yet she is still striving to achieve a long-held goal. Pushing the boundaries of what classical musicians can do, while improvising and making the art form more inclusive and creative. His experiences range from directing a classical concert at Zouk Singapore in 2018 to co-producing a cabaret show in the UK bringing together musical theatre, pop and classical music.

“There are so many types of music around us and each of us is drawn to different types,” Churen says, citing Joe Hisaishi, jazz and traditional Chinese music as his inspirations in addition to Western classical composers. “It comes naturally to me to merge all of these influences into a new sonic world through my compositions, so that my compositions don’t sound like someone who grew up in another time or space.” Her debut album as a composer, ‘Ephemory’, undoubtedly shakes up the musical parameters.

Popspoken chats with Churen ahead of her album launch at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music on August 13.

Congratulations on your debut album ‘Ephemory’. How was the transition to the profession of composer-pianist?

It’s an exciting time for me. Having just opened the 2022/23 season of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with a concerto performance, I am changing my hat as a piano soloist by launching my own album of piano compositions. I wouldn’t say I’m in “transition” per se, because composing has always been something I do. But I guess the album makes it more “real”.

It’s some of my most personal and intimate work, as each track on the album represents a snapshot of periods in my life – from my school days as an RGS girl, to the Cambridge and Yale years, and to through COVID – and I’m telling it as it is through my music, with no filters.

You draw inspiration from many different artists and genres in your work, from Japanese pop songs and cartoons to jazz and classical music. Could you tell us how you evolved as a pianist to incorporate these diverse genres and practices into your work?

For me, everything I do – whether it’s opening the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s 2022/23 season as a soloist, putting on my composer cap, or performing a Lady Gaga tribute concert – comes from the same core of finding the freedom to express myself through music. I am trained as a Western classical pianist and love performing on stage with orchestras or giving solo recitals around the world. But I also want to connect with my audience in a dynamic and creative way, and most importantly, all of these influences are completely authentic to who I am. I love anime, especially Studio Ghibli movies; I used to give concerts as a lounge jazz pianist; and of course pop songs are the music of my generation.

Two of my greatest classical influences, Debussy and Ravel, were also inspired by Asian music – Debussy first heard the sounds of gamelan at the Paris Expo in 1889, and from then on he began to incorporate the musical scales and sounds of traditional Asian music. music in his compositions. There’s no reason there should be a dichotomy between classical and jazz/pop/crossover — think geniuses like Keith Jarrett and Friedrich Gulda. As artists, we are constantly absorbing and merging the sounds and experiences we encounter, whether we are aware of it or not. And for me, that’s where creativity happens – when we’re able to turn it all into music.

Improvisation is not commonly associated with classical music today, but it is an important part of your job. Can you share your approach in the region?

There’s a kind of magic that happens when you improvise because you’re reacting in real time to what happened before. It’s alive and natural to make music that way, and for me it’s completely natural. So when I “compose” my music, it’s actually a lot of written improvisation.

I often start with known themes, reharmonizing and introducing new textures, before going on a completely different tangent. I also bring back the art of the “prelude” which was very common in classical music centuries ago, which consists of improvising a short piece before playing the actual music – as seen in my piece “Prelude d’ after Bach. Improvisation gives me the freedom to explore what is most subconscious and authentic for me.

You’ve accomplished so much in your career, from winning international competitions to selling out. Is there anything else you would like to accomplish as a professional musician?

I want to redefine what a classical musician looks like, especially in Asia and in the 21st century. There is a fixed vision of what is “correct” in the classical music scene, even if perceptions are slowly changing. It is music that I love and have the greatest respect for, but I believe there must be room for dynamic expressions of experimentation with a 300-year-old piano tradition – through the fashion, through experimentation with concert traditions in classical music, through innovative programming, etc. My local and Asian teams have plans to move this forward, so keep an eye out for some exciting projects we have up our sleeves next year.

The ‘Churen Plays The Piano: Classics and Myself’ album launch will take place at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Steven Baxter Recital Studio on August 13. Tickets are available here.

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