It is difficult to overstate Churen Li’s success as a pianist. The 26-year-old has won multiple international competitions and performed in countries all over the world, including Austria, Italy, Korea and the US. After attaining her bachelor’s degree from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at 19 – becoming the youngest of her cohort – she went on to obtain a master’s degree in music from Yale University as well as one in philosophy from Cambridge University. In 2021 alone, she held more than 80 solo concerts with the Candlelight series.
Yet she is still striving towards a longtime goal. To push the limits of what classical musicians can do, whilst improvising and making the artform more inclusive and creative. Her experiments have ranged from performing a classical concert at Zouk Singapore in 2018 to co-producing a cabaret show in the UK that brought together musical theatre, pop and classical music.
“There are so many types of music around us and each of us is attracted to different ones,” Churen says, citing Joe Hisaishi, jazz and traditional Chinese music as her inspirations in addition to Western classical composers. “It comes naturally for me to meld all of these influences into a new aural world through my compositions, so my compositions won’t sound like someone who grew up in a different time period or a different space.” Her debut album as a composer, ‘Ephemory’, no doubt pushes musical parameters.
Popspoken talks with Churen ahead of her album launch at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music on August 13.
Congratulations on your debut album ‘Ephemory’. What has it been like transitioning to being a composer-pianist?
It’s an exciting time for me. Having just opened the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s 2022/23 season with a concerto performance, I’m switching hats from piano soloist by launching my own album of piano compositions. I wouldn’t say I’m “transitioning” per se, because composing has always been something that I do. But I suppose the album makes it more “real”.
This is some of my most personal and intimate work, because each piece on the album represents a snapshot of periods of my life — from my school days as an RGS girl, to the Cambridge and Yale years, and through COVID — and I tell it as it is through my music, without filters.
You draw inspiration from a lot of different artists and genres in your work, from pop songs and Japanese anime to jazz and classical music. Could you share how you evolved as a pianist to incorporate these diverse genres and practices into your work?
To me, everything I do — whether opening the Singapore Symphony’s 2022/23 season as piano soloist, putting on my composer hat or playing a Lady Gaga tribute concert — comes from the same core of finding freedom in expressing myself through music. I am trained as a Western classical pianist, and I love performing onstage with orchestras or playing solo recitals around the world. But I also desire to connect with my audiences in a vibrant and creative way, and most importantly, all of these influences are completely authentic to who I am. I love anime, especially Studio Ghibli films; I used to gig as a jazz lounge pianist; and of course pop songs are the music of my generation.
Two of my greatest classical influences, Debussy and Ravel, also drew inspiration from the music of Asia — Debussy first heard the sounds of the gamelan at the Paris Expo in 1889, and from then on he started incorporating the musical scales and sounds of traditional Asian music into his compositions. There’s no reason why there should be a dichotomy between classical and jazz/pop/crossover — think of the geniuses like Keith Jarrett and Friedrich Gulda. As artists, we are constantly absorbing and melding the sounds and experiences we come across, whether we realise it or not. And for me that’s where creativity occurs — when we are able to transmute all of that into music.
Improvisation is not commonly associated with classical music today, but it’s an important part of your work. Can you share what your approach is like in the area?
There’s a kind of magic that happens when one improvises because you’re responding in real-time to what happened before. It’s alive and organic to be making music that way, and for me completely natural. So when “composing” my music, actually a lot of it is written-out improvisation.
I often begin with well-known themes, re-harmonising and introducing new textures, before going off on a completely different tangent. I also bring back the art of “preluding” that was very common in classical music centuries ago, which is the practice of improvising a short piece before playing the actual music — as seen in my piece ‘Prelude after Bach’. Improvisation gives me freedom to explore what is most subconscious and authentic to me.
You have achieved so much in your career, from winning international competitions to selling out concerts. Is there anything else you want to achieve as a professional musician?
I want to redefine what it looks like to be a classical musician, especially in Asia and in the 21st century. There’s a fixed view of what’s “correct” in the classical music scene, though perceptions are slowly shifting. This is music that I love and have the utmost respect for, but I believe there needs to be room for vibrant expressions of experimentation with a pianistic tradition of 300 years – through fashion, through experimenting with concert traditions in classical music, through innovative programming, etc. My local and Asia teams have plans for how to take this forward, so please keep a lookout for a few exciting projects we have up our sleeves in the next year.
‘Churen Plays The Piano: Classics and Myself‘ album launch is held at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Steven Baxter Recital Studio on August 13. Tickets are available here.