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21 August 2020

'Home From Afar' (2020 Glanville-Hicks Commission)

Belle Chen Image: Belle Chen  
© Billie Tun

For her Peggy Glanville-Hicks Commission, UK-based Australian pianist and composer Belle Chen drew inspiration from her extensive memory bank of life back in Australia, as well as a collection of field recordings from over the years. The work is a hybrid of performance, composition, and improvisation, also including some music by Peter Sculthorpe. She describes her work: 'The journey traverses through multiple sound worlds and instruments: from sound art, electronics, classical piano, experimental extended techniques.. with hints of neo-classical and jazz-influenced language.'

Home From Afar will officially premiere on Belle Chen's YouTube channel on Friday 21 August 2020 at 1pm London BST (10 pm AEST). Join in the watch party and chat with the artist!

For me, Home from Afar is a special project. As a keen traveller, having been driven to create works inspired by desire to evoke experiences from countries and locations (including my past recordings Mediterranean Sounds, Departure, and the latest album Destinations, released on 14th August 2020).

However, I have always held off from creating something from 'home'. I always felt that I wanted to create something from home when I feel my craft is 'ready', after accumulating enough skillset and the palette of tools, because home is special to me and I want to make something special from it. For this reason, I have accumulated field recordings from every time I visit Australia, in preparation for the day I will eventually create something with these.

Belle Chen: Home from Afar

Of course, circumstances have changed with COVID-19, and in the midst of lockdown, I had a strong urge to begin crafting works that remind me of home. I realised this work is now a necessity for me to create; for my well-being and also to keep me balanced during this unprecedented time. And thus I embarked on the Home From Afar project.

I have a strangely strong emotional memory. I may not remember details of names or dates well, but I can recall the environments and moments that really made an impact on me - from the sounds that were present, the sight, the temperature, the smell, to the way something felt under my feet, and in my hands.

My memory bank of such experiences began since kindergarten days, and has continued to accumulate as I grow older. It is from this bank of memories that I drew inspirations for scenes from Home From Afar. I identified what I missed most from home, and what I wish to evoke (and re-experience) again through music.

Eventually, I decided on these experiences: the magnificent thunders and downpour of Brisbane summers, driving down the long motorways, the evening bonfire by the bush house in Western Australia, the beaches of South-East Queensland, the visible blanket of stars that cover the night sky and lastly, the carefree secure feeling every time I am home.

The process from here onwards became very organic. I opened the field recordings that I had accumulated through the years, and began to listen through, identifying what may be useable, and re-familiarise myself with the environment. On pieces of paper that I stuck to the wall, I started noting down keywords and properties of sound to enable me to create a balanced sonic picture, and any potential existing classical pieces that may serve the purpose of evoking this particular feeling. For Home From Afar, I identified two pieces from Peter Sculthorpe (Stars and Left Bank Waltz) that I would include. I had played both pieces whilst young and living in Brisbane, so the memory these pieces evoke are also highly personal.

Then I start improvising at the instruments (almost everything I write comes from improvisation). As a pianist, I have learnt Western music theory for analysing other people's works, but as a composer, I learn primarily by ear. As such, everything I create comes from improvising to a feeling or imagery. Some of the improvisations later become well-formed pieces - there'll be a point in my improvisation where I will 'know' that I will revisit this and develop it into a piece; it is a very intuitive process. For Home From Afar, these moments were in Burleigh and When the World Falls Apart I'll Be There.

By the time I had completed all the steps above, the structure and framing of the project had become clear to me. I had decided on a fully improvised outro based on my feeling upon first seeing Mount Tibrogargan, improvisations as a bridge between sections to evoke the shift in feeling and atmospheres, and also two pieces that specifically emphasise sound design/sound art. Throughout my works so far, I've been really drawn to creating shifts between the reality (sounds that you hear in real life) and imagination (implied by music and textures). I have found that a touch of sounds from reality can be incredibly powerful to spark a listener's imagination. And to me, the feeling and atmosphere of the two pieces - the Bonfire by the Bush House in the opening and The Sky Opens Over the M1 - could only be fully realised with the use of sound.

When the final two pieces were settled, the sequence was completed. At this point, I shift from a composer back into being a performer, and begin rehearsing the project through. The result is the video. I hope that you will enjoy Home from Afar!


As an initiative to encourage people to communicate and share stories during the COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, I began the #SoundsFromHome project where I invite people around the world to share a 1-minute recording of their neighbourhood or city (which can be captured on their phone) and to share their story, to which I then improvise to and share on social media and YouTube. So far, we've shared sounds from over 30 countries and over 50 cities from around the world!

This has now become a mission to encourage conversations and sharing of people's cities and experiences during this period of uncertainty in the world. We hope to eventually collect sounds from every country (if possible at all!). If you wish to share this information or to take part, please see: http://www.bellechen.com/shared-sounds

> Belle Chen - homepage

> 2020 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Commissions - videos of already-launched works, and a list of all 13 commissions


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