Skip to page content

Carolyn Chen has made music for super- market, demolition district, and the dark. Her work reconfigures the everyday to retune habits of our ears, through sound, text, light, image, and movement. For over a decade her studies of the guqin, the Chinese seven-string zither traditionally played for private meditation in nature, has informed her thinking on listening in social spaces. Recent projects include a marble chase and commissions for Klangforum Wien and the LA Phil New Music Group.

Chen earned a Ph.D. in music from UC San Diego, and an M.A. in Modern Thought and Literature and B.A. in music from Stanford University, with an honors thesis on free improvisation and radical politics. She lives in Los Angeles.

The Sleeper and the Drinker takes inspiration from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, in particular, its book-length running footnote about moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds.  The writing  follows a constantly rotating subject, turning from scientific report to the formal structures of fairytales, and the migration and transformation of the Cupid and Psyche story, while circling back to the writer’s own experience with her aging mother’s memory loss.

In this piece, the flute acts as a narrator or walker moving through different worlds, alternately guiding, commenting on, or camouflaging into the changing musical environment which sometimes blossoms from images in the text. There are bouts of flickering energy recalling fluttering wings or eyelids, ornaments that multiply into tangles of vines, and memories that ripple and warp as they repeat. Instrumental sounds blend with the everyday world – breathing, sleep-talking, circling spoons, tinkling toys. Instruments take on the variable intonation and flexible rhythms of conversation.

At moments players speak quietly through their instruments about apricots, namesake of the book’s first and last chapters.

Apricot kernels are a component of traditional Chinese medicine. Confucius taught surrounded by a wood of apricot trees, and Dong Feng, doctor of the Three Kingdoms period, asked no payment from patients aside from planting an apricot tree upon recovery.

The brevity of apricot season led to the Arabic expression filmishmish (in apricot season), referring to an unlikely prediction.

In Turkish, the idiom “the only thing better than this is an apricot in Damascus” means it does not get any better than this.” — Carolyn Chen