Two years after the release of SUSTAIN comes the long-anticipated follow-up, SUSTAIN VOL. 2. This fresh collection of works centered around the piano includes a range of contemporary compositional styles: tonal, atonal, and everything in between. The volume features a new cast of composers, including Chen-Hsin Su and his piece Caprice – Hesitation, a melodic and virtuosic composition with imaginatively developed themes.
Today, Chen-Hsin is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn how he taps into his psychiatric work in creating new music…
Who was your first favorite artist growing up?
Chopin. I encountered Chopin’s music in my senior year of high school, and I was so fascinated by his piano work. Gradually, I started to study different composers from the Romantic Era as well. When I was in college, I especially liked the music of Liszt, Faure, Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Kapustin. My 24 published piano concert etudes are composed in the style of — perhaps — romanticism with contemporary musical elements. Now I spend more time listening to contemporary music. I always like to listen to music that I have never heard before.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?
I’m actually an amateur composer.
My case is unique because I didn’t receive “traditional” music education or training when I was young — I mean, like 4 or 5 years old. I learned to play the piano when I was 11 and have been improvising on the piano since high school. But it wasn’t until later in senior high school that I began to be enamored with classical music. I started to learn notation and composition during my college life, but I spent most of my time practicing the piano works I was interested in, so I only finished a few compositions at that time. After obtaining the Taiwanese doctor’s license, I began planning to write a set of concert etudes. I thought — in addition to listening to existing music — it would be amazing to compose my own music. Plus, composing also allows me to express my thoughts.
If you could make a living at any job in the world, what would that job be?
When I was a child, I actually dreamed of becoming a biologist because I loved to study animals. However, due to the social and cultural influences and practical considerations in Taiwan, I ended up becoming a doctor, and I am currently training to become a psychiatrist. I believe that developing a wide range of interests can broaden my horizons and help me make friends in various fields for any career.
As a psychiatrist, I have many opportunities to interact with different groups of people. I have to record the patient’s appearance, affect, behavior, thinking process, and many other parts in the mental status examination. In the process of establishing rapport with a patient, I also need to empathize with their emotions and understand their struggles and difficulties. Doing such work inspires and motivates me to use music to describe the psychiatric medicine phenomena.
If you could instantly have expertise performing one instrument, what instrument would that be?
I only specialize in one instrument, the piano. If I had free time I would like to explore more different areas of the piano rather than learning a second instrument. I believe that piano is the best instrument for me in life and work.
What does this album mean to you personally?
When PARMA Recordings wrote to me asking if I had a piece that I would like to record, I thought about it and chose one of my shorter pieces from recent years, Hesitation Caprice. This piece also happened to have won a prize in the 2020 Rodrigo International Piano Composition Competition. This is the first time my work has been included in an album, so I think it is very memorable and I thank the pianist and the production company for their appreciation.
Is there a specific feeling that you would like communicated to audiences in this work?
This is a typical small piece of romantic music. Although the melody and harmonies are not particularly complex, I gave the title “Hesitation” to suggest that the style of the piece itself is roundabout. In fact, I happen to be an indecisive person at times, which means that I am faced with various choice barriers in life. This piece may also be a good material to introduce myself. The opening theme of this piece popped into my head one day while I was debating how to make a clinical decision at work.
I usually record bits of the improvised music, and gradually develop them into a more structured, formal work in my leisure time. Sometimes, the melody naturally develops from an improvisation itself. In recent years, I have been trying to incorporate my daily life experiences — such as getting along with different people in clinical work and listening to the stories of a patients’ life — into my compositions. Due to the passion I have for music, I always jot down the ideas I have, or any inspiration that may suddenly come to my mind. It helps with gathering ideas for composing as well.