East & West
Andrián Pertout speaks with Charlie Chan about her early introduction to music and the release of her new album 'East & West' through Sony Classical.
Charlie Chan is a multi instrumentalist/composer who over the years has aimed for a certain musical diversity that we all aspire to. She has attained many credits as a theatre and screen composer, including countless scores for multi cultural theatre productions and television documentary films. Her talents were also featured in various eighties bands such as the 'Electric Pandas' and 'Do Re Mi'. An accomplished musician on the double bass, guitar and drums as well as on the piano, which no doubt has given her that wider sense of musical expression. Her new album explores her many inspirations, an improvised solo piano work which has come about as a natural progression to her first Sony offering, 'The Adventures of...'.
Tell me about your early introduction to music?
CC: "I finally found this out actually, correct story from my dad. My father worked for General Motors Holden, I'm from Melbourne originally, and he was an accounts manager for them at Dandenong. They had these massive Christmas parties, and one year when I was three they gave out to every three year old, a ukulele. So I went home with this ukulele, and my father showed me how to play it, and I broke it, and I really wanted an other one. So he just kept getting me an other one, and about a year and a half later he said, 'You're having a guitar'. So for my fourth birthday I got a Skylark guitar, made in China, and started having guitar lessons. I became quite involved in one music school in Dandenong, it doesn't exist any more, it used to be J&B Music, and I learnt music from them. They used to have these weekend things where you could come in and play another instrument other than the one that you were learning, so I learnt how to play a bit of drums, and a bit of bass. I was doing that right up until I was about eleven, and then I started to learn piano because I went to a private school, and I could have piano lessons. That's what all girls do I think, they either do piano lessons or ride a horse. From there I ended up getting a part time job, when I was about fourteen or fifteen with Yamaha, demonstrating their portable organs and keyboards around Melbourne, in shopping centres that had music shops. So I learnt to play piano from doing that really."
What kinds of music were you exposed to as a child? Who have been the musicians you have come to aspire to?
CC: "Ahh, I had nothing really presented to me, because my father is Chinese, I mean his record collection consisted of things like Elvis Presley and Jean Audrey. And my mother's music collection which I actually still have, consists of things like musicals from the forties, fifties and the sixties, so I have a well furnished musical collection. I think the musical aspect of things was a real influence, because when I got to about fourteen or fifteen I became quite heavily involved in drama at school and then what happened was I was invited to a drama camp, which was held at Portsea, and as a result of that I became involved as a composer in the theatre. All very accidental, but maybe it was planned, you can't really tell with these sort of things, can you?"
With a Malaysian-Chinese, as well as a Scottish-Australian heritage to embrace, in what ways has this mix of cultural backgrounds enriched you as a musician?
CC: "I think the Asian thing is very deep for me, because I spent time in Malaysia when I was a child, which is where my father's from, he's Malaysian-Chinese, you hear a different bunch of sounds. John Steinbeck is a classic example where he sort of says in the 'Pearl', you probably read this book when you were at high school, he talks about how there's all these different songs. And there's a song of the family, which is like getting up in the morning, and breakfast, and doing all those things, and the ritual. And then there's a song of the fishermen, which is all the fishermen coming in with their haul for the morning. There's a song of the ancestors, which goes very deep. I take it that you are from a mixed cultural heritage yourself!"
Yes I am actually.
CC: "Yeah, what nationality?"
I was born in Chile, in South America.
CC: "Aah, waoh!"
But I'm half, my father's from Slovenia, so I've sort of got the same thing.
CC: "Wow! I think we should be doing a story about you man!"
Ha ha, when did you actually begin to compose music? How would you describe your approach to composition?
CC: "I think I've been composing since I was three. Now that might sound really bizarre, but my uncle had a player piano when I was three, and we used to go over to his house, and I think he owns the local taxi company in Castlemaine now, he's not really my uncle, he's really like a family friend. They had a player piano that you could sort of pump on the pedals, and like the music would play, and I used to sit there, and my feet were too small to reach the pedals when I was that age, so what I used to do is just sit there and play, like dabble, I'd just hit the notes. And I think I've always been interested in tonality in that sense, and I think on a real instrument you can play anything. One of the things that turned me on to 'you can play anything' was being that age, and being able to play, and God knows what it sounds like!
(A mobile phone rings in the background) That's my mobile, which I'll turn off...
The actual sound, when you're playing at that age is quite interesting to a young child. I don't have a perspective on it any more, except that I enjoyed it. As I got older and I started to be around other musicians and percussionists and things, actually I worked with a community theatre company called 'Sidetrack' in Sydney. We did a play called 'Adios Cha-Cha', which was basically about the Chilean people, interestingly enough for you, and I got in contact with a lot of South American musicians, and their whole thing was that you can play anything that makes a sound, so you can put that music into that context. And then from working with 'Sidetrack', I worked with Robyn Archer, we did a play called 'Akwanso - Fly South', which had four black women in it, and a black guy from Ghana, Eddie Kuansa who was from 'Osibisa', which is how I got my African thing. And he taught me a lot of stuff, you know, like tap the glass, if you make it rhythmic and musical then it's fine, do it, and everything is quite inherently musical. And that's one of the things I've been learning over the years, that you can put things in any context and make them musical. I don't know if that answers the question?"
No, no, it did, yeah. How did the relationship with Sony Records initially come about?
CC: "I have a publishing agreement with Sony. We tend to joint venture things, and I think that's how the industry is moving these days. You know, you make a project and you approach a company, be it a record company or a private financier, and you connect up with the right people. I think the music itself, the first record and the second record, there's enough there for people to get something for themselves, and I think that it's really engaged a number of people in this company, and they like it. And that for me has been actually almost like a godsend, because I make the music that I make and it doesn't necessarily fit into categories. I've come out through classical both times because now we're getting into a more adult contemporary, and a more alternative sort of sound in our classical music with 'Brodsky', with 'Kronos', with even the 'Australian Chamber Orchestra' and groups like that, and my audience which listens to that kind of thing is getting a bit more into it. You know, 'Elvis Costello' worked with the 'Brodsky'.
"Charlie Chan' might work with the 'Australian Chamber Orchestra'. I'm not sure, but I think it's much wider, and I also think that we're so dominated by radio that it's really changing, because people can go to a record store now, and the record store doesn't just sell what radio is suggesting. Record stores sell, and there are even niche shops that sell particular kinds of music for particular kinds of people. I just think that it's getting wider and wider."
What inspired you to produce your new album "East & West"?
CC: "What inspired me? Aah, I just wanted to, I always wanted to record a piano record and I love the piano, and it's a thing that I've been doing since I was about three, so it's sort of a natural thing for me. Something I wanted to do, so I sort of did it."
How did you prepare yourself physically and mentally for the recordings? Did you practice a lot or try to visualize your ideas?
CC: "I don't practice very much, I now have a grand piano. I didn't have a piano at the time I was recording that record, so I would go into the studio and play whatever kind of came out, and I wouldn't judge myself for what I play. A lot of musicians tend to say, 'Ooh, that wasn't good enough, and I should do it better', and sure you can, of course you can. I essentially was looking for the passion, like I was looking for that little something extra that was inside the piece itself to make me want to pursue the idea. You see, because I've worked in the rock industry, I toured with rock bands for two or three years in the mid eighties, I think I learnt a lot about that style of music, and I've learnt a lot about people's attention span. People only have a short period of attention, and that's not because they're not smart or intelligent, it's because we're dictated to by television, by radio, by video, even by multimedia, by magazines, by all sorts of things. We're catered to this short blast of information, so essentially I just sort of tried to make it so it was a bit palatable for people as well, 'cause I like to challenge people, but I don't want to make it too difficult so they don't listen to it."
Are you planning any live performances of your new album, and if so will you attempt to reproduce the album note by note or simply bring forth the general feeling of your improvisations?
CC: "I think the vibe's there, so I will be doing some shows. I'll do a showcase show in Melbourne, I think it might even be a launch, I'm not sure, and I am going to Adelaide as well, so we are doing, oh we are, I think Sony and I have a joint venture occurring here you see, so I will be doing some shows. I wanna do the showcases and see how I go and see whether there's enough interest for me to come back, 'cause there's nothing worse than trying to put on a show, and people not coming. Do you reckon people would come if I do one?"
Yes, Ha ha, and how would you approach it? Would you try and reproduce the album?
CC: "I can't really reproduce it note by note, but enough of, you see there's a basic theme for all those pieces. So I'll probably perform some of the work off the first record 'The Adventures of...', like the more palatable bits, 'cause I think 'The Adventures of...' is very esoteric. There's some things on there where people go, 'Ah, I can't deal with that, it's a bit too weird for me', and there's some things on there that are like, it sort of does it for you, if you know what I mean. So I'll pick some bits out of there, and I'll pick the pieces for me that are easy for me to reproduce. There is a piece on the record called 'Saturday Afternoon' that I've been trying to copy, and I just did it once, and I don't think I can do it again. It's just like, that's the moment with that moment, and it's gone. But 'Paradise' has an obvious theme, 'Desert' has an obvious theme, 'Miles' has an obvious theme, it's really full on, 'East & West' is very obvious, so there's some piece on there that are quite clear."
What other projects are you involved in at the moment?
CC: "I'm about to work on a project called 'Tony's Take Away' in Queensland, and that's a friend of mine Anna Yen, who's an acrobat, who's originally from Sydney, her father owned the first Chinese take away restaurant in Sydney, in Bronte. Anna studied with the Nanjing Circus in China, and she has been performing for quite a long period of time, and she's just decided that she's interested in producing a piece that actually reflects her cultural Australian-Chinese identity, and also present the history of Chinese people in Sydney, in a different way. She does things like, she can balance two eggs on a chop stick on her nose, she can walk a slack wire, because she studied with Nanjing, so she can do a lot of different things. Her and I have had a connection for a long time, probably eight years, so I'm quite looking forward to that project. Also, to describe the secret women's language of the sixteenth century, which carried right through till Pu Yi period of history, you know, the last emperor. There's all these traditions in Chinese tradition, like have you heard of foot binding? Have you read 'Wild Swans'? If you've read 'Wild Swans' it would tell you about foot binding. There was these women that didn't want to be oppressed in that way, and they wanted to just have their life, and they didn't wanna marry because their families wanted them to, it's very interesting. There's tremendous cruelty in Chinese culture, but it's their culture, so we can't say it's cruel, it's just that our Western culture is a bit softer, in spirituality and also too in like real life."
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #26, June 26, 1996
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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Charlie Chan: Wild Swans