Christen Lien is an exciting artist, playing innovative music for viola, combining formal and informal, classical and electronic elements. She brings an eclectic intelligence, alternately divergent and focused, to her work; her confident musicianship, based on both technical facility and wide-ranging experimentation, enables her to develop a performance style that is simultaneously intense, serious and seductive. Lien talks to her audience; she tells stories, developing the intellectual contexts for her music. She amplifies her viola and uses loop pedals to create complex layers of sound; in her all-out, passionate performing, she describes the constant changes of human response to the complex project of being alive.
The Hotel Chantelle on Ludlow Street provided a perfect place for Lien to begin her tour. The low-lit, mahogany-and-leather bar and performance space – a warmly welcoming twenty-first century evocation of an imagined between-the-wars Continental nightclub – was filled with Lien’s friends; they were eager to hear her music, and a particularly easy camaraderie characterized the relationship between performer and listeners.
Lien calls all her viola compositions ‘songs,’ a clear signal that she believes her music, in spite of its wordlessness, can carry meaning as effectively as language itself. Setting both the context and the expectations for the rest of the evening, her opening piece began with plaintive and intense extended bowings; echoes of both European Romanticism and late twentieth century American minimalism informed her melody and initial pacing. As Lien operated several loop pedals to repeat various passages, dramatic intensity deepened: an insistent pulse and symphonic sweep created both foreboding and an urgent expectation of important stories soon to be told.
Lien introduced her second song, “The Crux and the Shadow” from Battle Cry, her first album, as an exploration of dark and light, one of her constant subjects. This song opened with pizzicato pluckings looped in as a melodic percussive continuo; Lien then moved to short staccato bowings, to tremulous quavers and then big, long note strokes. With her loop pedals and mastery of all sorts of special effect bowings, Lien was able to create the sounds of a symphony orchestra’s complete string section.
Lien then spoke directly to the audience; this was not between-songs-patter, but the substantive presentation of material central to the “Dark Side of Hope” project.
Elpis – the name of Lien’s new album, and the Greek word for ‘hope’ – is built on the ancient Greek myth of Zeus, Pandora and her box. Noting that Elpis was the last, the heaviest and most complex of all the evils released from Pandora’s box, Lien explored the cultural transformation of hope from ancient pagan dark and evil to a Christian and humanist embodiment of light and good. The cardinal potential for this transformation lies in the reality that hope, a yearning for what isn’t, is a negation of what is: to be a creative force, hope must first destroy.
In this album, Lien explores Elpis’ confinement in Pandora’s box, her violent efforts to be released, and then her engagement with companion evils in the unnerving, unfamiliar world of individual agency and unfettered freedom. This myth provides a paradigm within which Lien can examine her most basic preoccupations. She concerns herself with traditional and archetypical pairs: light and dark, good and evil, creation and destruction. But she is interested in them not as discrete, binary opposites but as geographic marking places for a series of continuums on which human experiences are constantly moving: she is interested in movement and modulations, in patterns and process, echoes and foreshadowings.
As a story-teller, a reporter of human experiences, Lien understands that history is neither linear nor cyclical, but both. She explores this understanding of narrative with her electronic manipulations of her viola’s sounds. With her loop pedals, she creates continuous sounds that provide context and establish presuppositions; she simultaneously produces melodies with which to set up harmonizations – or rebellions – and rhythms to either counter or embrace. Sometimes holding her amplified viola as one might hold a guitar, sometimes plucking, sometimes bowing, Lien makes the viola produce unexpected worlds of sound: it is both organic and metallic, a whisper, a wail, simultaneous call and response. This wide vocabulary is brilliantly suited to the stories she tells.
The details with which Lien fleshes out her stories are eclectic. References to Joseph Campbell partner up with insights from the formerly incarcerated, from suicide specialists, from Buddhists: Elpis’ experiences inhabit all continents and all eras.
Lien presented six songs from the Elpis record: “Love of Fate,” “Bitter Majesty,” “Fog of Fear,” “Scintilla,” “Escape” and “Last Waltz.” Her live performances of these songs – whose studio versions add on synthesizers of various sorts, keyboards and timpani – were compelling; Lien’s stage presence combines authority and vulnerability.
Lien also presented three songs that provided additional insights into both the initial development of her musical vocabulary and her cherished certainties about music’s purpose. Lien’s earliest song – a mid-adolescence piano work, transposed and expanded for amplification and looping on the viola – was composed “to help [her] understand life.” The second to last song she performed was designed “to help process events going on here.” Quite out of the blue, this song was “The Star Spangled Banner,” presented as a political meditation: with deft musical technique and insights, she shifted only a handful of notes and revealed the familiar anthem’s darker and more ominous undercurrents.
Lien concluded the evening with “Unconditional,” a love-song written by request for a couple she’d never met. Sweet and not naive, this expansive piece was an affirmation of profound love’s enduring possibilities: almost pastoral, it was an invitation to spiritual dance and a splendid conclusion for an evening about “the dark side of hope.”
The liner notes for the album contained the poetry – the would-be lyrics – for each song. Unlike Lien’s always first-rate playing, her poetry is uneven in quality: inspired phrases find themselves located in short lines of pedestrian connective material. But as Lien’s on-stage narrations make clear, she can use words well. Since the poems are not, in fact, lyrics, Lien might find herself more consistently successful in writing prose to illuminate and explicate her music: it might prove, paradoxically, more lyrical and effective in communicating Lien’s restive intellectual imagination, swinging, as it does, between disciplined analysis and free-float feeling.
Related to the Elpis poems are Lien’s twelve 4” x 4” cards – the sorts of cards that can be tucked into mirror-frames or used as book-marks – each of which contains a Lien phrase, verse or sentence; these aphorisms fall somewhere between La Rochefoucauld maxims and New Age encouragements, some marvelously insightful and others benignly gooey. Friends and fans, loving some of these and caring less for others, will all be grateful that Lien thought to give them out as presents.
Generosity is, in fact, central to Lien’s sense of herself as an artist: she presents herself as a giver of gifts. Her performances – exchanges of music making and music receiving – create and deepen bonds of friendship among those who see both art and life as quests for meaning.
Lien is making her own musical genre: in her hands, the viola carries interconnected pop, classical and avant-garde sensibilities with dazzling ease. Lien is a serious artist engaged in serious endeavors. But make no mistake: she is also gregariously good-spirited, sharp, sexy and multifacetedly fun.
Christen Lien: Elpis and Dark Side of Hope Tour Launch (October 26, 2017)
Hotel Chantelle, 92 Ludlow Street, in Manhattan
For more information, visit http://www.christenlien.com
Running time: 80 minutes