With 'Migration Music,' Pianist Han Chen Explores Stories of Immigration

April 19, 2022

D.M.A. student’s latest venture is a pandemic-era video series featuring immigrant composers.

Han Chen - photo credit: Raymond Huang
Han Chen (Credit: Raymond Huang)

The prolific pianist Han Chen — he has already released three solo albums, and is about to record a fourth — started an online video series, “Migration Music,” as a way to understand composers’ immigration stories. In the series, Chen performs work by an immigrant composer and then interviews the composer about how immigrating to the United States has influenced their music.

Chen moved to the United States at 18 to attend the Juilliard School, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was born in Taiwan and moved nine years later to Shanghai. New York City, he points out, is now the place he has lived the longest. The fourth-year D.M.A. student recently spoke to the Graduate Center about his video series:

The Graduate Center: How did this series come about? 

Chen: This series started at the beginning of the pandemic, when my friend and composer, Reinaldo Moya, reached out to me to do a project where different pianists would record their performances and then put them together as a virtual concert. I thought that was a great idea, since we were all just sitting at home, doing nothing. It would be great to have a platform where pieces could be performed and introduced to people. 

I asked him whether he would also be interested in doing an interview to talk about how COVID has impacted his life as a composer. Since he’s from Venezuela, and I’d recently gotten my Green Card, I was also interested in his journey from Venezuela to the United States.  

But once I was preparing for that one interview, I started to think it would be a good idea to keep doing this kind of thing — to talk to more composers, play their music, and talk more about their life during the pandemic. I knew all these composers through my work with ensembles and chamber music, but I didn’t really play a whole lot of piano solo music by my fellow composers. Because of the pandemic, I didn’t have any ensemble performances, but I had a lot of time to work on solo pieces at home by myself. And I could just record myself and then talk to the composers.  

GC: How did the focus of the series change from pandemic life to immigration? 

Chen: When I got my Green Card, I started to think about my immigrating life. I ended up here and I like it here, and I wondered whether this was the same with other composers, musicians, who came to this country. Everyone came to this country with different purposes, and I wanted to know how they changed since coming to the States, because I definitely changed — not only my artistic vision, but also my stylistic taste. The surroundings also impacted me as a person. I learned from most of the composers that they also started to think more about their heritage after they immigrated. 

It's a very interesting phenomenon: When you are just at your home country, you don’t often think about your identity, like your citizenship, that sort of thing. Because your citizenship and your identity, cultural background, are in line. But when you come to a different country, you have to reassure yourself about who you are and where you came from. And composers use their music to express themselves and talk about their own history. 

Composer Lei Liang famously said that he discovered China after he left China. He tried his best to learn about the history, the tradition, and he started doing that intentionally after leaving his country. That’s a very special thing, I thought.  

GC: What has it meant to you to do this series?  

Chen: I feel I sort of grew just doing this project, because I had this chance to really reach out to different people to ask this very personal question: How did you feel when you came to this country? It’s not very appropriate in a daily conversation. Most of these composers are older than me, maybe 10, 15 years older than me, and they have already established their careers here, and they have their very specific views. I learned a lot from them. 

GC: You refer to the music you’re featuring on the site as “American music,” even though all the composers came from different countries. Do you see their music as simply American or does it fall into a special category of its own? 

Chen: I was very curious about this idea when I started the series. In the last episode, Chia-Yu Hsu, who has been here for 20 years, talked about how she has been here in the United States longer than she was in Taiwan. It’s inevitable that your life, your art and your craft, eventually get influenced by your surroundings. She doesn’t specifically choose American topics, but since she’s in Wisconsin where she teaches as an associate professor, [her music talks] about the sceneries that she sees in daily life, about the river, about the history of that region, all those things. It’s impossible to separate where you are from your art.

GC:  What can you share about your immigration story?

Chen: My parents didn’t have a honeymoon until I was born. Right after I was born, they came to New York. And since then they’ve always talked to me about New York. New York was a place that I knew I was going to go. My mom insisted that I go to New York for college. It feels like a second home to me now. And every time I come back from different places, I feel, yes, I have a sense of belonging — not because I was born here, but because I have spent so many years here, and have great memories and valuable experiences.  

GC: We last spoke to you about two years ago. Is there any advice you’d give to someone who is just starting out in the Music program

Chen: I’ve had such a great experience at the Graduate Center, and I feel always supported for whatever I do. Our music program is comparably smaller than some programs, and you feel that everyone is so close to each other, that you will always be doing the same thing. But eventually I realized that everyone is on such a different path, and I would say to people who just came to the Graduate Center to really find themselves in this program, that this program is for you to become who you are. To pursue whatever you are interested in. This institution is going to provide you with enough resources to be who you are, so don’t feel that there are any limitations. You can achieve whatever you want here, and for whoever you are. That’s what I feel about this program. 


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