Ann Arbor's Chien-An Yuan produces music, photography, and design steeped in contrasts
Chien-An Yuan's art -- be it music, photography, or design -- immerses your eyes and ears in a world that feels at once orderly and hazy, referential and singular, dark and light. Contrasts are this Ann Arbor artist's forté.
Yuan also runs the 1473 label, which is filled with deep-listening tones that can fill a room with a strange and beautiful ambiance, but most of the music works even better with over-the-ear headphones so you can immerse your brain in mind-expanding sound-art.
1473 has released 15 records so far -- including Yuan's Teeth Marks on the Everett, which features five piano improvisations run through effects and then reassembled in post-production. You can find more of Yuan's music, DJ mixes, photography, design, and his multimedia collaboration IS/LANDS (which was performed at AADL last year) on his website, chienanyuan.com.
We talked to Yuan about his work and his track recommendations for diving into 1473's world of sound.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to live in Ann Arbor from Chicago.
A: I’m an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and educator based here in Ann Arbor. I run the record label 1473, which specializes in improvisation, electronics, and collaboration. I’m also a founding member of IS/LAND, a performance collaborative comprised of Taiwanese-American, Taiwanese, and APIA dancers, artists, and collaborators. I currently sit on the board of directors for American Citizens for Justice, a nonprofit organization in Michigan that conducts public education, community advocacy, and provides legal resources to victims of discrimination.
I moved from Chicago back to Ann Arbor in 2016 -- I actually grew up here until I was 11 -- because my wife had an awesome job opportunity. I can do what I do from anywhere and the kids were young enough to move without traumatizing them, so here we are!
Q: When and why did you start the label and what is the story behind naming it 1473?
A: I ran a record label in Chicago called Actually, Records from 2003-2009, and it about killed me. It was an incredible experience and I proudly stand behind every release but between producing, recording, booking shows, and writing press releases -- man, once my kids were born, put a fork in me, I was done and ready to table any thoughts of starting another label. I was only too happy to begin the new awesome phase of being a stay-at-home dad / independent contractor / artist / master of naps.
In recent years, however, I’ve developed a serious interest in electronic, improvised, and collaborative music -- where and how they intersect, what drives the creative process for the musicians who embrace those ideas, and how artistic communities form around those core concepts. What I realized was that I was tracking many of these musicians in my head -- seeing how their output was interconnected -- but it was just exactly that: in just my brain. 1473 was born then as a means to provide an aesthetic scaffold and community of those invisible connections. Moreover, I wanted to start a label that wasn’t based on any traditional model but one where artists could also document their work in progress. Digital releases have opened up the concept of what an album release can be -- add/delete tracks as you see fit over a period of time, why not? As the artists change, maybe their idea of what they want documented will evolve as well and I would love 1473 to be a home for those kinds of modular processes.
The reason I named it all 1473 is because that’s the Library of Congress call number for electronic music. Of course, the label has inevitably grown beyond just a focus on electronic music but, hey, you have to start somewhere. Plus, it just reads well and is mildly enigmatic, which is always a nice conceptual accent.
Q: You're a graphic designer, photographer, and sound artist -- and they all feel tied together by an aesthetic that I can't quite put my finger on. I was going to say a sense of space, but some of the things you do are "crowded" -- so maybe the aesthetic is the spaces within a crowd? Like when you zoom into something with a microscope and you end up seeing the spaces, the light, the ebb and flow that comprise the bigger picture. Do you feel like you have an overarching aesthetic to your work? If so, please describe it.
A: Oh, wow, that’s a fantastic analysis of my work -- man, just awesome. I don’t know if there’s an overarching aesthetic to my creative output as much as there are definitely a few recurring themes. Contrast and dynamics are certainly a foundation in what I do -- the tension between minimalist / maximalist, quiet / loud, and monochrome / color seems to always result in art that both contradicts and complements itself. It is definitely an aspect in art that I admire -- if you take just a pop song, say the Pet Shop Boys cover of "Always on My Mind," where the plaintive and melancholy vocals glide over relentless dance synths and beats -- it creates this traction that demands your attention. Of course, that also applies to visual design as well -- my favorite graphic designers range from the super-clean Peter Saville, Charley Harper, and Eileen Gray [styles] to the vibrant and flamboyant Tadanori Yokoo, Satyajit Ray, and The Designers Republic. Mash that all together with a dash of Eiko Ishioka and Jenny Holzer and somewhere in that spectrum lies some kind of pervasive aesthetic, I suppose.
Having said that, I’m also very process-driven so it really just depends on a specific source of inspiration. Like every visual artist I know, I have an extensive archive of images that I look to for ideas and concepts, and whatever direction it takes me at that moment, I go with it. All in all, though, I much prefer what you wrote instead!
Q: Name five tracks from 1473 to get new listeners started with a sentence or two about
A: I know you said five but I feel compelled to add two more.
cinchel aka Jason Shanley's music seems to subliminally direct the listener into engaging not just with the sounds themselves, but their shapes -- all discrete yet still tactile. "Solemn Night," the first track from a ghost's hand leads you through darkness represents well the distinct work of a musician who understands completely how sound moves, creating hypnotic soundscapes that constantly reveal new surfaces and fibers with each listen.
Joo Won Park teaches Music Technology at Wayne State University and is just an endless reservoir of inspiration while Akosuen is the music project of Chicagoan Billie Howard, who is just as prolific and awesome. Her remix of Park’s "Elegy" encapsulates everything I love about electronic music and the joys of a great remix, when everything you enjoy about one artists’ work is reinterpreted into something gloriously new and unexpected.
I’ve listened to quite a bit of improvised music but I’ve never heard a mixture of instruments and sounds like what Virago creates. Based in Ann Arbor and Detroit, Virago is a free improvisation and contemporary chamber music ensemble featuring members Sofia Carbonara, Wesley Hornpetrie, BethAnne Kunert, Megan Rohrer, and Kaleigh Wilder.
Betty has a singular musical mind. She’s a DJ on Lumpen Radio in Chicago and her shows are always a magnificent collage of disparate sounds -- how she mixes everything together, there really is no precedent. "Francesca Molesta" feels like a direct pipeline into her creative process, like a 10.0 dive into her brain followed by a nice relaxing and always fascinating swim.
I can always depend on Joshua Wentz’s music to have the best collisions of intersecting electronic textures. I don’t know how he does but he does super great -- “Walk the Plank” spotlights this aspect of his work well while also showcasing his deft hand at crafting arrangements. Oh, and I must mention that he pressed his album on vinyl and it really has the most gorgeous packaging -- the level of detail is just outstanding. You can order if here.
“Haxan I” is the first part of Heather’s live improvised score to the Swedish classic Häxan (1922), directed by Benjamin Christensen, first recorded for Dublab radio in Los Angeles. It is so dense and haunting and if you sync it up with the film, you are guaranteed a good and unnerving time.
Heather and I go way back -- like high school back -- and since then she’s become a musical juggernaut, playing with the bands of The Elephant 6 Collective, Gnarls Barkley, and Lil Wayne. In addition to being a frequent collaborator on Duplass Brothers productions, Heather is an alumna of The Sundance Institute Music & Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound, a 2014 Sundance Institute Time Warner Foundation Fellow, and a member of the Academy class of 2016. Most recently she co-composed the score to The L Word: Generation Q.
She is, to put it mildly, super awesome.
Jon Monteverde has the masterful ability to just understand how to blend contrasting electronic sounds and make that combination sound so damn good. My admiration for Brice Wodall runs 100 deep -- his idiosyncratic songwriting, singular voice, experimental productions, and frankly, his humanity are all top notch. Put these two together and you have another stellar remix showcasing the frontiers that only experimental electronic music can explore.
Q: What's on tap for 1473 and your other artistic pursuits?
A: Like every other independent artist and arts organization I know, Covid-19 has forced me rethink my plans for the rest of 2020. I initially had plans to mount a mini-festival of improvised music here in Ann Arbor/Ypsi over a Fall weekend but the funding for that predictably went kaputz. I hope to put that together for next spring or summer then and finally introduce many of the artists on the 1473 roster to each other and then go bananas all collaborating on stage. Beyond that, there will be the usual schedule of monthly 1473 releases -- with the next one being a compilation that collects sounds from artists I admire from around the world, encapsulating their experience with social distancing. That will be followed by some monthly releases I’m particularly excited about -- I’m keeping them close to the chest so I’m not going to reveal details just yet!
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.