Sound "Waves": Chien-An Yuan plays off the screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival
The Ann Arbor Film Festival celebrates collaboration. Sure, there are some movie mavericks who do everything themselves when creating a film, but it's usually a talented group of people combining their resources to create something special.
Chien-An Yuan lives for collabs.
The Ann Arbor polymath is capable of making films, photography, art, and music all on his own—and he has many times—but he prefers to work with others to bring creations to life.
And there are so, so many creations in Yuan's world.
Yuan is a co-founder of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) performance troupe IS/LAND, whose latest work, TETRA, will be performed at the Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC), April 15-16 and 22-23. Featuring dancers J Amber Kao, Olivia Lemmenes, S Jean Lee, and Yuan on sound design, TETRA is all about transformation: "Forming rolls of colorful Hanji mulberry paper into shapes and pathways of wisdom, knowledge, and healing, the movement of the dancers offer improvised ‘rituals’ as communal gestures of healing and transmutation, ultimately creating a restorative healing space for both the audience and performers," writes Yuan.
IS/LAND then returns to the Ann Arbor District Library on May 20 for KIZUNA TREE, an interactive installation and performance. The event combines an Ikebana tree designed by Celeste Shimoura Goedert, sound recordings from the collaborative series AAPI Stories, which was co-developed by Zosette Guir of Detroit Public Television and journalist Dorothy Hernandez as a response to the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021, and movement, visuals, and readings by IS/LAND. "KIZUNA TREE is an exploration of communal healing for AAPI peoples, across generations, communities, and ethnicities," writes Yuan.
More immediately, Yuan has a couple of projects at the Ann Arbor Art Center—both collaborative, of course.
He worked with artist Thea Augustina Eck to create a string installation in the rear staircase of A2AC, using colored yarn to create a web of lines that fan out from single sources, only interacting in separated layers when looking down or up the length of the well.
The fiber art will still be at A2AC when Yuan, using an iPad, and percussionist Jonathan Barahal Taylor improvise a score to Mattieu Hallé's May Waves Rise From Its Floor on Thursday, March 23, as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Based in Ottowa, Canada, Hallé will be in Ann Arbor to screen the 16mm film of an abstract ocean landscape. He'll use a modified projector with a candle as its light source; the flame is moved and modified by Hallé's breathing and handheld pieces of broken crystal. As the shadows and light move and morph, Yuan and Taylor will react musically in real-time, making every screening of May Waves into a singular experience.
I spoke to Yuan about his current slate of artistic projects, and he gave us an update on some music he's preparing to release on his experimental record label, 1473.
Q: Even though you've made music on your own for a long time, it seems like you're especially connected to collaborative, multidisciplinary projects.
A: Collaboration is where it’s at for me—especially in improvisation, especially the thrill of journeying into the unknown with other like-minded artists. It’s always most interesting to see where other artists’ creative processes and mine intersect.
With the movers in the AAPI performance collaborative IS/LAND that I’m a co-founder of, we’ve been working together now for five years, and I still don’t truly understand how they create meaning through body movements. I may understand it aesthetically but how they do it—how they seem to channel something sacred even—melts my brain. So, when we do work together across disciplines, the creative convergence is something that I really don’t like to talk about—mainly because I don’t even know how to verbalize what happened and how it happens. All I know is that it feels at best like it is magic and at worst, still magic!
Q: How did you get connected with Mattieu Hallé to be the musical part of this multimedia event?
A: I was kindly invited by Scott Boberg of AAFF. It’s weird how much overlap there is in our aesthetic taste. I don’t know why he thought it’d be a good fit but I’m honored that he did. Live scoring a film has been a no-joke goal of mine so I was beyond thrilled when he made the offer.
Q: Have you spoken with Hallé about what you're going to do? Did he give you any suggestions or feedback?
A: We just met over email and a very brief Zoom meeting but that was more of a general "hello!" so no, not really. The only suggestion—actually, a requirement—is that two musicians improvise together. For the March 23 screening of May Waves Rise, I couldn't be more thrilled to be collaborating with drummer/percussionist/improviser Jonathan Barahal Taylor.
Q: There are some clips online of previous May Waves Rise From Its Floor performances. Have you watched any clips, or are you going in completely unaware of past performances and how they looked and sounded?
A: No, outside of a general understanding of what Matthieu will be doing physically, I’ve intentionally avoided watching any clips. I very much want to experience Matthieu’s art in the moment and keep myself open to how I physically and emotionally respond to it, as well as the sounds that Jonathan will be generating. There is something about improvised collaboration that is beyond my understanding—where the act of listening and responding intersect with creating something from zero. It’s daunting for anyone to try for the first time but after a few instances, the beauty of creativity and spontaneity colliding in the moment is something that, for me at least, is ultimately liberating and transformative.
Q: What type of music gear are you using for your performance?
A: Live processing apps on an iPad as well as two or three delay/effects pedals. My goal is to live process Jonathan’s percussion sounds and create concentric circles of sounds and drones feedbacking into themselves.
Q: You also did an installation at A2AC with Thea Augustina Eck. Tell us a bit about the work.
A: I was asked by Thea to create an installation for the rear stairwell of the A2AC. I’ve always had this idea of redefining perspective lines in an existing space using string and color. It was Thea’s idea to use gradient-colored yarn, and I think it’s so much better for it as it not only added an extra tactile quality to the installation that the string would lack but also created a sense of ascension or descent depending on how you view the perspective lines. Thea and I worked together on the installation itself and it transformed, for me at least, from a design-based activity into a kind of meditative practice. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out, to be honest, and I’m actively looking for another space to install a new iteration of it.
Q: You always seem to have a new creative endeavor brewing, whether musical, video, visual, or with your record label. Tell us about some of your other upcoming projects.
A: I took a few months of hiatus for 1473 to develop two IS/LAND performances that will premiere back to back in Ann Arbor this April (Tetra at A2AC) and May (Kizuna Tree at AADL Main Branch) and will be back into the groove of monthly releases starting next week.
My next music project is titled Imaginary Homeland and is an exploration of how everything I know about Taiwan and China is rooted in my imagination, as I haven’t been to Asia since I was five. My concept of what my ancestral homelands are comes entirely from pop culture, readings, or secondhand experiences and memories of my family and friends. What I find fascinating is that Taiwan and China all seem very "real" to me yet in actuality, they’re nothing more than a simulacrum created out of constructed "memories." The sound project then is constructed out of live processed samples of found sound, film and TV dialogue, and pop and traditional music—all things I’ve digested throughout my life enough to essentially deceive my own brain.
Beyond that, I’m also producing two documentary segments for DPTV’s One Detroit profiling two awesome Metro Detroit artists: musician/DJ Whodat and pith flower papermaker Irene Wei.
So, yes, a lot going on!
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Chien-An Yuan and percussionist Jonathan Barahal Taylor improvise a score to Mattieu Hallé's "May Waves Rise From Its Floor" on Thursday, March 23, 3-5 pm, at the Ann Arbor Art Center as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The event is free. Visit aafilmfest.org for more information.
➥ "Ann Arbor's Chien-An Yuan produces music, photography, and design steeped in contrasts" [Pulp, June 9, 2020]"
➥ "IS/LAND's 'In Isolation Pt. 1 - SYNODIC" performance video explores the subtleties of change" [Pulp, January 14, 2021]
➥ "IS/LAND's 'Lost Constellation (Pt. 1 + II)' explores individuality and interconnectivity through movement, sound, words, and video" [Pulp, May 10, 2021]