Music christen 02

Published on November 2nd, 2012 | by Setsu Uzume


Interview with Virtuoso and Activist Christen Lien

Christen Lien has been alternately called an activist, virtuoso and musical samurai because of her incredible performances on the viola and passion for civic responsibility.

I first saw Lien perform during the Revelations: Myths + Meditations event at the Soundwave ((5)) HUMANITIES festival in San Francisco. Held in the city’s Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, Lien got up alone, in the darkness of the church, and began to play. Usually buried and forgotten within classical orchestras, Lien used the low, sonorous sound of the viola to make her her audience smile during pieces like her playful “Sandbox Sessions”, or cut to your core as it roared her “Battle Cry”. Layer upon layer blended into music so smooth and evocative that listeners may have missed its technical genius; Lien recorded each section live, added guitar effects and finally put the music into a loop machine. The result was the incredible sound of a one-woman orchestra.

The restrained grace and power that Lien displays onstage reflects aspects of her personal life. A champion of social justice, environmentalism and First Amendment rights, Lien celebrates the fearlessness we attain when stepping into personal power. She took the time to talk with Art Animal about the evolving genre of sound art, her musical process and what’s next.

Art Animal: I’ve heard that the Suzuki method of teaching music emphasizes aural learning and is considered to be a more holistic approach. Do you think your training with the Suzuki method set you on the path toward sound art? Do you think it allowed you to grow more creativity as an artist?
Christen Lien: The founder of the method, Shin’ichi Suzuki said, “I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.” I listened to recordings that came with my lesson books and learned not only how the music “should” sound, but also thought about ways that I could make the song more emotionally resonant.

My current process when I compose is very dependent on the ear and the heart. I don’t write out music on ledger paper — I don’t think, “I want to compose a song in the key of G Minor with a 4/4 time signature and a moderate tempo.” Instead I focus on a concept, an emotion, an experience or a circumstance about the human condition, and then experiment. The songs are like living creatures that are born from creating by ear, versus being created through notation and theory. (Though I am trained in music theory – don’t skip out on that, kids; it’s very important too.)

AA: Tell us about Vol. I: Battle Cry. Is there a story behind each track?
CL: Vol. I: Battle Cry is my first album, and like all of my songs, there are stories to each track. I’m also a fan of concept albums (i.e. Pink Floyd). The concept behind this first album is the emotional process we go through as we step into our “Power,” and creating a musical score to that journey. By “Power” I don’t mean the kind we acquire through time and experience, but the kind we are born with and have to step into through our own learning, maturation and sense of self.

The kind of “Power” I am exploring in my album, Battle Cry, is a very personal kind that we understand through a long journey or a rite of passage. It isn’t easy to embrace; it requires a lot of courage and honesty. As I was writing this album, I imagined a warrior treading through a hero’s journey of sorts, finding personal challenges that he or she must overcome, asking for help before the battle, surviving the fight and reflecting before the long journey home.

AA: Will your next album be a continuation of the same story?
CL: The way to look at my body of work in a long term perspective is that each “Volume” will deal with a different topic and challenge within the human condition. Vol. II will of course tell the tale of a hero’s journey, but it’s not a literal continuation of Battle Cry. It deals with a different topic — man’s relationship to hope, fear and expectation. It’s also a concept album about a character, but this character is rooted in mythology and their journey will be more complex than my last record. The next album is also a multi-media project, with visual and literary components that will help tell the story. I’m writing the literary components myself, but for the visual components I am collaborating with other artists.

AA: Do you think there’s a difference between your persona onstage and your everyday self?
CL: The answer to this question will probably be more interesting if you ask my closest friends; but I feel pretty aligned to the stage persona I share with my fans and community. My music and stage performance has a lot of movement, a lot of personal emotions and high drama. But, hey, look at the context: I grew up in a house that had multiple religions and both Eastern and Western philosophies. I currently train in martial arts and yoga, am trained in gymnastics and extreme sports like skiing and rock climbing, so I love the physicality of life and the wisdom of body intelligence. I often travel deeply to places that we think are scary, but aren’t as dark as our imaginations think they are (i.e. the Amazon rainforest or Mexico)… is all of this part of my stage persona and performance? I hope so; I want to bring my experience to the table when I perform music.

AA: You’re a staunch supporter of free speech and open creativity. Tell me a little bit about your activism.
CL: “Activism” has always been a strange word to me, and it’s because I’ve been called that many times, but never intended to be an activist. I’ve just found myself in situations where I had to come to something’s defense, and it was my civic duty and sense of integrity that led me to action.

In regards to free speech, I took a job as the Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 2005, the oldest festival of its kind that showcased experimental and ground-breaking film from all over the world. Just a few months after I took the gig, I found out that the AAFF was accused of showing pornography. Certain state legislators wanted to use the festival to take a stand against pornography in order to win over their conservative base. The films didn’t even have sexual content. For example, the film “America’s Biggest Dick” by Bryan Boyce was actually a film about Dick Cheney. The state of Michigan then revoked tens of thousands of dollars in state funding that the 44-year-old institution was dependent on.

The festival teamed up with the ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship, and took this to the court. In the end, the state of Michigan, admitting their guilt, settled out of court and changed the laws for all artists. Those state legislators who caused the problems in the first place? None of them were re-elected into the state congress, all of them lost their political power. In the end, it was a long, strange trip but an incredible victory.

Was this activism? Yes, but I see it more as civic duty. The “man” was reigning in on the creative diversity and voice of our culture, and I had to stop it while I could. We all have the responsibility to defend what is right and protect what we value most in our culture.

AA: It didn’t stop there, though; you were recently involved in this year’s Democratic National Convention. What did you do for them and how did you gain that position?
CL: I was the Speech Editor in the primary rehearsal room at the 2012 DNC. We work with the media coaches, speech writers and the teleprompting team. Whenever there was a change to the text that fed the teleprompter, I made those changes. And changes and edits happen all the time, right up to showtime.

I worked with Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, Sen. John Kerry, Caroline Kennedy, the keynote Mayor Julian Castro, Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sandra Fluke, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis…The list goes on and on. A tremendous amount of nonstop focus is required.

AA: Tell me about your martial arts experience. How did you first become interested in practicing martial arts?
CL: I love martial arts. I’m a junkie, and train several times a week in Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee’s mixed martial art), Kali/Escrima/Arnis (Filipino weaponry), Buka Jalan Silat and Western Boxing. Training definitely serves my music and professional career. I became interested through someone very close to me, but it was not something I had to be convinced to do. It was something that I always knew I would do; it was just a matter of time for me to show up for the training.

Oh, and here is a fun secret that I hardly share, too: the katana that you see on the cover of my album, Vol. I: Battle Cry, was my parting gift when I stepped down from the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The Board of Directors gave me that sword and engraved it with the words “Truth, Creativity and Integrity” — three values that I will fight for, to the death. The gift was perfection; they knew me well.

AA: Martial arts have a way of permeating one’s life; developing them spiritually as well as physically. How has it influenced you and your music?
CL: The most obvious influence that others have noticed is that my stage presence is a bit stronger. Not just in terms of confidence, but my body is stronger and more flexible. When I perform, I move — a lot. Always have since I was a kid. Since my core is now stronger, I can bend and dip deeply, move either with more speed or move very slowly with strength. The physical dance between me and the music has reached a new level.

As for how it affects my music career in other ways, training has made me better with negotiations, confrontations and standing up for what’s best for me and my art. It also keeps me disciplined and helps me stay in the present moment. When it comes to composition, I have a few songs where I attempted to write the sounds and patterns of a fight. We’ll see if you guys like that song when it is released.

AA: What’s the harshest piece of criticism that you’ve received, but that helped you to grow as an artist?
CL: I would never call this harsh because it was delivered to me out of support and confidence in my work; a very wise and successful man once told me that the smartest thing I could do is walk through the world and speak to people with the same level of confidence that I have when I am up in front of a crowd with a viola in my hand. If I let my light shine with the same confidence when I talk to people — if I acknowledge the value I bring to people’s lives through my creative work, and trust myself — then anything will be possible.

That was the moment I forgave myself for my insecurities, honored the dignity of my experience and knowledge and began operating from a deeper sense of self. It’s amazing when people rock your core that deeply — sheerly because they believe.

Learn more about Christen Lien on her website

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About the Author

Shot from New York like a bat out of hell, Setsu is a writer and collector of stories. She recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chinese Language & Literature. Her coursework included a stint at a monastery in rural China, where she studied swordplay and Daoist philosophy. Setsu is a co-founder of writing groups in Seattle and San Francisco, where new writers can take their first steps toward publication. She has dabbled in many arts, but only martial arts and writing seem to have stuck. Visit her blog at

One Response to Interview with Virtuoso and Activist Christen Lien

  1. clark says:

    Why would her art be labeled as “off-kilter”? That’s offensive. Off-kilter in your site’s designation doesn’t designate exceptionialism. It tells me that its a big deal for a woman to play an instrument well, for instance. It sounds as if your site is trying too hard to be edgy, at the expense of patronizing womankind. If a man can do it, it shouldn’t be unorthodox for a woman to do it, especially in 2012.

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