As an adolescent growing up in the age of closing record stores and declining physical album sales, I quite clearly remember the first time I downloaded iTunes. YouTube hadn’t quite grown into the music platform it also functions as today. As a late-teenager, the feeling of having an endless amount of music at my fingertips was a godsend to an artsy young mind like mine. Regardless of the fact that songs on iTunes had to be purchased, for once I could browse, listen, and ‘take home’ music at my leisure.
Now, as an adult, the likes of Spotify and Pandora have taken the place of iTunes in my life. Although songs are provided for me at random, I still end up hearing the same few hundred songs over and over, and that grand feeling of stumbling across something sonically new seldom happens. Pop and hip-hop styled instrumentation has taken over the mainstream scene and has come to be expected, particularly in regard to producers using triplets as well as electronic and synthetic instruments. Twenty or thirty years ago it was the electric guitar that was almost expected in some capacity in most popular songs. Even early hip-hop groups like Run DMC had guitar layered within many tracks. The fact that the masses have changed attitudes and tastes in music, in style and in instrumentation over the years is the only constant in the industry. Today, with the rise of millennial musicians and producers who are just as talented with recording software as they are with an instrument, popular music may be on the verge of another fundamental shift in style and performance. The ability to blend synthetic and live instrumentation has never been easier, and has never been accomplished with such pristine sound quality.
Perhaps no one exemplifies the creative changes occurring within the music industry better than Sophia (Siyang) Shen. One of the more musically diverse artists in contemporary music, Shen has found a space for herself by meshing popular sounds in western music with her signature eastern-style twist. A master of the pipa, a classical Chinese string instrument, Shen both sonically and aesthetically pushes the boundaries of what is possible in music, and thus far, audiences have responded with praise as she continues to rise in the ranks of the music scene. Live performances of her compositions at highly attended events like the San Francisco Tape Festival have proven that the practice of extensively mixing electronic sounds with live instruments is no longer designated to the studio, as Shen has spread her unique style of music with more young audiences. “The performer, myself, plays an essential role in realizing the dialog between computer and instrument by listening and responding intensely to the sound in the moment, which is key in improvising with the laptop. I’m a one-woman band,” Shen states.
In addition to being a pioneer composer assisting in the molding of the next generation of music, Shen intends to culminate her musical efforts by distributing her upcoming album The Unveiling, outside of the established means of practice. Today’s radio stations are saturated via the consolidated licensed content of iHeart Radio, and while digital radio stations like Pandora do a good job of suggesting similar to music to what you have already chosen, the ability to seek out new quality music from artists that find themselves predominantly outside the mainstream is lacking. Shen’s The Unveiling will be released using Bandcamp, an online music distribution site that’s increasingly becoming popular among artists trying to reach a larger audience. Users can listen to full albums and songs released by artists on the site for free, and purchase artist’s material at a customizable cost. If a user has a fondness for a particular artist like Shen, he or she can also donate additional money to help fund an artist’s future ventures. For independent artists like Shen who specialize in making diverse, emotionally provoking music that refuses to fall under just one genre, using Bandcamp proves to be a business-savvy strategy since most mainstream distribution channels hesitate to promote music that lies outside of the established norm.
In terms of content variation and inspiring the hearts and minds of listeners through sound, The Unveiling certainly has a lot more to offer to listeners than most mainstream albums. Shen considers her upcoming album to be a multi-movement piece, meaning that it will contain several changes in texture, emotion, mood, and style, among other variables. While this is not an entirely new concept in mainstream music, Shen’s mixing of both western and eastern classical sounds is an ambitious endeavor even for the most accomplished musicians. “It definitely represents the best of my endeavors at this stage of my creative career,” says Shen. “The whole piece is written in code, a programming language called SuperCollider, which is rare in the mainstream music scene.” Similar to popular concept albums like The Who’s Tommy or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Shen’s The Unveiling will be more of a story than just a collection of songs. Shen considers herself a solo storyteller, and intends on taking listeners through a large-scale musical journey which encapsulates her most diverse and challenging work.
Besides simply making a name for herself, Shen strives to positively contribute to the industry in which she belongs, and to increase the amount of cultural diversity seen and heard by the public. “I’m hoping that by incorporating the pipa, more people will know about this wonderful Chinese instrument from a modern perspective, and it’ll add more diversity into the music industry,” Shen says. Shen’s combining of the pipa with commonplace electronic sounds has the familiarity to pull in new listeners while also adding a breath of fresh air to a musical landscape that has grown somewhat stagnant creatively in regard to incorporating new instruments and sounds. Since beginning to perform segments from The Unveiling at galleries and shows, Shen has begun planning an album release event in the San Francisco area in early 2019 in addition to a US tour. I, for one, am excited to watch Shen’s career continue to flourish as she releases an increasing quantity of truly unique material, adding more to the music than just the music, an engaging and mind-opening flooding of textures that takes a listener’s imagination on a grand trek exploring what is possible in modern music.