A composer from China takes the West by storm with his award-winning music, imbued with the gentle power of inner cultivation.
Tony Chen, 31-year-old internationally acclaimed composer, smiles endearingly at the singer. With tenderness, he points to his heart and opens his mouth in a classically-trained position, guiding her. “Round. And from the heart,” says Chen with a resonant voice and warmth that could melt steel. He raises his hand, gives her the downbeat and out floats the song of an angel.
Since 2012, Chen has won a string of awards in the U.S., including “Best Song in World Music,” “Best Song for Indie/Film/Documentary/Short” and a nomination for “Best Soundtrack” at the Hollywood Music and Media Awards. In 2014, his soundtrack from the documentary Free China: The Courage to Believe made him an Official Contender for “Best Original Score” and “Best Original Song” at the 86th Oscars.
“The theme from Free China definitely has that very memorable, very distinctly strong melody. It’s unmistakable,” says Hollywood Music and Media Awards co-founder Jim DeCicco. “I really enjoyed Tony’s integration of Eastern and Western sounds. It’s something very well combined, so that it doesn’t make you feel like this is an ethnic piece. It’s just cinematic. That’s really what any composer wants to achieve.”
All of these successes from a composer who shunned his greatest talent growing up.
Chen grew up in Beijing and was urged by his parents to learn piano. “At that time, I never had any interest in music,” says Chen. “I didn’t like it at all.” The monotony of technical piano training was too similar to the stifling academic environment that left Chen disinterested at school.
“In my opinion, China’s education is not stimulating to your freedom of self,” Chen says. “They give us the answer, we just memorize it and try to pass our exams so we can go to university.”
A turning point came when Chen and his schoolmate were asked to play a piano duet in an effort to raise awareness for the arts. “I was dragged to this performance. But then my friend told me he plays without music notation. He only plays music by ear.” Chen was intrigued.
His friend introduced him to the records of Yanni, the New Age composer and piano player famous for his tranquil melodies. They performed one of Yanni’s most famous pieces, Santorini, and their classmates loved it. But more importantly for Chen, the act of playing by ear sparked a creative spirit that transformed music from a begrudging chore to an all-consuming passion.
This discovery came at the perfect time for Chen: the social pressures of the stiff academic setting, his strict environment at home, and Chen’s adolescent angst were overwhelming him.
“My teenage time was quite lonely, and I used music to escape from anxiety and frustration.” Sitting down at his piano, now able to approach it in a whole new light, he developed a relationship with music that was free and without boundaries, all while gaining a mastery of orchestration and composition.
At age 17, Chen started composing. After endless hours listening to and playing others’ music, he discovered he had an innate gift. “If I wanted to have a melody, then I would have it.” Original compositions flowed from his fingers effortlessly. And people loved them.
Chen’s online fans nicknamed him the “Chinese Yanni.” A music academy in China even asked him to compile an album. “When they realized that I was just in high school, they stopped approaching me,” he says with a laugh.
Despite these early successes, Chen couldn’t shake his loneliness and unhappiness in life. “Especially for people who are doing acting or performance music, we are very emotional people. Sometimes the emotions become too strong, and we cannot even handle ourselves and become very depressed.”
While music helped him escape, it didn’t help him fundamentally resolve these inner demons. But the solution came naturally, just like the melodies that would flow through his mind.
His mother practices Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese meditation practice. One day, Chen read some lectures by the founder of the practice. Inside were principles that he had never heard before but that resonated: karmic cause and effect, the importance of thinking of others first and how to become more clear-minded by taking emotions lightly. Moved by these ancient Chinese principles, he started practicing the five Tai Chi-like exercises and continued reading the teachings.
Music as medicine
Chen didn’t predict how the practice was going to influence his music. “Falun Gong is about truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, so as a musician, it gave me a direction, a kind of responsibility towards society,” he explained. “Music is being righteous, being upright, being beautiful, trying to bring people hope. When you listen to that kind of music, you can feel at peace.”
Chen reveals that cultivating his character was a gradual process, but with each step, his music improved. At university and for several years afterwards, Chen says, “I followed my feelings when doing music. I could compose lots of beautiful melodies, but compared to the pieces I compose now, those songs were very weak. When I tried to cultivate my character more, I felt that the music became even more powerful, more touching.”
This sentiment can be seen with his accolades of late. “Flying High Above” earned a Hollywood Music in Media Award nomination in 2014, and also became a finalist in the USA Songwriting Competition. This piece illustrates well his desire to uplift people.
“Lots of the Asian cultivators sit with crossed legs, and they can elevate themselves and fly freely. That was a dream I had, so I turned it into music,” he says. “If you fly very high above, you can see all the mountains, everything, at a glance. So if you run into a conflict with someone, if you can imagine yourself flying high above, that person becomes very small, even smaller than an ant. At the same time, your conflict between that person becomes even smaller than an ant, so you never have to fight again, and you can experience the freedom you have when you stay out of conflict.”
Chen recently moved to Los Angeles to continue working in the music and film industry. While the entertainment capital of the world boasts every type of contemporary music, Chen remembers his heritage.
“The Chinese character for music is actually the bottom part of the Chinese character for medicine,” notes Chen. “The ancient Chinese people realized that music has this healing power. To my understanding, if I bring good music, positive music, upright music, or very beautiful, comfortable and pure music, it really can benefit people spiritually, put them in a happy mood, and it can even improve their health.”
Photography by Anton Jiang/ Yulia Ronskaya/ Anton Jiang