Arts interview

Breaking Boundaries in Music

The Tech sits down with Chromic Duo to talk about music, multimedia, and storytelling

The Tech sat down with Dorothy Chan and Lucy Yao of Chromic Duo, an interdisciplinary music group that explores the intersections between various mediums, from toy pianos to sound walks. Chromic Duo recently performed From Roots We Carry under the Celebrity Series of Boston program on Friday, March 22nd, in Somerville Theater. From Roots We Carry encourages listeners to ponder upon the significance and impact of intergenerational legacies.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

The Tech: What’s the story behind Chromic Duo? 

Dorothy Chan: We met at the New England Conservatory (NEC). We were both at a music festival and we met in the hallway. I was rolling the toy piano and Lucy was like, “What is this?” We are both curious people and that’s a guiding force for us. 

Lucy Yao: I was thinking about what else could there be besides classical piano and other kinds of stories. People are not being represented in classical music. I was thinking of interesting ways to do that. When I saw her [Dorothy], there was this surprise. 

TT: How did you come up with the name? 

DC: chuckles. We locked ourselves in a room and decided on a name. It sounds like a science element name, a physics term, like things morphing together. 

LY: To me, chromic feels very futuristic and hopeful in some ways. Like Asian futurism and what could be possible. It’s looking back on our work and what’s exciting for us. After four years of being together, that’s what chromic is. 
TT: How did you become interested in toy pianos in combination with other mediums like storytelling and installations? 

DC: It was around 2016 to 2017. I was doing a lot of contemporary classical stuff, so I was diverging from playing Chopin and Beethoven. I was doing experimental chamber music and I stumbled upon it [toy piano]. The toy piano part came from being curious about how the sound was made. The toy piano is not a standardized instrument. It is made of a lot of materials: plastic rods, glass rods, hollow rods. It is fascinating what sounds it is capable of making.

I was like, “Wow, there is a whole world of people playing this in a serious setting.” It’s not just for kids. It tugs at me differently because it breaks the traditional sense of expectation of what instruments can be or how the Western classical world should behave: people clap at a certain time, people dress at a certain time. 

I was just excited about how it is a non-serious instrument that people are making serious music with; it opens up accessibility for me. The piano doesn’t have to be this rigid thing. It can be so many things and it can touch you, like all music. 

LY: This is a perfect moment for me to segue into this. We played toy pianos in 2019, but as the pandemic hit shortly after our first concert, we had to think of other mediums, and other ways of collaborating online. It wasn’t just talking about toy pianos, but also a shift in thinking. We don’t have a concert hall anymore, but we need to tell stories. We need stories to heal us. How can we do that? That opened up the possibilities for us. We fell into technology and coding and everything else. 

TT: What’s the story behind your Boston Celebrity Series program, Roots We Carry?

LY: The program name comes from one piece we did that specifically talks about Asian American identity called From Roots We Carry. But that’s not how I would describe it. The piece asks about the traditions and rituals we have inherited from our parents, meditating on what we carry, and what we want to leave behind. We invite the audience to reflect as they listen to stories and interviews talking about these things. 

DC: This [From Roots We Carry] is a collaboration with Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, a multidisciplinary artist. The sculpture you saw [in the video] is the visual element that accompanied the music and narration. We brought this piece into the concert hall setting so we could bring in these stories and the performance ritual to concertgoers. We will be playing this at the Celebrity Series as the closing piece. 

TT: What happens behind the scenes from an idea to the finished product, whether it is a video or installation? How did you end up collaborating with Amanda? 

LY: It’s funny how things can connect and make sense only when you have some distance behind them. For instance, this project [From Roots We Carry] first premiered in the fall of 2022. I learned about Amanda’s work during the pandemic in early 2020. I remember it was the peak of anti-AAPI hate crime. Chinatown was struggling to come back and there were a lot of people scared to open their businesses. There was a lot of fear, justifiably so. 

Amanda was such a signal of hope and resilience. She worked with the NYC government and had beautiful, colorful displays in Times Square and the city. There was one at Lincoln Center that said, “We belong here.” Pictures of elderly Asian Americans. I never saw anything like that before, or people like us. It brought me a lot of inspiration.

I saw that and at the same time, we were collaborating with the New York Philharmonic Very Young Composers Program. They wanted to find a special way to present the young composers’ compositions. The concert hall was closed and they asked us since we did augmented reality and Zoom performances. We created our first sound walk using augmented reality. 

The sound walk led from Central Park to Lincoln Center and their phones were triggering different sounds as we told different stories. How can we imagine a future in which Asian American history is taught in schools? How can we imagine a future that is more representative of a full, diverse story? 

DC: We will be playing a concert adaptation of Ravel’s Pavane. It’s talking about the final point when we arrive at Amanda’s mural that says, “We belong here.” The piece is like a circle, in the sense of learning classical music and being together. We wanted to be more in touch with our community, so we started expanding by doing dance, film, and sound walks. Sound walks make the concert experience more accessible because they can be done anytime by downloading an app. We bring all that stuff and go back to the concert hall. Our ethos spans across different mediums and audiences. 

TT: Lucy, you said that MIT’s virtual reality hackathon was inspirational. Could you elaborate on that? 

LY: I have always been attracted by other things outside of music, even when I played classical music. I loved to sit in on lectures on literature. I was a Shakespeare fan. I also liked Murakami. I came to the MIT hackathon through NYU ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program). I am not a coder, but I love collaborating with coders and programmers. I wanted to break out. I was in a creative rut. I was excited when I got to collaborate with people. I came with no plan, just to see what would happen like if I ran an experiment at the hackathon. 

Even though I felt like an imposter because I had no technological skills, I felt affirmed by my ideas and the way I think through storytelling, creating art and connecting people through that medium. I realized that I had so much to offer. That’s how we ended up on the project Failtopia, which has a lot of themes in common with Chromic Duo. People have always talked about failure. You know, the Museum of Failure. NASA reports on failures. There are studies about it [failure]. 

But there is still a culture of not showing that, especially on social media or in our careers as artists. After you graduate, it is difficult to talk about it. I didn’t have stuff figured out and felt like a failure. I wanted to create a space where it was okay to talk about it and share stories of failure. That’s how Failtopia came to be. 

It was a VR experience where you could share your stories and learn from previous generations and mistakes. Failtopia has that aspect of shared learning and intergenerational exchange of ideas. There are so many ways to communicate. You can do it through concert, VR, XR. The possibilities become more expansive. 

TT: How has your Asian American identity shaped your music and art? 

LY: The Asian American identity doesn’t directly apply to the experience. In general, I approach the creative process by asking, “Who is this for, and why does this story need to be told?” What kind of lessons and stories can we learn from? 

DC: My music is motivated by wanting to share something, like myself, thoughts that I have. I was a passport baby. I was born in the U.S., but I grew up in Hong Kong. Then I came to the States. 

When the word, “third-culture kid,” came about, I was like, “This is me.” It is hard to find what is home for me. In the U.S., I am not quite American, but I am also not quite a Hong Konger. When we are in the process of finding home, finding belonging in different works, it is a journey where we always yearn to find that place and to reflect on these issues. 

We are all carrying something. We don’t stop in our lives to think about those issues enough. I think that especially in a concert setting, we have you hear us for an hour. Let’s use this hour to go further and deeper. 

TT: How has your classical performance training influenced your musical compositions? 

DC: I didn’t really start writing music until the last couple of years. Classical training is more like a foundation. The foundation helps you understand the form of art. A typical example is like art school and you draw the apples. In the end, you do a dot and splash. Without that journey, it is hard to imagine what rules to break and what it means to be drawing the apple versus that splash. 

LY: I have an example of this in our process [musical composition]. We are currently working on an artist residency and sound walk project that will have visual filters. We are building an app with Texas A&M. Being classically trained and analyzing piano sonatas form helped. We think of ABA form not just in composition but also in a sound walk, in the stories we are telling, like the UN SDG (Sustainability Development Goal) about life underwater. How do we tell a story that compels people to feel moved, inspired, and called to action? 

A form is the main theme, the opening of a piece that’s more accessible and it won’t scare people right away. You offer some of yourself to open up this vulnerable space. B form is going to develop and challenge our listeners because it is difficult news and a deeper form. Then we return to A form. We went into this vulnerable space and asked the question, “What can we do to make sure life isn’t below water, that we commit to this goal?” 

TT: What projects are you currently working on? Any ideas on what future paths  Chromic Duo will take? 

DC: We have so many fun ideas we want to explore. more like managing time and funding to make them happen. Lucy mentioned the Texas A&M project, which will be launched at the end of April. We have another sound walk collaboration with Wave Hill Public Garden in New York. We are working with students and fellows to conserve nature and find ways to connect to nature. That will launch in the fall. 

Lastly, we are also doing a dance project in the fall with this dance group out in Kalamazoo, MI, called Wellspring. The project has high school dancers finding stories about home and food, food that makes them feel a sense of belonging. We are putting it together into a piece. There’s live music and choreography. 

TT: What do you do when you experience a creative block? Where do you get inspiration for your music and art? 

DC: As cliche as it sounds, giving yourself space is important. I am an accountable, responsibility-driven person. I have to get it done at a certain time. I am knocking them off. But to sit down and engage with art and create stuff, I need to not have so many of those things. When I have space, I don’t have much of a block. I can dabble on it. 

LY: Honestly we have very different answers on it [creative block]. When Dorothy is in the zone, she has full creative expression. A creative rut is more defined by burnout, like the administrative and production side. It’s more like how to create space for rest and for taking care of yourself. I don’t know if creating is the problem. It’s more of balancing out the things. I get stuck on ideas. I go through periods when there isn’t anything in my brain, so I don’t feel as motivated. 

It’s having a rest and break and doing something completely different. It’s seeking out help from others and hearing what’s inspiring to them. I love going to conferences and seeing what people are presenting and working on, like art galleries and film screenings. Anything that gets my mind going and thinking from a different perspective.