Name: Phong Tran
Occupation: Composer & Visual Artist
Current Release: The Computer Room on New Amsterdam Records
Recommendations: Antichamber the game / async by Ryuichi Sakomoto. This is album stuck in my brain permanently. It’s emotionally powerful, with beautifully constructed sounds and architecture. It’s a reminder for me to stay honest when I’m writing. There something extremely powerful about simple melodies placed within the right context.
If you enjoyed this interview with Phong Tran, visit his website to find out more.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started composing in high school. My earliest influences were video game soundtracks. Nobuo Uematsu especially, Final Fantasy X was a big influence on me.
I started to seriously study music in college. I saw just how much could be expressed with only sound. I grew up listening to techno and trance, so I had a natural gravitation toward minimalist/postminimalist artists and how they could make a huge impact with just a subtle change in rhythm or pitch.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think that accurately describes my development. I don’t think that it ever really stops – you just have more things to emulate as you absorb more knowledge and experience. Any creative voice is just the sum of all of the cool and interesting stuff that’s had an impact on that artist, so I’m constantly emulating a wide variety of things in different amounts.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
There are different identities I take on in different situations. I think most queer people/PoC can relate to that. I feel like my creative work functions the same way through different projects/mediums. My composed/notated work feels a lot more formal, while my electronic work and visual work feel much more conversational if that makes sense. And that’s always changing depending on what it is I’m trying to say and who I’m trying to speak to with my work.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The biggest challenge was wrestling with genre fluidity and medium. I went to a school of music composition and most of what I was taught was aimed towards success in the contemporary classical world of music. While I still enjoy writing that and doing that, that only covers one part of the kind of creative expression I want to explore.
Once I started making electronic music and doing things outside of the classical practice, that broke everything wide open for me to explore, not just with music but with visuals, movement, and literally any form of creativity I could sink my teeth into.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I think of it more like mapping out the experience of the piece and how it unfolds - how much information has already been given and how does new information interact with the past?
Each piece is its own universe – bound by its own rules, physics, and laws. Every piece of information you give to the audience acts to either introduce, reinforce, or break those rules depending on what information has already been given. Everything is relative to what’s happened before it.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Every sound has its own characteristics and identity, so the composition around the sound is a matter of arranging things to highlight different elements of that sound in different contexts.
The transformation of sounds and timbre are large parts of my toolbox and are often the driving forces for how I build out pieces. I think about how a particular sound can change over time, and how other sounds around it will adjust to that or change with/against it. I end up drawing a lot of graphs to chart to plan this out.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Working with collaborators forces me out of my own habits and gets me to explore things I wouldn’t have otherwise, and more importantly exposes me to a lot more things to draw influence from. The best part about collaborating is digging into the art that other people are into and getting recommendations for stuff to check out.
Working with collaborators also just makes the process more fun in most cases – I’m lucky that my longest standing collaborator, Darian Thomas, who’s in MEDIAQUEER with me, also happens to be one of my closest friends.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I don’t have much of a routine. I’ll get up and answer a few emails, and then work on whatever project I have cooking. I go through different periods of generating new material, like mocking up render models or playing around on my synthesizers, and periods of editing and revision. Whether I’m working on music or visuals largely depends on my mood. After finishing the music for The Computer Room, I couldn’t think about music at all, so I poured all my energy into the visuals, and now that that’s finishing up, I’m starting to think more about new music projects and ideas there.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The Computer Room feels like a breakthrough work to me right now. It’s definitely the largest scale project I’ve worked on combining both my music and my visuals in a language that feels authentic and true to myself.
The project started out as a reflection on simulation theory, whether or not we’re all just programs running on a simulation and whether or not that matters. And then that thought had me thinking about my own real experiences with digital avatars and interactions with strangers online, and just how much tangible impact that had on me, so the project morphed into a sort of thank you to all of the people and places I had spent time with on the internet as a kid growing up.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
It’s less about the state of mind and more about the project itself that sparks large creative bursts for me. There have definitely been periods where I’m working on something and I’m just like – “I need to just get through this,” but then there are times where I have an idea so burned into my brain that I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about it, and it’ll literally be the thing that gets me out of bed.
I don’t know of any strategies to find those ideas other than rest, and taking in as much art as you can. Keep a notebook on hand and jot down passing thoughts. Revisit it and see what holds and what doesn’t, and then let the things that stick start to develop out. Planting seeds and letting them grow in your brain.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I have a soft spot for love songs and breakup songs. I made a vaporwave mixtape of a fictional breakup that takes place over AOL Instant Messenger.
Growing up I didn’t really learn to express my emotions verbally, but working through my emotions through music felt like an important release. I don’t know if the music I’m making is helping others find that release but I hope it does.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
References and sampling is a large part of my musical vocabulary, so I love repurposing and using the art around it to make a new statement or recontextualize it. I think context and intent matters a lot when it comes to that though. There should be a reason you’re choosing to sample whatever it is your sampling, and the context of the original source material should factor into it just as much as the creative material itself.
At the end of the day the most important thing about art I’m engaging with is what is the artist trying to say with the work and who are they directing that to? Sometimes you’re the right person to convey a certain message or tell a story – other times you’re not. I think the danger of appropriation happens when that kind of context for the source material isn’t taken into consideration. “This sounds cool so I’m just going to use it” isn’t a good enough reason.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I’m often thinking about how different sense can work in counterpoint with each other. The most obvious one is when a visual moment cues up exactly with a sound, but I think there’s a lot more room for exploration with how different senses can overlap within one experience.
No one sense is ever experienced in true isolation. It all comes together to one experience.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a product of the time it was made and the experiences of the person making it. One of the most important things to consider when I’m taking in art and when I’m making it is, who the work is trying to reach and what it is the artist is trying to say to those people, and what that meaning can be for different people engaging with it.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Honestly, I don’t know how much music can capture on its own without context the same way words can’t express everything about life and death.