In the beginning, Bienen’s second year, Helen Feng hated music.
She remembers hiding from her piano teacher as a child before discovering a love for German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
“In Bach’s music, I found a friend, and since then I have never looked back,” Feng said.
Bach launched his lifelong love for classical music, Feng said. Since then, the pianist and singer has premiered original compositions at Carnegie Hall, worked as a film composer, and covered many other songs on her YouTube channel.
As she began to test her musical limits in high school, Feng said her mother’s inability to understand her music or identify with it upset her deeply.
But, while self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, Feng said she was able to learn music production. After three hours, she produced a song for Mother’s Day in 2021.
“(My mom) actually cried and said she had me for the first time,” Feng said. “It wasn’t the most well-produced thing by professional standards, but it was definitely one of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
Feng was born in New Zealand, raised in China, and attended high school in the United States. She said the music helped her explore her multicultural identity.
This background led Feng to reevaluate her own musical identity, she said. She declined to call herself a composer because the word has specific connotations in Western music.
“What would be the first image that would come to mind? Probably an old white man,” Feng said. “Classical music is very much tied to a history of elitism and the idea of high art, that it needs to be refined and practiced to become better.”
Instead, she said she identifies as a music maker who tells stories and conveys her truth through music.
Studying music in an environment focused on the Western classical context sometimes stifled her creativity, she said. She said most people don’t realize the ambiguous way they rate music, which can cause artists to lose the fun of their craft.
Feng said she stopped basing her value as an artist on the opinions of others when she made the decision to focus solely on what music meant to her. Freeing herself from the labels of others has allowed her to explore music in a variety of multidisciplinary genres, from pop music to psychology and sociology.
Bienen’s second year Adebe Karam said he noticed Feng’s growth in exploring different genres. She said Feng’s move from classical music into the alt-pop space is an example of her gift in music composition.
“She’s an eclectic artist who draws inspiration from many places and merges them into something recognizable to her,” Karam said.
Feng said she views music as “the doorway to psychological expression” and is currently working on a collection of personal songs that address her experiences with anxiety attacks, relationships and bullying.
McCormick and Bienen’s sophomore Alicia Hartono said she felt inspired after listening to several Feng demos.
“As a composer, you have to be very in touch with your personal affairs. By listening to someone’s music, you can tell what kind of person they are,” Hartono said. “It’s really cool how she’s not afraid to talk about super tough topics that most people don’t want to talk about.”
As Feng delves deeper into the community of “confessional and vulnerable” singer-songwriters, she hopes to continue to put emotional expression at the forefront of her musical creation.
“(Music is) about how people connect with each other, how we express our sorrows and feelings, and use it to connect with ourselves and others,” Feng said. “It feels very alive to me.”
Check out the latest episode of “Sound Source: Deep Dive,” where we take a closer look at the lyrics to “Wash Away,” one of Helen Feng’s unreleased singles from her ongoing EP.
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