Exercising my creative brain: Interview with Richard An

Richard An (b.1995) is a composer, pianist, percussionist, singer, conductor, and more. Richard has a BM in Composition from the University of Southern California and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. He is on faculty at the Pasadena Waldorf School.

Richard An and others performing electronic music

ASN: You grew up in LA and attended school there. Can you give us an overview of the new-music scene? What should outsiders know?

RA: Schools like CalArts, USC, UCLA, CSULB and others produce composers and performers hungry to play new music, who often congregate at one of the many new music organizations in Los Angeles. Monday Evening Concerts, Piano Spheres, Jacaranda, WasteLAnd, Wild Up, Synchromy, and several others are organizations that primarily feature music from the last 50 years, if not world premieres. Southland Ensemble, the Dog Star Orchestra, and lots of stuff at Coaxial, floating and Human Resources LA inhabit the dronier and noisier side of “new music.” 

Above it all, you have the large orchestras and opera companies that program more traditional repertoire but have proven to put money into new music over the decades; the Los Angeles Philharmonic especially commissions dozens if not hundreds of composers a year. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra also deserves some recognition here.

ASN: You have a lot of jobs listed on your site and social media. How do you fit it all together? What are your strategies for staying organized (and healthy)?

RA: It does seem like I do too much! On top of freelancing, I teach at two schools and privately, do arts admin for 3 or 4 concert series at a time, work at a church, accompany choirs, record concerts, and help run an active ensemble (houseonfiretrio.com), an online publication (newclassic.la), a new music series (tinybackpack.org) and an event/rehearsal venue (rasp.la). It does feel like a lot, but is only really intense a couple weeks out of the year when all the performances and concerts seem to line up, usually in November and April/May. Given that literally everything I do follows the academic calendar, I’m only technically working 9 or 10 months out of the year, and have to pay rent for 12.

One of the key strategies for staying up to date and organized is embedded in the work itself; the fact that I do so many different things means that when I’m burnt out on practicing piano, I can switch over to editing video and audio for the concerts I’ve recorded. After finishing editing and letting video files render, I can switch over to my laptop to draft social media posts for Piano Spheres, then continue arranging music for my high school percussion ensemble, then write a concert review for newclassic.la. This is a very typical “free” afternoon, one in which I have no classes or rehearsal to attend. The fact that my work exercises different parts of my creative brain means that I can work continuously without tiring my brain, ears or eyes too much.

Another blessing in my life is my rehearsal studio; I started the Richard An Studio Project in August 2023 in a 1300 sq ft room a 2 minute drive from my home. This venture has a ton of personal benefits, allowing my ensembles to rehearse without having to book a venue, pack up in a hurry, or cart equipment. I can do my editing work in my office, let videos render then leave “work” at “work,” which musicians are notoriously bad at. I can practice at any time of day since I have no residential neighbors. Renting the space out to other ensembles brings a little money back, and the space allows storage of more instruments. We have three pianos.

Lastly, almost all my work is near my home and studio in Pasadena. There’s only one time a week I need to drive more than 30 minutes to get to work. This is a combination of luck and intentionality; having everything physically close together means that I can schedule more in my day with shorter commutes in between. One of the annoying parts of freelancing are the awkward 45-90 minute gaps in between gigs in your day, when it’s not enough time to go home but not short enough to just get to the gig early. I can make use of a gap between rehearsals by heading to my studio less than 10 minutes away and get some last minute practicing done (or, sometimes, just take a nap!)

I don’t necessarily recommend this life and workload, it’s come at the cost of meals and sleep and social events. But I derive a lot of personal value in my work and I enjoy nearly all the work that I do. I am not married and don’t have kids, so I’ve allowed myself to be selfish with my time. One of my most important goals this year is to make time for exercise and cooking at home.

ASN: You produce a lot of concerts, recordings, etc. What are some things you consider when programming a concert?

RA: Truly, I just try to play what I want. This year, Élise Roy and I started a concert series called Tiny Backpack, in the first concert of which we played a “bucket list” piece of mine, Eric Wubbels’ Katachi. The next few concerts will follow the same directive, to program works that we want to play. I do the same thing with my ensemble House on Fire, where we program and commission music from composers that we like. Ultimately it boils down to “would I go to this concert?” and the answer needs to be “yes.”

ASN: Thanks for sharing your experience and insights, Richard! Readers, check out these two recent albums:

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