Diving deep with Susanne Xin

Towards the end of the third workshop with Borealis Ung Komponist, Susanne Xin takes a break to have a chat. Susanne is 24 years old, lives in Oslo, and is a Norwegian-Vietnamese performing artist, pianist, music teacher, and more! «Well, first and foremost I’m a medical student at the moment» she laughs with disbelief. «Let’s not talk about it, it’s too cliche! But also a huge privilege to be doing so many things.»

Photo: Thor Brødreskift/Borealis

Although her dreams are also to work for Doctors Without Borders in the future, music is an equally strong passion, and perhaps motivated much by the same personal and political starting points. 

Lullabies for Refugees 

Just before, Susanne was completely transforming Fensal at Bergen Internasjonale Kultursenter into a boat mid sea, together with ensemble YrrY. There has been a whole process to get here though. During the first gathering with the other participants of Borealis Ung Komponist, she started by telling the story of when her father fled the war in Vietnam by sea, and ended up in Norway. This is what the piece is based on, titled Nattasanger for flyktninger (Lullabies for Refugees).

«The atmosphere in the piece doesn’t necessarily give associations to a lullaby, but this is precisely the contrast and tension that I want the piece to communicate. I’ve been experimenting a lot with YrrY in order to find atmospheres that I’m looking for. Part of the process has been to boil down the story into five short sentences, that shape each their own part of the score. Yrry has had to deal with phrases like My dad’s tears are running down my cheeks in order to create what I’m looking for.» But these sentences are only for the musicians, not for the audience.

The composed piece is a continuation of Susanne’s earlier performance piece, Cây đa, created during her time in the talent program TekstLab, and performed at Gamle Munch Museum last year. Along with prepared grand piano and movements, she used her own voice to tell her father’s story, but in a much more explicit way. «I told, for example, how vomit ran down the walls of the boat, how they had to drink urine because there was no water left, and I described the feeling of being mid sea with no concept of time or direction.»

Cây đa by Susanne Xin, film: Rickard Aall, sound: Helge Tjelta, co-producer: TekstLab

«The performance in Gamle Munch led to some strong encounters with the audience, and I saw how it hit people really hard – perhaps TOO hard. I want to be very conscious of how my work can bring back trauma for others, even when it’s my own family trauma that I have explored.»

Her work for Borealis will therefore contrast the project’s previous format: «This work will be kept more open and rather stand as the audial essence of this earlier work. In this way, the story can also live on without me, and perhaps even be used in important dialogues for future performances.»

Alternative scores

Another part of her experimental was to get the four musicians in YrrY to write down their own interpretations of Susanne’s instructions for how to play the piece: «In their own words, but also with drawings and symbols, they have created instructions that are most understandable to themselves. It’s been a really exciting way to create alternative scores that can live on without me. Although the scores will be understood differently every time, everyone can understand a score like this!»

Photo: Susanne Xin

Also in the past, Susanne has worked with finding ways to make music more accessible. When Susanne studied a bachelor’s degree in Music Pedagogy specialising in piano at the Norwegian Academy of Music, she researched how children can learn better: «I think the key to learning is accessibility, so teaching must start earlier in order to include more people. Musicality can be found in everyone – children don’t have to wait until they will understand scores in order to find joy in their musicality!» The work resulted in the book Høsten på gården (Autumn at the farm) based on pictures and storytelling rather than sheet music, teaching piano to kids aged 5–7, written together with Nora Klungresæter.

Racism in the music industry

At the Norwegian Academy of Music, Susanne also organised the school’s very first panel debate about racism, together with Emily Adjei in 2021. The debate focused on racism at the school, including unconscious power structures, everyday racism experienced by students, international students and staff, how to make music available to a more diverse audience, what kind of repertoire was played and taught, and who got the opportunity to be on stage. The many conversations about racism also made her reflect more deeply on her own art practice: «As one of very few students with minority background in my year group, and the only one in my tutor group, I felt a longing for more multicultural musicians. It also became very clear how I had only played music composed by white, European men. As a pianist I felt as if I was nothing but a medium between the composer and the audience. For a long time I felt there was no room for me on the keys anymore. Which is why I started exploring the tones between the keys, and more multidisciplinary practices.

«Only after my studies when I got to know TekstLab, I found my people within the music industry!» TekstLab is a talent program that promotes minority voices, and works multidisciplinary and biographically to retrieve and work with own memories. «Here I dared to make music more on my own terms. This was also the main stepping stone for me applying to Borealis Ung Komponist. In both of these platforms, I have experienced that experimental music can allow politics to be accommodated to in completely different ways than within the world of classical music. Weaving music and politics seems to me to be the key component for making experimental music available to a more diverse audience »

Borealis Ung Komponist

Photo: Runa Halleraker/Borealis

With the personal and political hand in hand, her work during the mentoring program is thus much more than just musical. Building trust and mutual understanding have been a big focus point in her collaboration with the ensemble. «It’s been a bit strange to experience the white bodies of YrrY perform my piece , with an audio recording of me and my dad speaking Vietnamese in the background. I have spent a lot of time mediating a solid understanding of the experiences I want them to express on my behalf. And I really feel that it is precisely this bridge-building that is needed for society to gain a greater understanding of each other’s backgrounds. It’s been very meaningful» Susanne tells thoughtfully.

«It’s also been crucial how Mari, Owen, Carmen and Håkon from YrrY are so lovely and open. And similarly with my talented co-composers – it’s felt safe to be vulnerable, both because we all have had such different projects and starting points, and because Eline Rafteseth has been working with biographical material as well. We have all been such a fantastic team, and it is incredibly rewarding to see that we have managed to unfolded the musical space together in a way where we can show that music also can be political.»