Belle Chen is a curious blend of classical reputability and avant-garde oddness. Endorsed by the almost alienatingly tasteful likes of Classic FM and BBC China, she has also been hailed as “original and provocative” by Brian Eno, and is influenced by Frank Zappa. These distinct threads entwine interestingly on “Mademoiselle”, an album that in some ways attempts to have its cake and eat it. Despite its experiments in dissonance “Mademoiselle” functions more as a classical album, with all its connotations of conservatism, than an avant-garde one. However, the cover is nonetheless a glittery Chen wearing nothing but vivid smears of colour, like war paint: if ever an album was conflicted as to its audience, it was this one.
On the other hand, this stylistic push-and-pull drives the album. As a classical musician Chen is clearly highly able, intercutting snippets of Chopin into her style, as well as most obviously Debussy in her fluent interpretation of his own “Claire de lune”. There is also maybe a little of the jazzy eloquence of Ryo Fukui in the expertly precise runs of “Tango No. 2”, or Rachmaninoff in her combination of dextrous pace and melodic tenderness in “Detour”.
All the piano trills and those unfurling flourishes of notes with which classical music is most closely associated are here in abundance, but Chen also displays a surprisingly experimental flair. “Dead Princess” vacuums her own playing backwards, embedding ghostly new harmonies and melodic interactions, and “Absence – Interlude” is faintly reminiscent of the music of David Lynch in its industrial found-sound eeriness. The album often flirts with discordance, the incipient atonality of “Dig” compounded by its evocative sampling of wind and what sounds like the crunching of gravel. However, these jagged edges keep “Mademoiselle” arresting and at least cosmetically transgressive.
This glinting undercurrent of surrealism is built on in the fleeting “Moon-Spotting”, which alludes through fuzzy police scanner broadcasts to “a large Chinese rabbit…standing in the shade of a cinnamon tree”. Indeed, Chen repeatedly subverts assumptions of the staidness of modern classical: “Prologue” opens with an oompah-style keyboard line that sounds ripped from an 8-bit NES title before slewing into virtuosic piano elaborations, and “Impression of the Young Prince” sounds like a refugee from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack with its spectral whistling motif. The alluring yet foreboding “Green on Black” judders into a dissonant wash of chords, like trains passing in the night.
“Mademoiselle” certainly seems more interesting in its experimental moments than its moments of obsequious traditionalism, although that may just be personal preference. Perhaps “Mademoiselle” is Chen dipping her toes in the waters of the avant-garde, to submerge herself further in later releases. Though clearly a talented classical musician, they exist in countless numbers and it forgoes Chen’s knack for sparky idiosyncrasy. The solution may well be to head further towards the Eno/Zappa end of the spectrum—the audience is larger and the music bolder. Come on in, the water’s fine. CO