Listen to this track by former BSc student, computer programmer, and current singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It’s “Close To Home”, a track as taken from her 2013 album Aims, her fifth.
Teng started her journey in becoming a musician at the age of five, born Cynthia Yih Shih in California to Chinese parents who’d immigrated from Taiwan. Raised on a diet of both Western and Asian pop music, along with a classical repertoire that included Beethoven and Dvorak, she distilled those influences into a sound of her own, springing from her piano, as well as from her a capella voice on some tracks. This song is something of a more band-integrated approach when it comes to the recording process. Career-wise it’s certainly an evolution from her days in balancing a school career in computer science with her efforts to write, record, and distribute her early music initially on campus. By the early two-thousands, her appearances on NPR, Letterman, CNN, and as an opening act for artists ranging from Joan Baez to India.Arie allowed her to concentrate on her music career full-time.
Yet by the end of the decade, Teng had decided to continue her studies — in Sustainablity at The Erb Institute at the University of Michigan — during the time this song and the Aims album was being conceived and recorded. Ultimately, what is actually revealed is that the split between making music and pursuing education in a new town isn’t much of a split after all.
Vienna Teng decided to move to Detroit, a city now associated with almost post-apocalyptic conditions. What better place to study global sustainability than Detroit? She remained to be a songwriter and singer while engaging in her studies, writing much of the material for the new record while enrolled in her program, and being involved in projects to revitalize the area, and raise awareness to its plight. The cover art of the album is a map of the area she’d come to call home, suggesting to her a landscape of stories ready to be unlocked.
“Close To Home”, even by its title, seems to reflect this connection to a location, and how that connection can alter the course of one’s thinking, and one’s life. This certainly affected the way this song was rendered, away from the clean simplicity of just piano and voice, and into a more complex and open-ended approach to the production, with layer upon layer of sound that mixes electric piano, loops, strings, and Teng’s soaring voice.
This song is inspired by Teng’s reading of an article about Body Identity Integrity Disorder, which is the psychological condition whereby one is driven by a wish to be disabled, or to remove a part of one’s body that one doesn’t recognize as being a part of them. This certainly another aspect of location, this time in one’s own body. It also has to do with a sense of self-image, and of living with those things about ourselves that we can’t always reconcile. Even without this condition, this idea of falling short of the person we envision ourselves as being is pretty universal in the end.
Despite this specific inspiration for writing this song, what it’s ultimately about is that of identity, and how we define it. Like a city in the middle of entropic destruction, making only slow progress away from the brink, sometimes we human beings have to decide who we are becoming in times of crisis, and otherwise. We have to decide what is important in order to become who we need to be, by separating what we’re prepared to live with from what we know we must live without. This is true of civilization as a whole, too, and perhaps the prime mandate of our century, when the paradigms of the twentieth century are shifting away from what was once realistic, but is no longer.
As such, maybe more artists should embrace what sustainability means in the twenty-first century. In this, maybe civilization itself needs to go back to school.
For more on Vienna Teng and her pursuit of knowledge as well as a songwriting career, have a read of this interview with her from The Huffington Post.