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Pianist-composer tunes in to her Swiss-Singapore roots
MEET talented young pianist Rahel Johanna Kai Zhiah Senn who is making waves in the music world. The daughter of a Swiss father and a Singaporean mother, she grew up in Switzerland's largest city - Zurich - in a multicultural and multilingual environment.
Rahel Senn, as she is popularly known, was trained in classical piano by Russian piano maestro Konstantin Lifschitz at the University of Lucerne. She graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 2011 and has been performing in Asia, Europe and South America since then. Her repertoire is wide and ranges from classical to pop.
"Since graduating, I've been touring the world and releasing my own piano CDs. In 2018, I've been exclusively signed to Sony Classical which means a big change for me: an international label, a new management and new people to support my career," she tells The Business Times in an interview from her home in Zurich.
"I try to practise as much as possible, but lots of my time is invested in composing and producing new songs, too.
"Being a Young Steinway Artist means carrying responsibility too. I have a super international team from Steinway supporting my career through providing me the best instruments to play on and having me perform around the world."
She says her family isn't into the arts at all. In fact both her parents wanted her to become a doctor. When she started to study law at the University of Lucerne, she also received the opportunity to study under Lifschitz.
"I had to decide: either music or law. During the years of my studies my concert career started to grow, and quite soon I could make a living by playing the piano.
"It was my mum who introduced me to the piano - she is a big fan of Richard Clayderman. My parents always supported me in my musical education, and later I met people who supported me and pushed me forward.
"This positive energy keeps me going. My way is rather formed by destiny than through decisions. I believe in good forces and in predestination. Being named Young Steinway Artist in 2012 is an example. Being signed by Sony Music is another."
She says she grew up in Switzerland and "spoke Mandarin and Hokkien at home and visited Singapore for five weeks every year. Thus, we had a very close relationship to our Singapore family".
"As a composer, you're being inspired by: your childhood, your adolescence, your environment and experiences. I grew up with a heart half Swiss, half Singaporean, finding home nowhere but in music.
"When I was young, I had some bad experiences, too, due to my two-race background. In Switzerland, people shouted "Ching-Chang-Chung" at me, and in Singapore people spoke to me in English.
"Nowadays, I am thankful for who I am. Times have changed in the past 20 years, I have the impression that people everywhere have become more open minded and that borders begin to vanish. But sure, the feeling of not finding home here or there has influenced my style of composing."
On her music: "Music comes from the heart, for this reason I am not keen to categorise it. My work is called neoclassical... I currently find myself in the comfortable situation that my music is being loved and distributed by Sony. A strong partner lets your confidence grow and you stop thinking of categories. It allows me to work genuinely and be myself. I'm enjoying this moment and hope to continue as long as possible."
Her earlier CDs - Retour à l'Art Brut, Temps, Opus Z and Patagonia contain her first piano works. But as she got more and more into producing (generating electronic sounds via computer and electronic instruments), she stepped away from the classical form of composing.
"In this sense, I see my works as a panorama of my growth. My new CD Lightness is the first one that I will release under a major label, Sony Classical, in September 2019. Through Sony, I can reach many more people than I did before.
She says the CD is so named "because now is the right time to spread our wings and fly, and dream. I hope that through my music I can share some of the feeling of lightness with all those who feel or are captured in dark space, anxiety, stress, hate or fear."
Shebelieves in working hard to achieve her dreams. "My philosophy is that every human being should continue learning no matter how old you are. Never stand still in life. Everything is possible if you work hard. As a pianist, I keep practising since there is so much to learn from the classical literature and through the ancient composers.
"As an artist, I wish to meet and work with as many people as possible. Fellowship is one of the most important things in today's life, I guess."
While she lives in Zurich, she says she spends at least a month in Singapore every year as she feels a strong connection. Her mother has spent half her life in Switzerland. Her father worked as a physics professor in Zurich.
Ms Senn and her younger brother lived in Singapore for a year in 2011. "That was a special experience for us as we came to know where we come from, spent time with our Singapore family and actually saw our bonds become firmer.
"This gave us the possibility to meet our relatives in our daily life. Before, we used to spend our summer holidays in Singapore.
"My brother and I speak Mandarin and Hokkien fluently. We love the Singapore lifestyle, and sometimes we feel sad about things changing and the loss of heritage in Singapore. There are so many hawker centres and wet markets which we knew since our childhood closing nowadays.
"I perform here regularly, most often in collaboration with the Embassy of Switzerland in Singapore. I'm planning my next concert at Shaw Symphony Stage at the Botanic Gardens in 2021."