Chris Stephens - World Musician
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Chris Stephens - World Musician

New York City, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2010

New York City, New York, United States
Established on Jan, 2010
Solo World Classical




"String Together: Chris Stephens"

Every time Chris Stephens sits down to play a piece of music, there are all manner of strings attached.

The Columbia-based artist focuses his creative practice on “new and old music for Silk Road lutes.” Stephens plays the Indian sitar, Arabic oud, Persian tar, Chinese pipa and Turkish saz with almost equal affection and ability; while each of these instruments has its own history and distinct timbre, Stephens relishes what they have in common.

“That’s what blew my mind about it in the beginning. That’s why I decided to learn multiple instruments,” he said. ”... They’re all related, but we all know them to be different.”

Living by the unspoken creed “Have instruments, will travel,” Stephens has performed in an impressive array of cultural contexts. Locally, he has appeared at art galleries, college campuses and True/False Film Fest events. Further afield, the strains of his strings have reverberated within a Coptic church, at Chinese festivals and through the grounds of various Renaissance fairs. Last month, he served as the warmup act for legends Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer, playing a pre-show set in the lobby of Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

A self-taught musician, Stephens is used to creating his own cultural curriculum. Growing up in a “culturally isolated” area of southeast Missouri, Stephens stuck his foot in the doors he found to a global society. National Geographic magazines and PBS documentaries served a special purpose, opening his eyes. “I had hundreds and hundreds of yellow magazines that I would just thumb through — ‘Oh my god, there’s a whole world out there,’ ” he recalled thinking.

Fleck’s music stoked his curiosity. The banjo master, famous for his collaborations with musicians across genre and culture, was a “gateway musician from the West into the East,” Stephens said. He credits Fleck for teaching him that music, just like any language, is available to those who listen close, then recite words and phrases with a genuine hope for understanding.

The instruments Stephens plays give audiences a sense of “how music started,” he said. While derived from different cultural traditions, they share building blocks; the highly modal music they play is founded on single notes, a drone-based approach that differs from the harmonic emphasis of Western music.

“I really feel like they belong together,” Stephens said of the instruments, adding that he hopes to learn the related styles of Japan, Greece, Afghanistan and more.

Stephens hopes his music can be a “conversation piece.” He often brings his knowledge into educational spaces to convene a wider dialogue and catalyze curiosity.

Brianna Trainor invited Stephens to her Introduction to World Music class at the University of Missouri this semester. He demonstrated the basics of each instrument, then performed solo pieces showcasing their range. Trainor was impressed with the unity of “genuine” personality and “sheer virtuosity” she and her students found in Stephens.

Most musicians who play outside their own culture select a single instrument and “stick to it for life,” Trainor said. Stephens’ ability to spread his talents across multiple instruments without stretching himself thin proved surprising, she added.

At the end of Trainor’s class, she hopes students see that the world’s cultures contain more possibilities for connection than divisions. Stephens’ approach naturally reinforced her teaching, she said.

Stephens wants to spin the conversation forward, helping others hear the beauty of real people and places through his music. Whatever perceptions the average Midwesterner has of Iran or Turkey, for example, it’s everyday people who make and play these instruments, not their governments, he said.

As part of this musical mission, Stephens hosts the Open Strings show on KOPN 89.5 FM — which is then archived through Radio Free America. Stephens often tunes that frequency to current events; he centered a recent broadcast on Kurdish music, humanizing a people at the heart of a conflict in Syria and a controversy over American foreign policy. He counts playing this music, in person and across the airwaves, as a quiet, beautiful form of protest.

He has relished the chance to play familiar music for neighbors in an unfamiliar place. Performing for Mid-Missourians hailing from these areas “feels healing” and eases present-tense tensions, Stephens said. - Columbia Daily Tribune


Still working on that hot first release.



New York based musician Chris Stephens redefines the term multi-instrumentalist. Stringing together a collection of historic instruments from Asia to the Mediterranean, Chris plays a wide variety of music inspired by the classical traditions of China, India, and the Middle East. Each performance is a journey across distant worlds, blending boundaries and celebrating connections. 

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