Christen Lien
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Christen Lien

Los Angeles, California, United States | SELF

Los Angeles, California, United States | SELF
Band Classical Alternative


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"Frequencies in Electronic"

Christen Lien
Vol 1: Battle Cry
By Romina Wendell

The cello's slightly cheerier cousin ? the viola ? steps to the forefront in the arms of classically trained violist Christen Lien. In the electro-acoustic blend Vol 1: Battle Cry, Lien's graceful playing and simple melodies are channelled through guitar effects and a loop machine. Striking like pensive butterfly wings, the strings stir, layering slightly anxious atmospherics underneath long, sorrowful notes and subtly expressive plucks. Dedicated to the "fierce urgency of now," Battle Cry's soft but gripping grace, while restrained, can work itself into a banshee-like intensity that justifies its name. Between clarity, "La Succora," and distortion, "The Invocation," the sombre notes and enveloping strings are seriously emotive and penetrating, making for breathtaking and powerful compositions. (Itsnotaviolin)

[] - Exclaim! Magazine

"Martin Luther King's words inspire viola player's music"

Eighty-one years after his birth, Martin Luther King Junior’s work resonates beyond his original goals. One Southern California musician says King’s words inspire her environmentalism and her songs.

At the Governor’s Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles last fall, Christen Lien was an unlikely participant amid diplomats and policy wonks. Curved tribal spikes fit in her ears – she herself fit in with the youth delegation, invited by the governor’s organizers. "As a group we wanted more action and less talk from the climate conference," she says wryly.

Lien says she’s worried about how a changing climate will affect social justice, like how scarce water can create political conflict. She believes making songs can help make policy. "Music opens people up. It’s a universal language to communicate," she says. "When music is involved on an emotional level, people are more open. Afterwards, the conversations, they have go a little deeper to the root."

Christen Lien’s musical roots are classical. She plays the viola – the violin’s larger, lower sister – a prime target for orchestra jokes. No, she doesn't know any. "But I know they all have to do with the violists being out of tune."

Now Lien runs her viola through guitar effects and a looping machine. She slaps it and scratches its strings to make sounds.

The song "Unconditional" got some buzz last year when photographer Chris Jordan used it in Web videos of images made at Midway Atoll. They document harm to albatrosses from the pool of plastic trash that swirls near the surface in the Pacific gyre. "The mamas are going out and they’re scoping out what they think is food from the ocean but it’s plastic," she says. She hasn't been to Midway Atoll yet; she hopes to. "And the birds are decomposing but the plastic is not."

Another song called “The Crux and the Shadow” Lien intends as an argument for nature, its necessity and its beauty. "The problem is it’s so fragile," Lien says. "I wanted to create a song that warned people you can lose everything you love very quickly if you’re not careful."

Christen Lien celebrates Martin Luther King Day with gusto. A King quote on her CD testifies to her admiration. Faith is taking the first step, Dr. King said, even when you don’t see the whole staircase. Lien believes the environmental movement needs that kind of courage. "Martin Luther King has something he calls 'the fierce urgency of now,' when your vigilance or neglect determines the fate of generations," she says, straining for the exact quote. "And that song of all the songs on this album deals with that concept."

This is what Dr. King said:

"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

"Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood..."

Dr. King was talking about racial justice. Musician Christen Lien says she takes his words to apply to global environmental justice, too.

[] - NPR's KPCC (Southern California)

"Christen Lien on Oprah Radio - The Derrick Ashong Experience"

Live-broadcast interview. Video interview available in link below. - Oprah Radio

"Christen Lien’s Vol I: Battle Cry Gives The Viola Its Voice Back"

I’ve always felt a little bit of sympathy for the viola. The violin, in spite of its rather thin voice and high screech potential, always gets the limelight, while the richer, sonorous voice of the viola gets relegated to harmonies and pizzicatos. Well, I can feel a little less sympathy after listening to Christen Lien’s new CD Vol. I: Battle Cry. Lien definitely gives the instrument its voice back, and lets it say all the things it has the beauty and the power to say when it’s in the right hands. If you like the loop-based cello work of Zoe Keating, there’s a good chance you’d enjoy Lien’s work. Lien uses a bit of looping to help create the voices, rhythms, and textures on Battle Cry. But the fact that both Keating and Lien create atmospheric and compelling music by using looping on their bowed instruments is where the comparison ends. While I adore Keating’s soaring textural broods, Lien branches out a bit more. The tunes on Battle Cry range from the playful to the reflective, and from the almost searingly rhythmic to pastoral realms that literally brought tears to my eyes on repeated listens. There are brief previews of the songs below, and full length previews on her site . It’s available on Amazon as single songs, an album download, or eco-friendly on-demand CD, as well as from the other sources listed on Lien’s site, including CDBaby and iTunes. Learn more about how Lien was inspired by Martin Luther King - among other things - in this SCPR piece. The article includes this clip in which she walks you through the inpirations for the individual tunes. Lien has a lot of interesting things to say, but I’m quite content with what she says with the viola. - Disassociated Press

"Christen Lien: February 2010 Diva of the Month"

“It’s not a violin, it’s a VIOLA,” a phrase Christen Lien has repeated so often, she based her website address on the statement. United Divas began featuring her at their events Dig and Sprout in Hollywood back in 2004. Soon after, she moved on to Ann Arbor Michigan to take over the Film Festival. After helping to successfully defend first amendment rights on behalf of the film festival, she returns to her music career and the city of angels, releasing her album Battle Cry. We have one of the songs right here for you to listen to and download for free if you like. Our staff writer Middlepoet caught up with Christen for an interview, so hit play and check out the Q&A.

What is the difference between a violin and a viola?

A viola is a 5th lower than a violin (5th = 5-notes/steps lower), so it is more sonorous in tone. One plays the viola the same way they’d play a violin, but it’s larger in size, and has one string lower than a violin. Violas have the same strings of a cello, but the tones are an octave higher.

How has your mixed ethnic background shaped your music?

I’m half-Vietnamese, a quarter Celtic (Ireland/Scotland) and a quarter Slovenian. I can definitely identify with the Celtic ballads and the Eastern European minor keys in the moody sounds of my music. I would say that the Asian influence is more apparent in my discipline and ambition around the music and my lifestyle, rather than in the sounds I create. I’ve played the viola for 24 years and had to work long hours for many years to get here, so I’m glad the intense and determined Asian blood keeps me on my toes!

Who or what influences your art?

Passion. Shadows, and our relationship to them. Concepts and feelings that are so complex that only music can fully examine its existence and depth, and then finding the simplicity and universal within that concept or feeling. The strength and fragility of the human spirit. Sounds that are unexpected and seem to come from the natural world, and sounds that are so classic and simple that they are familiar, as though we heard that sound all along.

As for the people who most influence my art, I would say Bjork, Radiohead, Prince, RZA, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos, Buena Vista Social Club, Hans Zimmer and last but not least the classical kings J.S. Bach, Antonin Dvorak.

Why did you name your album “Battle Cry”?

I’ll default to the text that is inside the CD, which explains it all:

“Vol I: Battle Cry is a musical depiction of the emotional journey we each take to unlock our power. I wrote this album to support you in finding and releasing your battle cry in a moment in time when we are faced with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as the “fierce urgency of now” — when our vigilance or neglect determines the fate of generations. In each of us lives a unique passion – a dream that wants to be worked into reality. It is critical for your dream to be manifested, for your gift to be given, for your power to be brought forth if we are to rise together and overcome our collective challenges. My dream is that this music will support you, as you step into your power and offer all you have to give.”

How did you get started playing the viola?

My older brother plays the viola. He started a few years before I did, so I would listen to him practice and make notes, and then daydream about the kind of way I would play a song or a note. I waited until I was big enough to play; I was so excited. When it came time to pick the instrument at school, the teacher tried to convince me to play the violin — but I insisted on the viola.

When did you begin to use an effects processor in your performances?

In 2005 I bought my first effects processor, then soon after a looping machine. Right after I got the new toys, my viola was stolen, so I had to go a few years sans music (boo) and was delayed. I finally got a viola and got back in the full swing of music in 2007, so I’d say that I’ve been properly jamming on those toys since then.

What is your favorite word?

Champs-Elysées. My favorite word is a road. It’s the avenue in Paris, France. I lived there for a short time, and whenever I hear that street name said correctly, it’s like butter.

How did growing up in the mid-west shape you musically and artistically?

What a good question. I’m not sure if the MidWest affected my music more than a few other factors. My stomping ground is the rave/electronic underground scene, so the MidWest underground scene was an influence. A huge musical benefit to being in Cleveland was having access to the Cleveland Orchestra. When I was 15 and all through high school, I was in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. We worked privately and personally with members of the Cleveland Orchestra to hone our skills, and rehearsed and performed in the magnificent Severence Hall. That was an incredible training ground.

In what ways do the environments you live in shape your music?

In major ways. I split my residency between California and Washington DC these days. When I’m in California, if I’m in Los Angeles I play less music and am more in the mind of business. When I’m in my house in California (which is outside of LA and submerged in nature), I’ll make music for hours and the creativity doesn’t stop. When I’m in Washington DC, I find myself hiding out in our basement apartment because the energy there is kinda freaky… cerebral and cynical… Washington DC is actually an incredibly stimulating place for an artist, but it’s because of it’s enormous shadow. So when I’m in DC, I socialize for brief moments, then hide out and write a lot of music because I have a lot to think about and muse over.

Growing up, how many hours a day did you spend practicing the viola?

OK, confession. When I was young, I didn’t practice as much as people thought I did! Ah, the truth comes out!! I would play for a few hours every day or most likely every other day. That may sound like a lot to some, but for hardcore musicians and anyone in the classical scene, it is not.

Do you find a connection between your activism and your music?

Absolutely. One fuels the other. Especially since the challenges on our plate as a species can be overwhelming at times. Music helps us digest and confront; it allows us to digest and explore complicated issues and difficult emotions. I cannot communicate any better than through music, and I can embody many emotions, to the depths, with music. My hope is that in the process of exploring the life in this way, the songs will help others examine and better understand the darker and brighter sides of life, which include their own shadows and inspiration.

When 15 Aftermaths was used for the “Message From Midway” video that showcased Chris Jordan’s photos of the albatross from Midway Atoll who suffered from plastic pollution, I was so deeply honored to be of service by aiding the process for the world to see these images for the first time. Someone recently said to me, “Thank you for that song. You held our hands as we watched a horrific fact of life. I don’t know if I could’ve watched those images and digested the reality of our plastic waste if the blanket of your song was not there to hold me at that moment. Instead, I would have walked away.”

That is one example of the compassion, confrontation and intense depth of the space that music can hold. The Greeks believed that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy helps us understand our physical place in the world and our relationship to space, and music helps us understand our internal make-up, and where we stand on life, emotionally and spiritually. If we musicians can be of service in that regard, I think it is the greatest honor of all.

Where can somebody see you perform and how does one go about buying your music?

You can purchase my CD “Vol. I: Battle Cry” and learn about gigs, projects and other travel adventures on my website: The CD is also available on iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby. In February, I’ll be playing a few venues in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Whidbey Island & Vancouver), and in March and April I have some interesting shows planned in California. will have all the details!

About :

Using guitar effects and a looping machine, classically trained violist Christen Lien performs original compositions on viola and harmonica that are a beautiful mixture of East and West, classical and postmodern, and acoustic and electronic. Lien’s debut album is called Vol. I: Battle Cry and it reflects a 24-year journey of mastering, then challenging and expanding classical Viola expression. Spontaneously creating then incorporating layers of live effects, Lien paints music with guitar effect pedals, live looping, melodic mixing and expressive performance. For more info, visit

photography (Christen with sunflowers) by Meredith Zielke | Banner design by Jan Tompkins - United Divas


Vol. I: Battle Cry



Classically trained violist Christen Lien performs original compositions on viola that are a beautiful mixture of East and West musical traditions, classical and postmodern, acoustic and electronic. Lien’s debut album is called Vol. I: Battle Cry and it reflects a journey of challenging and expanding classical viola expression. Lien incorporates layers of live electronics effects with her viola creating hybrid music and expressive performance art.

Lien has collaborated with respected contemporary artists that showcase her genre-crossing abilities, such as Def Jam poets Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews, Grammy-winning DJ iLL MEDiA, Grammy-nominated beatboxer Christylez Bacon, and many others in the jazz, rock, hip-hop, electronic, and classical genres.

Christen Lien began her studies of the viola at age 8, and was trained in the Suzuki method. In her youth she was an understudy of The Cleveland Orchestra (COYO), and was a member of the National Youth Guild Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra that showcased the leading young musicians from throughout the United States at the regarded Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Other notable concert halls and venues include Severance Hall, the REDCAT Theater of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the Vieve Gore Concert Hall. Lien and her viola have performed at major contemporary venues in North America including Zanzibar, The Vanguard, Café Central and the House of Blues, as well as state-of-the-art science centers and at numerous universities. The diversity of her venues and fan demographic is evidence of her category-defying sonic exploration of music.

Christen’s experience also spreads beyond music, to the literary and film world. After college Lien worked with John Cusack’s production company, New Crime Productions, where she learned valuable organizational skills that led to a transformational role in rebirthing the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). Under Christen’s leadership as Executive Director of the AAFF, Variety magazine named the AAFF one of the top ten film festivals in the world, openly impressed by the First Amendment lawsuit she launched against the government for violating the First Amendment (see Ann Arbor Film Festival v. The State of Michigan). Determined to protect artists’ rights to free speech and uncensored creativity, Lien stood up against government censorship, won the historic lawsuit and transformed laws granting access to funding for artists.

Today she dedicates her time to her music, in pursuit of her own creative voice and passions. Lien’s goal is to foray into new musical territory with compositions that bridge electronic, industrial and classical genres, while redefining how the world understands and experiences the viola as an instrument. Always studying the human condition as the inspiration behind her content and perpetually working to create new and successful business models for independent artists, Christen Lien provides audiences with passionate live performances of original music that have been called “uncannily ancient and reassuringly contemporary,” and “a bridge to the divine.”