Liam Phan is a Swiss composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, known for his captivating music and profound compositions. Having recently been discovered internationally through his debut single ''Near (Piano Rework)'', he has also composed several soundtracks for short and feature films as well as commercials. His compositional style mixes piano, synths and sound manipulation through modular instruments, seeking minimalism above all. Don't miss our interview with Liam Phan about his music, composing and life.

What inspired you to start making music, and why did you choose the piano as your primary instrument?

I discovered my passion for music unexpectedly during my childhood. Initially, I was deeply interested in aviation and martial arts. However, everything changed when I watched the film "August Rush (2007)". The emotions evoked by the story resonated with me on a profound level, and I immediately felt a strong desire to compose music for films, much like the main character. Music became my medium for expressing raw emotions. I initially started playing the acoustic guitar but soon after started taking piano lessons. 

The piano was my instrument of choice because of its overall sound, its useful advantages and the variety of its modern techniques. My understanding of composition progressed thanks to the image of notes along a single axis, and I was also captivated by the piano's ability to produce astonishing changes in volume, from powerful roars to quiet whispers. My passion for this instrument is always stimulated by its expressive variety, especially when I discover new, avant-garde and contemporary playing methods. Over time, I've expanded my repertoire to include several instruments besides the piano, exploring traditional and ethnic sounds as part of my film projects.

Can you describe the process of composing a new piece? How do you begin, and how does the piece evolve over time? Are there any particular themes or emotions you aim to convey through your music, and how do you achieve this?

In my experience, there are two distinct compositional processes, each with its own merits and drawbacks. Working within the context of film projects, I often adhere to structured approaches due to deadlines, artistic directives imposed by the story or visual imagery, and collaboration with directors. This method has taught me to swiftly capture and preserve captivating ideas while ensuring the completion of a composition at the end of each session. 

Conversely, when I create my own compositions, I seek inspiration independently, formerly guided by films. I typically begin by exploring intriguing themes or concepts, delving into their depths to draw inspiration. Visual creation, such as photography, helps establish the ambiance, followed by the development of a bass structure on the piano and the subsequent crafting of a minimalist melody. Harmony is usually addressed later, accompanied by extensive research on effects and instrument possibilities. My compositions often strive to evoke a sense of melancholy, capturing the passage of time and the flood of emotions that accompanies it. I achieve this through the repetition of motifs and rhythmic patterns that gradually evolve throughout the piece, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in these emotions. The interpretation and performance, rather than mere notes, play a significant role in conveying these sentiments.

Can you tell us about your daily routine as a composer? How do you structure your day to enhance your creativity?

My daily routine lacks a rigid structure, except during film composition projects. During these periods, I immerse myself constantly in music and sound, conducting extensive research and watching films that align with the project's inspirations. However, for personal projects, I avoid imposing the obligation to listen to music throughout the day, instead allowing the need for it to arise organically. Ideas tend to emerge when I am away from home, engaging in activities such as hiking, walking, or during my university courses. Creativity can be harnessed and guided when one is accustomed to working within constraints. However, once those constraints are removed, it becomes necessary to identify what truly inspires and motivates on an individual level to maintain a sense of direction.

Neoclassical piano music often draws from classical traditions while incorporating modern elements. How do you balance these influences in your compositions?

Over the years, neoclassical music has become so widespread that it is increasingly challenging to pinpoint the specific influence of classical composers. Instead, the influence manifests in the choice of instruments, structures, and harmonic modes. Personally, I have been exposed to classical composers such as Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Mahler, who emphasised expression over form. Their works have greatly influenced my understanding of building climaxes and effecting abrupt changes in mood through tonal alterations. Although classical music's impact on my work now operates more subconsciously, its lasting influence is evident in my approach to harmonic progression and melody, while incorporating contemporary and unconventional rhythms.

"Entropy" is your upcoming album. Could you give us a sneak peek into the concept and inspiration behind this project? "Entropy" suggests a concept of disorder and randomness. How does this theme manifest in your music?

"Entropy" has been a project brewing in my mind for some time, and it primarily revolves around the question of control in the creative process. Entropy, rooted in physics, represents the measure of disorder and randomness within a system. This concept extends beyond the realm of physics to encompass various patterns, depending on the probability of encountering repetition.


As a student of statistics in both my bachelor's and current master's degrees, I have encountered diverse concepts that surprisingly align with music. This realisation struck me when I designed my first modular synthesiser capable of linking multiple effects, with small modules to generate and manipulate sound freely.


In the album, I applied this principle by balancing conventionally structured compositions with freer rhythms on the piano, incorporating more or less random particle effects to create an atmospheric experience rather than a formal narrative. The overarching concept of "Entropy" is to explore the interplay between order and chaos, control and spontaneity, and how they manifest in the creative process. By embracing elements of randomness and unpredictability, I aim to capture the essence of entropy in music, allowing the compositions to evolve naturally and organically, mirroring the inherent nature of disorder in our lives, but also in nature itself.

What challenges did you face while composing "Entropy," and how did you overcome them?

Recording "Entropy" was a significant milestone for me, as it was my first project recorded entirely. One of the most challenging aspects was capturing the immersive experience I felt while playing the piano and translating that softness not only in my performance but also in its timbre. During the recording phase, I embarked on an extensive experimentation journey, exploring both fundamental and advanced miking techniques, aiming to recreate the placements and nuances I admired in pieces I found inspiring.


The room itself played a crucial role in the recording process, as the piano was captured in my home rather than a professional studio, unlike the strings. The subtle moments of silence became invaluable, both within the room's acoustics and the occasionally irregular mechanics of my piano. This is part of the reason why the piano sounds intimately close, while the strings have a more distant presence.


The recording of the strings presented its own set of challenges and required thorough testing, with more than three close microphones, including two stereo pairs positioned in front of the trio (from the left, first violin and second, then cello) along with an additional pair to capture the room's ambience. This complex configuration was primarily due to my desire to maintain flexibility in the mixing process, as I didn't have a precise vision of the desired final sound due to inexperience. Ultimately, this flexibility proved beneficial and allowed to achieve the desired results in the mix.


Although most of the tracks for "Entropy" were initially recorded in February 2023, I made the decision to redo all of them in April to ensure the highest quality and to better capture their essence.

As an independent composer, how do you navigate the challenges of promoting and distributing your music in today's digital age?

Independence within the music industry is a multifaceted concept. Having observed composers who have publishing contracts with labels and others who benefit from label support throughout the production process, I have found the production stage to be particularly challenging, especially when it comes to securing the necessary funds. To offset expenses, we strive to minimise costs in the studio by investing in a home setup and allocating the budget toward post-production elements like mixing, mastering, distribution, and promotion.


Surprisingly, I found that handling distribution was the easiest part of my work. It's the promotion aspect that proves to be more challenging, requiring flexibility and communication skills. In today's digital landscape, where streaming platforms, playlist curators, and social networks dominate, grabbing people's attention becomes a constant battle, sometimes taking away the charm of your own work.


However, there's also the advantage of receiving feedback and criticism, which helps you stay informed and understand current trends. In addition to being a graphic designer for my album covers, I also handle photography and videography, which requires a significant amount of my energy. Finding a harmonious balance between my music and visual work remains crucial to me.


By maintaining a consistent visual and musical identity for a project, infused with a touch of originality and a determined attitude, I strongly believe that it's possible to reach and engage with an audience, no matter the medium.

Can you share some of your favorite composers or musicians who have influenced your work?

During my teenage years, my musical influences were diverse, ranging from artists like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Radiohead, Hans Zimmer, to Sigur Rós. I didn't confine myself to a specific genre; instead, I gravitated towards anything that evoked strong emotions within me. However, it was when I turned 17 that I stumbled upon the works of Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter, and Ólafur Arnalds. Initially, I perceived each of their compositional styles as distinct entities. Yet, as time went on, I started recognizing the underlying commonalities between them, and this realisation proved immensely valuable in my musical journey.


Exploring their music allowed me to grasp the profound impact of minimalism, which has the remarkable ability to evoke emotions far beyond what I had previously imagined. Understanding this power of simplicity and restraint became a turning point for me, shaping my own approach to composition and helping me unlock new depths of emotional expression.

Can you tell us about any future projects or collaborations you have in the pipeline after the release of "Entropy"?

In the continuity of my work as a film composer, two soundtracks are in progress, including the soundtrack for "Firemen" which will be released in December 2023, a film set in Kuwait during the gulf war in 1991, narrating the struggle of firemen trying to extinguish 700 burning oil. I also had the opportunity to shoot a behind the score this summer in the Moroccan desert, and is now in post-production for a joint release with the soundtrack.


My second album "Ether" is also being written, a more contemporary-oriented album, with a blend of piano and synths. This future album will be much more dynamic, with more performance-oriented work on the piano and the addition of a more experimental approach to the neoclassical genre.

Finally, from your perspective, what is the meaning of life?

At the age of 23, I have yet to discover a definitive answer to this question. However, one thing I have come to understand is the importance of embracing both the positive and negative aspects of life and learning to coexist with them. It is through the creation of nuanced memories that we truly appreciate the journey of living, rather than attempting to avoid certain experiences. My aspiration is to maintain a genuine enthusiasm for life and accumulate a wealth of memories that I can share and reflect upon in the future. It is through this process that I find meaning and purpose.