by Jenny Q Chai
For most people, the term Classical music must be classical, and being a classical pianist means the pianist is playing the music that is written by composers from past centuries. (In other words, music of the dead people.) For me, Classical music is every living minute and the very second in my life. From the start of each day, I live with music. After making a cup of coffee, checking if I have made my favorite foam, I take my iPad out, look for the pieces to practice on the app, walk to my studio, put my iPad on the piano stand, put my coffee down on the windowsill. I adjust my bench, open up the piano lid, then start my conversations with the composers.
Music for beginners are the notes on the score. People who developed more sense of listening think music is the landscape of sounds and moods. More into it, some think music is story, novel, even movies. For me, music is time, the precious time when passing, never comes back again. From the second when I start performing and you start listening, music is the moment we share together in our lives. In that ten minutes, or maybe couple of hours, we experience together the emotions, experiences, physical reactions, reveries of moods and romances, and after it passes, it only stays in that moment, and becomes our own memories. The other fascinating thing to me is, even though there is only one performer interpreting music in one moment, the moment becomes hundreds and thousands of versions because there will never be two identical listening experiences. The moment becomes one’s own little secret, unique in each listener’s own life.
No doubt, music became harder and harder technically throughout the century. For piano techniques, from Baroque to Contemporary, from Czerny to Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin to Ligeti, Boulez, Stockhausen and Stroppa, composers constantly challenge the interpreters to raise their skills. One shall never take it that I don’t love music that are so simple with notes but absolutely essential both musically and aesthetically, such as Cage and Kurtág. But for the limited space here, I am only focusing on the technical part of music. So, complexity is one way to move forward, so is the merge of technology and science.
The development of science is infinite, and art, especially contemporary art, is not for staying in the museum, but reflecting and exploring at its most the development of science, society, and humanity. In 21st Century, we are at our closest to the outer space. As early as 20th Century, Stockhausen was working on creating the sounds close to the outer space, especially through the development of electronic music. Decades ago, scientists and music researchers had to run from one lab to another, across Europe and U.S., in order to realize the sounds in their heads technologically. Nowadays, in this new technology era, everything can be done on one laptop. IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), founded by Boulez in 1970, a French institute for science about music and sound and avant garde electro-acoustical art music, situated right under the Centre Pompidou in Paris, remains one of the most important centers for computer music and technology.
This September, I had the honor to take a residency at Ircam together with composer Jaroslaw (Jarek) Kapuscinski from Stanford University, working with inventors of the score following artificial intelligence program Antescofo, notably scientist Arshia Cont, director of Department for Research/Creativity interfaces at Ircam and composer Marco Stroppa, who writes computer music as well as music for instruments often with live electronics. The aim of the residency was to make the audio/visual piece Juicy by Jarek, originally done for Disklavier, possible for any normal piano performance, with the help of Antescofo. Because the images and electronic sounds are closely related to the piano playing of the piece, they need to be triggered by the pianist, and the beauty of the piece lies under the timing and rubato of the moment of every live performance. Antescofo, incorporating science such as missile tracking and Clock Sympathy, is able to anticipate when will the pianist play the next note, therefore project the relevant visuals and electronic sounds, enabling the pianist to have all the space for rubato and interpretation. One important belief behind the aesthetics of Antescofo, said by Arshia Cont, is that “We make technology for art, not art for technology, and I find that very very beautiful.”
After the residency, we were all overjoyed by the fact we made the first Antescofo piano/electronics audio/visual work possible and ready to be toured by only one pianist. I then took Juicy for my tour around the world which was scheduled immediately after my Ircam residency. With Juicy and Antescofo, I toured with many other works that are “tech heavy” including two sampler études by Cindy Cox, Between Realities by Cole Ingraham, Spirit Guide by Richard Sussman, Prayer by Victoria Jordanova, “Marriage (Mile 58) Section F” from The Road by Frederic Rzewski, together with acoustic and experimental works that are old and new, by John Cage, György Kurtág, Marco Stroppa, Theodore Wiprud, Annie Gosfield, Laurie San Martin, Drew Baker, Claude Debussy, and Louis-Claude Daquin. The highlight of the tour was to take the music of these wonderful composers to the mesmerizing city Havana, Cuba, as part of the Leo Brouwer Festival, for over one thousand audience members.
An artist of singular vision, pianist Jenny Q Chai integrates her prodigy’s training with rigorous fascinations in live electronics, artificial intelligence, and environmental research, creating layered multimedia performances which explore and unite elements of science, nature, and art. (Visit Jenny’s personal website here.)