5 Questions to Jenny Q Chai (pianist)
Jenny Q Chai is a pianist well known for creating unconventional recitals combining live electronics, artificial intelligence technology, environmental research, and fashion. Her upcoming performance, Where Is Chopin?, investigates interactions between piano and electronics through various forms of audio/visual storytelling. The program will feature works by Jaroslaw Kapuscinski alongside Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, aided by multi-screen video projection and the AI program Antescofo.
SOME OF THE MUSIC ON THIS PROGRAM MAKES USE OF THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE PROGRAM ANTESCOFO. CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO US EXACTLY HOW IT WORKS DURING YOUR PERFORMANCE? DO YOU CONSIDER THE INTERACTION WITH ANTESCOFO TO BE A DIALOGUE; THAT IS, YOU RESPOND AS MUCH TO THE PROGRAM AS IT RESPONDS TO YOU?
Antescofo is an AI program invented by scientist Arshia Cont in collaboration with composer Marco Stroppa at Ircam. It is a music following program; there are mics placed inside the piano to catch the sounds I make, then the sound signals are sent to Antescofo. Within milliseconds, Antescofo learns and predicts every following note I’ll be playing. Then it shoots out the according electronic sounds and visuals, which are composed and programmed by the composer. It is like playing with a live electronic musician and a visual artist in the same time. So yes, it is more of a chamber music trio setting.
YOUR CONCERT FEATURES JAROSLAW KAPUSCINSKI’S WHERE IS CHOPIN? WHICH WAS ORIGINALLY CREATED AS AN INSTALLATION WITH NO LIVE PERFORMER. HOW DOES YOUR LIVE PERFORMANCE VERSION DIFFER FROM THE WORK’S FIRST ITERATION? WHAT COMPOSITIONAL CHOICES ARE YOU MAKING IN ADDITION TO KAPUSCINSKI’S?
The most fundamental importance Mr. Kapuscinski spoke to me about regarding his music is timing, which also means rubato, the stretching in real time. This is very much in tune with Chopin’s music and performance aesthetic. I believe in interpretation of the moment, looking at all live performances as the Moment Form. The concept is both old and new. I think it was Josef Hofmann who said, “It’s great to play it this way now. But when it’s raining outside, play it differently.”
In other words, I don’t know yet exactly what I will be doing with my interpretations this Sunday at the concert. What I can guarantee will be a version that will never be identical to another, and will be completely truthful of me, in that very moment. The piece Where is Chopin? is constructed of 16 different short movements, with many inspirational quotes from Chopin, reconstructed and reinterpreted in a personal way by the composer. It gives me a lot of room for a contrasting and personalized interpretation.
YOU’VE BEEN KNOWN TO PROGRAM BOTH CANONICAL AND CONTEMPORARY COMPOSITIONS IN A MULTIMEDIA SETTING, EMPLOYING VIDEO OR EVEN THEATRICAL LECTURE. DO YOU CONSIDER INTERDISCIPLINARY PERFORMANCE TO BE A FUNDAMENTAL BRIDGE BETWEEN THESE TWO TYPES OF CLASSICAL MUSIC? IN OTHER WORDS, IS IT NO LONGER ENOUGH TO SIMPLY PROGRAM THE OLD WITH THE NEW ON A RECITAL AS IS?
I’ve never thought just listening to a piece of acoustic music is “not enough.” For me, the world is no longer a binary form, an either/or. I no longer believe in making definitions such as old or new music, visual or acoustic music. We have created too many divisions, borders, boxes for ourselves; like categories such as “Classical Music,” “Western Art Music,” “Modernist Classical Music,” and so on. All they do is to stop people from enjoying what it is, which is just music! Alex Ross has written a great article on this topic, starting with the phrase “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name.” I’d follow by saying:”I hate the term “new music” or “multimedia.” Why don’t we just enjoy a great moment of our lives together, with all our senses?
FASHION PLAYS AN IMPORTANT PART IN YOUR PERFORMANCES; YOU’VE DESIGNED DRESSES FOR YOUR CONCERTS FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS. WHAT CONCEPTS INFORMED YOUR OUTFIT DESIGN FOR THIS CONCERT AND WHAT DO YOU HOPE YOUR AUDIENCE WILL TAKE AWAY FROM IT?
For me music, design, and now painting: everything comes and goes, in constant flux. All senses blend, culminating into an exuberant flow of energy. My design comes from such moments, inspired by the emotions of the music on the program, then becoming one with it. I’ll have two outfits for this concert. The first is inspired by the dreamy quality of the first piece on the program, Kapuscinski’s Oli’s Dream, with an organic flow of nature. In the second, I’ll appear as one of the many people featured in the video portion of Where is Chopin? who revealed their vivid facial expressions while listening to Chopin’s preludes.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE A HYPER AWARENESS OF ALL THE POTENTIAL VISUAL AND AURAL ELEMENTS THAT MIGHT AFFECT AN AUDIENCE MEMBER DURING ONE OF YOUR PERFORMANCES. DO YOU TRY TO MANAGE THE RISK OF OVERSTIMULATION OR DISTRACTION FOR AN AUDIENCE, OR DO YOU LEAVE IT TO THEM TO CHOOSE WHAT TO FOCUS ON AND TAKE IN?
I don’t think my programs and design risk overstimulating or distracting people from experiencing the moment of music. All the elements are created as one, for one purpose, one unity of sensation. It’s an idea sort of close to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or Scriabin’s wish to blend in scents and lighting for his music. The visual and aural elements did not exist separately before, and cannot live or work without one another.
In terms of audiences’ reactions: in general, I have become more and more Taoist in approach, as I also studied cognitive science and psychology. Human cognition and the psyche are so interesting and complex, but also highly individual. As Marco Stroppa, said to me, “I drop many keys. It is up to you whichever key you pick up.”
Jenny Q Chai will perform Where Is Chopin? at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City this Sunday, January 10th. Tickets can be purchased here. More info about Jenny Q Chai can be found at www.jennychai.com.
« Sonorous Brushes », « Piano Steampunk » and
« Acqua Alta », by Jenny Q Chai
American-Chinese pianist Jenny Q Chai’s understanding of music is complemented by a deep grounding in core repertoire, with special affinity for Robert Schumann, Domenico Scarlatti, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jean-Sébastien Bach, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
Also passionate about contemporean music, she has strong relationships with a range of contemporary composers, including Marco Stroppa, Jarosław Kapuściński, and György Kurtág.
In this showcase program, she presents a contemporary interpretation of great classical music works through three of her favorite programs: “Sonorous Brushes”, where she combines science and music, “Acqua Alta”, where the video representations of Dr. Ian Fenty on climate change will be featured, and “Piano Steampunk”, where the intelligence program Antescofo rubs the works of Jarosław Kapuściński and John Cage.
“Jenny Q Chai demonstrated true affinity for contemporary music throughout the challenging program she played on Thursday night at Zankel Hall…playing with resourceful technique and sensitivity…her playing was admirable for its refinement and directness…” – Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
– Claude Debussy, Etudes Pour les quartes (Fourth)
– György Ligeti, Musica Ricercata No.1
– John Cage, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Antescofo technology will be used for this concert
Jenny Q. Chai
Life Sketches: Piano Music of Nils Vigeland
Nils Vigeland’s is a Buffalo-born and Buffalo-formed career. His father, Hans, was one of Buffalo’s best-known and most pivotal musicians for decades – organist and music director of Westminster Church, teacher and chorus director at the Buffalo Seminary.
The notes on this somewhat forbidding disc of his piano music are happy to tell us Vigeland’s professional debut as a pianist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Lukas Foss and that he later studied with Foss at Harvard and Morton Feldman at the State University at Buffalo. He often conducts Feldman and Cage in New York City.
One of the longer and more inviting pieces on this uncompromising disc is Vigeland’s “Life Sketches” which was composed in memory of Yvar Mikhashoff, longtime pianist and piano professor at UB and one of the great resident figures in Buffalo music.
Writes Vigeland, “Yvar was a person of opposites: publicly gregarious, privately lonely. He loved all things theatrical as well as arcane. A large man, somewhat ungainly, he was an exquisite ballroom dancer.”
Another piece on the disc was inspired by the paintings of Rene Magritte.
Despite such admirable sources, the music on the disc seems rather redolent of opposites too – warm and affectionate sometimes and thorny, distant and rhetorical sometimes.
All the individual pieces are terse. Their totality, said Vigeland, comprises half of his composed music for the piano. Presented in reverse order of composition here, most of the pieces are interesting but as superbly played as it all is by Shanghai pianist Jenny O. Chai, the disc provides almost no coherent portrait of the composer.
– Jeff Simon
George Grella, Sequenza 21, In Waves:
“There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. She plays Cage well too, and probably no one but the man himself can pull off “Water Walk.”
Harry Rolnik, ConcertoNet, UnCage That Pianist!:
“The unexpected, the mysterious, unusual, and comic were all part of the show. But the artist herself has such easy expertise that each challenge (and each occasional failure) was joyfully arousing.”
Vivien Schweitzer, New York Times, A Piano, an iPad, a Mirror: Tools for a Modern Recital, November 5, 2012:
“In recent years the piano recital format has become more flexible… The Chinese-born 29-year-old American pianist Jenny Q Chai, who has studied with Mr. Aimard, is following the more eclectic path, as demonstrated by her program on Sunday evening at Le Poisson Rouge… Ms. Chai opened her program with an atmospheric rendition of Satie’s ‘Three Gymnopedies,’ followed by a thoughtfully conceived interpretation of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces (Op. 11), about which the composer wrote that he had ‘no formal, architectural or other artistic intentions.’ Ms. Chai played two Scarlatti sonatas with a deft, light touch…”
Ghost Outfit, Jenny Q Chai Playing Satie, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and others at Le Poisson Rouge on Sunday night, November 6, 2012:
“Chai’s performance of Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’ was different from any I’d heard before – particularly in its exceptionally slow tempo, which let Satie’s languid chordal alterations ring Exquisitely. Most pianists complement the piece’s lack of harmonic movement with a similarly restrained dynamic range. Chai, on the other hand, rendered the piece much more dynamically, with pianissimo segments alternating with assertive keypresses. It’s strange and exciting to hear such an unusual performance of such a familiar piece, for which Chai definitely deserves commendation.”
Lucid Culture, Jenny Q Chai Captures a Moment in New York History, November 5, 2012:
“In a mighty stroke of coincidence, or the kind of luck that an artist would never wish on an audience, Jenny Q Chai sure picked the right program for her Poisson Rouge debut last night. In the low lights of the downstairs space, less than 48 hours after it reopened in the wake of the hurricane, the pianist went into Lynchian mode and stayed there for pretty much the duration of her concert. Maybe the effect was enhanced by having just come from Zirzamin around the corner – a Twin Peaks room if there ever was one – but all of downtown has been in a surreal, uneasy mood since the storm. Chai captured it perfectly, a mix of ambitious contemporary solo works along with some unexpected relief that blended in seamlessy even as it contrasted with the rest of the program. This wasn’t about pyrotechnics: it was about the mist afterward.”
Craig Brinker, Feast of Music, Pianist Jenny Q Chai at (le) Poisson Rouge, November 5, 2012:
“The hurricane affected everyone in New York/New Jersey area to some degree, and pianist Jenny Q Chai also felt the repercussions of the ‘superstorm.’ After coming back from intermission, Chai said that this was the first time she had slept on couches for two consecutive nights in order to give a recital. The 25 or so people in attendance at (le) poisson Rouge on Sunday evening were glad she was willing to do so: Her intensity and control throughout a program full of technically challenging repertoire was impressive…”
Lucid Culture, Jenny Q Chai’s Smart, Intuitive Zankel Hall Debut, April 20, 2012:
“Pianist Jenny Q Chai’s Carnegie Hall debut last night was expertly programmed and packed with joie de vivre: she played as if she had a secret and couldn’t wait to share it with everybody. Her approach to a mix of premieres, 20th and 21st century compositions and an old High Romantic concert favorite matched fearsome technique to a confidently matter-of-fact emotional intelligence….she awed the crowd with what seemed to be an effortless articulacy. Yet despite the pyrotechnics, it was Chai’s sensitivity to color, timbre and emotion that resonated the most…The crowd roared for an encore and got two…”
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, Young Pianist at Home in the Past and Present, April 20, 2012:
“Some young performers specialize in contemporary music because they think it is important to do so or to acquire a hip professional profile. The best reason to play new music is because it fascinates you. The Chinese-born, 28-year-old American pianist Jenny Q Chai demonstrated true affinity for contemporary music throughout the challenging program she played on Thursday night at Zankel Hall…playing with resourceful technique and sensitivity…her playing was admirable for its refinement and directness…”
Angela Sutton, Feast of Music, Pianist Jenny Q Chai at Zankel, April 21, 2012:
“Few composers after World War I have shown much interest in the singing piano lines or melodic hooks favored in the nineteenth century. Consequently, their works are difficult to read, difficult to conceptualize, and difficult to present. In particular, they often require a lot of physical power and stamina, which pianist Jenny Q Chai impressively served up Thursday night at Zankel Hall…Ms. Chai played with conviction, providing the necessary insight for these difficult works…Encores included works by Nils Vigeland and John Cage, the latter sung and tapped on the piano case instead of played. It served as a fitting close to an adventurous, ear-tickling program.”
Chris McGovern, Sequenza 21, Jenny Q Chai at Zankel Hall, April 21, 2012
“Jenny Q. Chai is certainly among the many great artists that display a great love for works from various periods of music and an ability to create a wise programming that shows a tremendous recognition for where composers share a likeness in their styles that are not always picked up by the naked ear. This concert was proof of that ability, and also a great showcase for her virtuosity.”
“Hot contemporary pianist Jenny Q Chai spins Roulette…”
‐ Time Out New York
“Jenny Q Chai opened the concert playing two of Ligeti’s Études with rich tone and rhythmic clarity; especially strong was her “Cordes à vide.” That piece was played by Ms. Moore at the First Keys to the Future festival. It’s always good to hear it again.”
‐ The New York Times
“A serious pianist with a passion for new music.”
‐ Pianist Pierre‐Laurent Aimard
“Jenny Q Chai is an extraordinary pianist with limitless imagination”
‐ Valladolid Daily News
“The astute quality that infuses her versatile musical personality reveals itself time and time again”
‐ Anthony de Mare