Young musicians push the piano into new territory

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      Black and glossy and as unfathomable as deep space, the grand piano exerts an immense gravitational pull on the past and present of classical music. Three young pianists, all with local connections, aim to ensure that influence continues well into the future, although the routes they’ve chosen are sometimes far from conventional.

      For Vicky Chow, who’ll soon present two salon concerts and an ensemble reading of John Luther Adams’s Ten Thousand Birds for Music on Main, going off-piste was both surprising and simple. A decade ago, well on her way to an international reputation as an interpreter of the classics and nearing the end of her Juilliard School training, the Vancouver-born musician was simply helping out a friend when she discovered her true calling.

      “At that time I hadn’t had a lot of experience performing contemporary works, and when you’re in the conservatory or at school, what you do play isn’t very experimental—it’s a very conservative and academic kind of new music,” she explains, on the line from her New York City home. “But, nonetheless, my friend asked me to play a concert of his music in which the original pianist had bailed out a week before—and that’s when I realized ‘Oh my gosh, I actually enjoy doing this.’ ”

      It probably helped that Chow’s friend was Zhou Tian, whose Concerto for Orchestra has been nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition.

      Since then, Chow has had the opportunity to work with many more acclaimed composers, both as a soloist and as pianist with one of New York’s leading new-music ensembles, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. In Vancouver, she’ll get a chance to show off her unparalleled athleticism with a performance of BOAC cofounder Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, before turning her attention to the music of John Luther Adams, who is less concerned with virtuosity than creating unusual and immersive listening experiences.

      Sonatra, as its title suggests, is a mashup of musical quotes from the Frank Sinatra songbook, played with the virtuoso skills necessary to tackle the classical sonata. A wild ride of endlessly overlapping arpeggios, it may well be the most maxed-out minimalist piece Chow has ever played. Or tried to play, as she points out.

      “The tempo is marked ‘as fast as possible’, which is kind of impossible,” she says, laughing. But she adds that it’s in her nature to push her skills as far as they can go. “Through that process you understand what your limits are,” she contends. “I’m curious about what this piece will be like in a few more years. Will I be able to play it faster? What’s my limit? And at the same time, maybe that’s not the point.”


      Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa plays pianist, actor, and memoirist in Klavierklang.

      Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, Music on Main’s in-house pianist and former Queer Arts Festival director of development, could probably give Chow some competition in the notes-per-minute sweepstakes. But speed is not an issue with Klavierklang, which Iwaasa premiered at World New Music Days last fall and will reprise as part of a birthday celebration for soundscape pioneer Hildegard Westerkamp that the Canadian Music Centre will host in April. Instead, the collaborative work finds Iwaasa playing multiple roles: pianist, actor, and memoirist.

      Developed slowly in conjunction with Westerkamp, Klavierklang examines the bonds between mothers and daughters and the rifts that can separate them; the passing on of musical knowledge over time; the nature of musical pedagogy; and, perhaps most importantly, the intergenerational friendship that has sprung up between its two creators.

      “It is one of the most deeply personal collaborations that I’ve ever been involved in,” Iwaasa notes, reached at home in East Vancouver. “We spent a lot of tea-soaked afternoons talking about everything under the sun: talking about music and what we liked in music; talking about our upbringings; talking a lot about our piano training and how we ended up where we were.”

      In an odd upending of roles—and one that slipped by many listeners at Klavierklang’s premiere—Iwaasa’s memories are delivered as part of Westerkamp’s background soundscape, while the pianist delivers the composer’s recollections live, at the piano. It’s an indication of how carefully interwoven their contributions are, and of how interested Iwaasa has become in adding an explicitly theatrical dimension to her performances. From playing Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis—based on Oscar Wilde’s letters—in drag to working with dance innovator Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, the pianist is increasingly bringing other media into her musical world.

      “It’s funny: in piano pedagogy, we talk about ‘choreography’ in a kind of an offhand way,” she says. “It’s a word that we just use, particularly if we have to get from one part of the instrument to the other very quickly. We talk about it much less in terms of the effect on the listener.…And that shows up in the way we talk about the audience as ‘listeners’ as opposed to ‘viewers’, when in fact the audience really is both.”

      Next up for the restlessly creative performer and UBC grad? A venture into electronic music, but not necessarily in the way one might think. Alongside composer Farshid Samandari and interdisciplinary artist Ray Hsu, Iwaasa is looking into the idea of controlling a Disklavier, or computer-assisted grand piano, through brainwaves.

      “One of Ray’s interests is virtual reality, and in this work with EEGs he’s looking at how picking up signals directly from our brain can be used in an artistic context,” Iwaasa explains. “At this point, to be quite honest, I’m not even sure if it’s possible, but we’re about to start exploring it, and I’m so excited at the premise.…I really hope this works, because I think the possibilities are tremendous.”


      Rory Cowal gets gamelan-inspired.

      American-born Rory Cowal, a Vancouver resident for the past few years, is also exploring new pianistic worlds, although in the case of the pieces he’ll perform as part of Gamelan at the Roundhouse, in April, he’s not going to be wired. His instrument, however, will be altered: retuned to accommodate the fixed pitches of Gamelan Alligator Joy, a local ensemble specializing in new music for ancient Javanese instruments.

      He’ll be performing works by the late Lou Harrison, along with Mode of Attunement, a new piece by Vancouver composer, gamelan student, and bagpipe aficionado Michael O’Neill.

      “Two things that they have in common,” Cowal reports from his Mount Pleasant home, “is an interest in what Michael refers to as ‘intercultural music’, sort of a synthesis of European culture and Asian culture. Lou Harrison was certainly a pioneer of that kind of music. And another thing they have in common is an interest in tuning. Lou Harrison was deeply interested in tuning and microtonal composition, and Michael is, too. He really likes to nerd out when it comes to tuning.”

      But there’s another aspect to this collaboration with Alligator Joy that pleases this classically trained and jazz-savvy musician. Whereas Chow came to the avant-garde almost by accident and Iwaasa has always had a bent for “pieces that would make my relatives’ faces screw up”, Cowal credits community world-music groups with radically expanding his sonic options—and his life in general.

      “Community world-music ensembles are such a special thing,” says Cowal, who notes that he’s currently learning Ewe music from Ghana with local ensemble Adanu Habobo. “Playing with them has been an important thing in my musical development, ’cause it’s helped me experience the music of other cultures and play that music. And, on top of that, there’s an extramusical benefit in that it’s provided a community for me in every place I’ve worked in. I’ve lived in a few different places, and in each one I’ve discovered a world-music ensemble that has become my family and my community.”

      Composer John Luther Adams, the genius behind Ten Thousand Birds.

      Community is also a concern for composer John Luther Adams, whose Ten Thousand Birds will be performed by an ensemble under Chow’s direction as part of her third Music on Main appearance. (Chow’s second salon performance will likely include his Arctic-inspired Nunataks, for solo piano.) But Adams opts to view the term in its largest context: how humans fit into the natural world, and how they don’t. Checking in with the Straight from Chile’s Atacama Desert, where he’s trying to write music in the middle of a monstrous thunderstorm, he says that he increasingly sees his scores as a way for listeners to connect with the wild through immersive sonic environments. Like recent large-scale pieces Become Ocean and Become Desert, Ten Thousand Birds offers a decentralized view of composition, with the musicians allowed considerable agency in how they present Adams’s birdcall-inspired melodies, and audience members free to wander the hall, quietly, as they wish.

      “There’s no best seat in the house,” Adams says. “There’s no ideal perspective from which to hear the music. And so your experience of it is going to be different from my experience of it. Some people just decide to root themselves in one location and let the music move around them; other people like to wander around. Both are valid ways of experiencing this music—and I think that does, in some way, mimic the way that we experience the big world. It’s more like taking a walk in the woods or along a mountain trail, where there’s always something new to discover.”

      It’s an approach to music that, for Chow, is every bit as stimulating as endurance tests like Gordon’s Sonatra or local composer Rémy Siu’s physically and emotionally taxing Foxconn Frequency (No. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers, which she helped premiere at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

      “A lot of composers that are here, in New York, are influenced by being in the city,” she says. “Like, you know, here it’s just constantly sirens and construction: it’s a really noisy city, and I never even realized that. Maybe I’ve learned to tune it out or something. But I finally realized how all of the music that I play is a reflection of that. All of the composers who live in the city are being influenced by all of the sounds around them, even by the music that cars are blasting as they drive by, and that seeps its way into the music that these composers are writing.

      “And then there’s John, somebody who’s really influenced by nature and the sounds of nature,” she continues. “So, for me, choosing to include some of these pieces in my repertoire is very therapeutic on a personal level. To think about music and sound and about how it all comes together almost feels like it fires my brain and my neurons a little bit differently.”

      One could say the same about all three of these pianists and the works they’re presenting this spring. Whether encompassing memory and theatre, global tonalities and ancient rhythms, or extreme virtuosity and a walk in the woods, they ask us to consider music with open ears—and a deeper, more focused kind of hearing.

      Music on Main presents two free Behind the Scenes salons with Vicky Chow, at the Post at 750 (750 Hamilton Street) on Thursday (February 22) and on March 1. Chow and the Music on Main All-Stars will present Ten Thousand Birds at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on March 3. Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa will perform Klavierklang at the Canadian Music Centre on April 6, as part of a celebration of Hildegard Westerkamp’s work. Rory Cowal performs with Gamelan Alligator Joy as part of Gamelan at the Roundhouse, at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on April 26 and 27.