If there’s anything we can deduce from Vicky Chow’s day job—pianist with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, New York City’s go-to group for new and difficult music—it’s that there’s not a score in the world that could faze her. But that’s not quite true, however, as the former Vancouverite confesses in a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight. New York’s a breeze, but a brief visit to her hometown is proving rather more challenging, if only because one of the things she plans to do while she’s here is play a piece that’s designed to be impossible.
The composition in question is Rémy Siu’s Foxconn Frequency No. 2—for single visibly Chinese performer, presented as part of the Western Front’s ongoing 88 Tuned Bongos series of avant-garde piano recitals. There’s a purpose behind Siu’s taxing his interpreter with too much music—and we’ll get to that in a minute—but first Chow just wants to vent.
“Working with Rémy, I’ve had to confront the idea of the possibility of failure, and the possibility of not executing things correctly,” she says. “In many ways, the most interesting part of the piece is when I fail, I think. I’ve kind of had to learn that the failure is part of the success of this piece—which is really messed up!
“Rémy’s always, like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you, Vicky, for not hating me right now,’” she adds, laughing. “I think he’s afraid that I’m going to combust!”
Among other things, Chow is being asked to perform knuckle-busting finger exercises on a cheap electronic piano hooked up to an electronic testing device. If she doesn’t succeed, according to parameters established by the Chinese university system, she has to repeat them—and face the possibility of failing again.
As Siu admits, it’s an obvious play on the inhuman aspects of contemporary piano pedagogy. “That’s the core of the piece, for me,” he says in a separate telephone interview. Beyond that, though, Foxconn Frequency No. 2 also refers to an ongoing epidemic of suicide attempts at the Foxconn City industrial park in Shenzhen, China.
“What’s actually underpinning the entire structure is a poem by Xu Lizhi, a Foxconn worker who committed suicide in 2014,” Siu explains. “It speaks quite directly to all the things that he had to endure in his lifetime, and then at the very end the lines are ‘All I swallowed are now gushing out of my throat/Unfurling on the land of my ancestors/Into a disgraceful poem.’ ”
Chow recognizes that the torture of trying to perfect Siu’s impossible score is nothing compared to the ongoing misery of being an underpaid assembly-line serf in a toxic, fast-paced environment. Still, she feels a certain empathy for Xu and his coworkers, noting that Foxconn Frequency No. 2’s vertiginous learning curve has pushed her to the point where she feels “really deflated as a human being”.
The idea of having to work at such a pace all day, every day, she adds, is unimaginable—although Foxconn’s factory workers don’t have to deal with one extra bit of stress that’s just been dropped on the pianist’s head.
“I think my piano teacher’s going to come,” she confides. “So now I’m really feeling nervous!”
Vicky Chow plays the Western Front on Friday (November 6) as part of the 88 Tuned Bongos Piano Series.