You have referred to Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues as your signature piece. What attracted you to this work?
I heard it played once when I was in New York City and I was completely blown away. On the one hand, it’s very virtuosic and very showy; on the other hand, it’s so dark and there is so much emotion driving it. The piece is based on an American protest song, fighting against the poor working conditions in the cotton mills in the early 1900s. The extended use of the piano in the beginning really evokes the oppressive conditions of the time¬ — the conditions in the cotton mills. Also, the discourse in the piece for me is quite tragic. You can hear the dream of being emancipated, of freedom in the blues; but then later on, there are also these chaotic themes that are coming in and out of everywhere, like protests, like a crying out of the people. At the very end, the pianist suddenly goes back to the elbow clusters; it’s so dramatic, as if after all these futile attempts to free themselves of the injustice, the piece is bounded at the beginning and at the end by the cotton mills. Where is the escape, you know?
Can you tell us a little about the composer Frederic Rzewski?
Rzewski is an American composer who is of Polish descent. Interestingly, he is socialist and doesn’t live in America, but resides in Belgium. A prolific composer for piano, he has written a lot of music that involves the concept of “piano theatre.” I guess the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues is along that vein, but there are pieces that also involve the pianist speaking, whistling, singing and even hitting themselves. I think this is innovative not only compositionally but also in questioning and extending the role of the pianist.
You have an affinity for Haydn. Of all of his piano sonatas, why did you choose this one to feature on your album?
I like Haydn because he’s kind of proper, but not really proper. He often works within the traditional, “appropriate” classical forms to create humour that is sometimes on the edge of being inappropriate. In this particular sonata, this is exactly what he does. He’s kind of… a little bit spastic! It is as if he’s saying, “I’m in this proper genre but I’m going to make the most fun or the most musical jokes out of it.” In the first movement, you have endless possibilities to make as many humorous gestures as you want. For me, the “problem” of the piece (as Adorno puts it), or the structural “golden moment” is set up initially in the codetta of the Exposition, in the three repeated portamenti A-flat major thirds in both the right hand and the left hand. This is after the sudden pause that proceeds the second group, and seems a little out–of–place and distant…perhaps a bit puzzling after the jovial first and second groups. The “moment” comes in the corresponding place in the Recapitulation. It is now in D–flat major; but instead of it being distant and soft, it is now loud and ornamented with grace notes. The little serious moment in the Exposition is now answered loudly, boisterously and playfully, as if Haydn is saying, “Aha! It is not so serious after all!” This is, for me, the funniest structural joke in the piece.
The second movement is an excruciatingly beautiful aria. It’s based on a very simple I¬–V–I harmony and the melody is based on a simply constructed falling third. However, he takes you on this unexpected, fantastical journey with ingenious developments of the melody through extended ornamentation and improvisatory techniques that are very characteristic of the period. Then after this unforgettable gem, the third movement is a rondo that is light–hearted, silly and playful— as if he is saying “all is happy and well and in their proper places!”
What led you to Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses?
The variation form, to me, is a little odd from a performer’s perspective— there is no set template for discourse or drama. I wanted to take on the challenge of making sense of a substantial piece in this form. I listened to Horowitz’s recording of the piece and it completely took my breath away. He took the concept of variation and made it into the most imaginative sense of the word — it was a true transformational journey from the beginning theme to the cumulative end. I think the Variations complements the other pieces well; it’s “serious variations,” kind of opposite to the Haydn in temperament. The beginning theme reminds me of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor or some of those Protestant chorales centering around the theme of mortality. I find it a bit paradoxical sometimes because Mendelssohn is usually known as a carefree, free¬–spirited composer. But this piece is so weighty, so substantial.
You have included Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27, No. 2 on this album. Can you tell me a little about Chopin?
For me, Chopin and Debussy are from the same school; Debussy is an extension of Chopin. Debussy, of course, loved Chopin, he played a lot of Chopin as a pianist and he really admired Chopin’s use of rubato, his sense of melody, and so on. For me, the Chopin¬esque melody is a natural ebb and flow of emotions. But this is combined with a natural flow physically. In her book Abby Whiteside on Piano Playing: Indispensables of Piano Playing, Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays, Abby Whiteside talks about Chopin and the use of the arm, particularly the upper–arm, in phrasing. I find the unity between the physical and the emotional very sensual in the playing of Chopin. With Debussy, he takes this on a… not abstract, but a less emotive and an impressionistic level. For me, playing Debussy focuses more on the beautiful explorations of tone colour, subtle inflexions and so on, and finding a Chopinesque physicality to do this.
Why did you choose to learn the Prokofiev 7th Piano Sonata?
Honestly, from a practical point of view, it’s an impressive piece! It shows so much breadth of expression and of character. There is so much terror in the first movement. It terrifies me every time I play it myself. I get an image of someone, like a prisoner–of–war, who is in captivity; they’re wide-eyed, tortured, and haven’t slept for two weeks. It’s a really neurotic, frightening image. The second subject, in contrast, is just so dark and tragic.
The second movement, for me, is ultra expressive but it’s kind of sarcastic as well, kind of ironic in the atmosphere of war. Those deafening bells that toll in the middle of the piece are there in the beginning, but unobtrusively. In the end, the bells are heard in the same texture as the beginning, but it takes on a totally different meaning, as if they are remnants of the threat or deaths that occurred in the middle of the piece. For me, the second movement is frighteningly vivid; I can hear the bells tolling and the bombs dropping.
The third movement, for me, juxtaposes two opposing ideas. Prokofiev was influenced by jazz and you can hear this in the harmony and irregular meter. There is a common interpretation of the movement – this is when the tanks are coming in. The appropriation of such a free, liberated musical language as jazz to conjure up this totalitarian, terror-struck image makes for the ultimate irony in this piece.
One only needs to read your biography to see that, in addition to music, you have a passion for mathematics. How does this part of your life fit in with your music?
Interestingly, the people that I admire the most are people who excel in a lot of areas. There is an awesome, awesome free jazz pianist that I know; his technique is unsurpassed and I’ve never seen anyone play like him. His name is Guerino Mazzola, a Swiss pianist who resides in the United States. But he’s also the president of the Society for Mathematics and Computation in Music and I really respect him for that. He’s extremely intelligent and writes a lot of articles on the modelling of performance. He models the spontaneity of jazz performance and the complexity of improvisatory decision–making on the field of gestures in mathematics.
I understand the motivation for Guerino to model the world that he experiences with mathematics, because I feel the same way. For me, mathematics is a system of thought. It’s a way to think rigorously, abstractly, but on a high level. For me, that really helps me with thinking about musical structures. For instance, variation form is a little bit arbitrary in terms of structure. Whereas the sonata form is “given”— there the thesis, the antithesis, the working out, and so on — it is not the case with the variation form. So how do I think about the Mendelssohn Variations?
For me, the question of how you wrap your head around a piece of music is analogous to how you wrap your head around a mathematical object, like a group or an algebra or something like that. I find the processes very similar. Mathematical structures are very abstract, you know there’s x, y, z and you do some stuff with it and you get these amazing entities with wonderful structures! It’s the same in music. I mean, how do you structure sound? It’s a really abstract thing. In performing a piece of music, there is a snippet of continuous time that you shape and you take charge of, and during the process, wondrous things happen on a small scale and on a large scale. How do you conceive of this?
You can visually represent it, which is what I do in my compositions, in my research. I visually represent my pieces with geometry using manifolds and group theory. You can look at them in a really nice way. But there is also a rigour to how it is represented and that is where the mathematics comes in. In fact, I have collaborated with a computer graphics artist to render my compositions visually.
Do you have any regrets about not pursuing Medicine or Engineering?
No, I don’t regret it. I definitely don’t regret not being a doctor or an engineer! If anything, I would much rather be a mathematician, if I weren’t a musician. I love research, I love thinking about things. In piano there is a lot of problem¬–solving involved in doing this kind of solitary self-improvement called practicing.
Can you tell us a little about your current studies?
I study at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. It’s in a really nice location, an hour and a half away from Manhattan, so you don’t get the temptation of going out all the time but you can still go to concerts and do fun things! It’s on Long Island, a really beautiful part of New York on the Eastern end.
I went to the school because of my teacher, Gilbert Kalish. He’s absolutely wonderful. I have learnt so much from him; to me he’s a living piano legend! He’s just so musical; a great solo and chamber musician.
The school is great also because the standard of instrumentalists and singers is world-class; I do a lot of chamber music with a lot of great musicians, which for me is very important. I really like playing with other people; I think it’s a challenge. Chamber music is not easy; working with people is not easy. I really like that kind of interaction.
To whom or what do you attribute your success as a pianist?
I think there are a few people that I attribute it to. My piano teacher in high school, Joy Fisher, is one of them. She’s not with us anymore. As a teacher, she never told me what to do. She was a Feldenkrais practitioner as well and a lot of the technique that I have stems from her. Her way of teaching encouraged me to explore different possibilities. So, she would say, “Why don’t you play this phrase with the apex at one place,” and then, “Why don’t you try to play it at another place? How does that make you feel? How does that sound to you?” She nurtured an extremely detailed, yet intelligent and very thoughtful kind of playing. Without her, I wouldn’t be so… I guess, neurotically precise in how I want something to sound!
All my teachers have been very supportive and encouraging of me having my own expressive voice. Gerard Willems — I’m indebted to him. He’s my mentor; he taught me so many things about music, about life. He’s really helped nurtured my musicality. More specifically, he helped me develop a sensitivity to the sense of space and breadth and to really respond to the acoustics of the hall and space.
Gil also, he never told me what to do; he rarely told me that I should do this or that. I think I’m an independent musician with many extremely valuable people who have been in my life to whom I am forever grateful — great pianists and great musicians.
Can you tell me a little about your experience in the Australian National Piano Award?
It was just wonderful to be back in Shepparton again. I went there last time, two years ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is great to play for such a receptive and very encouraging audience — it was a truly positive experience for me. Also, I got to stay with my lovely host family again and see the dog! I think the ANPA is such a great opportunity for young pianists; you get to play in at least two recitals and have these wonderful, world–renowned judges who will listen to you and give you feedback. I think it’s really well–organized; Professor Cooke, Neil Werner and everyone in the committee are just the most wonderful, sincere group of people who want to help young Australian pianists. Also, I definitely made a lot of friends there.