An interview with pianist, Vicky Chow
This is a condensed, edited version of a Skype conversation I had with Vicky Chow.
How did you and Tristan end up working on this piece together?
I first met and heard about Tristan’s music when his 1-bit music and 1-bit symphony albums came out. I thought they were really cool and was a big fan of his work. We met because we ran in the same circles. He knew of my playing. At around the same time we had an interest in working together.
How did electronics get involved in the piece?
As a curious pianist, and what I’ve been on the trajectory of exploring, I was interested in doing things with electronics... music that is blurring and pushing the boundaries of what the capabilities are with the instrument. I was always interested in exploring things that would extend the vocabulary of the instrument.
For Tristan, originally he was writing things that were just acoustic. Multiplicities of the same instrument. Like, he has a piece that has multiple violins, or multiple toy pianos, or multiple flutes. And then he started exploring more 1-bit sound and music and a lot of his works were 1-bit music and an instrument, or multiple instruments. He has a harpsichord piece that’s for 2 channels and 1 performer... etc. He plays around with more gated stuff, like turning on and off of sound and long tones.
He was exploring polyphony in his 1-bit symphony and that was around the time we wanted to work together. I knew he would be writing music for piano and multiple channels or speakers. We had to come together on how many speakers. In the past he had a 1 to 1 ratio or maybe 2 to 1, like 3 toy pianos and 3 channel 1-bit music.
With the piano, it’s such a large instrument and it has such a huge history and such a large canon written for it, it’s such a grand instrument... sonically it didn’t seem to balance if it was just 1 or 2 speakers, the piano could probably overpower it. So somehow we kept expanding the numbers and we landed on 40, and we were like, oh, it might be fun, cause he’s also a visual artist, to have speakers flanked on either side of the piano. So the piano is pitted among a sea of speakers.
You also curate a new music series, are you still doing that?
I’ve taken the past year off, it’s a series called Contagious Sounds. The idea of music that is “contagious”...maybe it sounds bad, I’m not sure... like you might get a disease of something (laughs), but I like the idea of this new music that’s going to spread. It’s a series that’s focused more on younger, emerging artists, all original stuff, off the beaten track. It started in 2010 ... hopefully I can get back to curating and producing, I wanted to focus more on my solo projects.
While curating, had you noticed any trends in new music?
At least in some of my circles, the younger players... it seems to me the classical players that got into new music are forming bands. They’re more into the idea getting together and trying to write their own sets, build their own sets. I think players who grew up as classical musicians ... it’s very rigid kind of discipline, you do a lot of practicing on your own alone to develop the skills to learn how to play your instrument. There’s an expectation when you go into a rehearsal that you do all of your independent work and know the piece inside out, but I think now more and more, people are more into just getting together to read some music, or write their own music... just be a bit more creative and a bit looser in how they approach music in general. They’re not afraid to incorporate music that is outside the box in their programs. I don’t know how accurate that is, but... it’s funny because things like that, concepts like that happen in other genres all the time. Like bands form and rehearse and jam, it’s not such a new concept, but in classical music, it’s like, oh, you can do it for fun? You can get together and write stuff? (we laugh)
How do you approach playing with electronics - something controlled and presumably the same each time you play with it?
For this piece, it feels more organic because I know the circuit board is sequencing or performing live. It’s essentially computing when you turn it on. It’s not just spitting back information that’s been programmed, it’s still working it out in real time. It’s a little bit different than pre-recorded sound being played back. I find that element still interesting because... well, I found this out because I have this one minute trailer that I did for this piece for the album before it came out. I remember, we were going to play it through twice and then splice it all together. And it should be the same, right, technically... so we played the piece back-to-back, twice. And then, when they were editing it, it starting phasing. It was weird, because when they tried to put it together with the recording that I have, the studio recording, it wouldn’t line up. It was weird. And so, we asked Tristan, why is it doing this? He said, it should line up, but it’s off... well, I guess there is a program and it should be accurate, but there are still little differences. A little bit faster or a little bit slower. I don’t know too much about why that actually happens, I don’t know too much about computer programming. It’s because it’s not a carbon copy of a thing, the machine is computing at its speed.
I get to interact with [the electronics] a lot, my part is written so beautifully. It does a little dance with the electronics. In different parts of the piece, we complement each other, we oppose each other, we support one another, we race one another, play the same melodies together. I notice there’s been a lot of descriptions of the piece as a ‘piano concerto’ or something, but it’s more like a duo, you know? It’s like a piano and electronics duo, 1-bit music duet (laughs). The recording is beautiful, but seeing it live is a whole other thing. Seeing the speakers, seeing the cones, popping in and out. You can see it physically moving. Depending on where you’re sitting, you get a completely different balance. If you’re able to listen to the speakers up close, each one is producing just one line, its own line. I find it really, really gorgeous. Each time I play it I actually hear different things, depending on the acoustics and whatever bounces back to my ear.
Surface Image for solo piano and 40 channel 1-bit electronics will be performed on Saturday May 28th, 8:30 PM at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 54 Queen Street, N., Kitchener. For more information, click on the event listing. You can BUY TICKETS HERE.