Jenny Q Chai is a pianist currently based in New York, where she is receiving her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music. She has premiered new works by composers such as John Slover, Niles Vigeland, and Ashely Fu-Tsun Wang. As an advocate of contemporary music, Chai serves on the board of New York City’s Ear to Mind organization which regularly promotes and programs new music. She also spends much of her time in Shanghai, where she founded FaceArt Music InterNations to help foster an exchange of contemporary music with China. I spoke to Chai about her work, including her latest project, “Dissecting Stroppa,” in which the pianist will deliver a theatrical lecture-recital on composer Marco Stroppa’s “Innige Cavatina.”
Is “Dissecting Stroppa” just a lecture-recital or do you consider the entire presentation a performance?
I definitely do consider the entire presentation a performance. A lecture-recital for me is all tied together, just as there’s a “-” between the two words. As long as a person steps on a stage to present something, to me that is a performance.
I’m also weaving a little bit of theatrical elements into a usually academic performance. Because for me, Stroppa, and my former teacher Pierre-Laurent Aimard—and many artists I’m sure—music is about the everything we experience.
Is the medium of the lecture recital something you’d like to see more frequently in recital halls, especially in regards to contemporary music? Similarly, do you believe we should we be talking about new music as much as playing it?
Yes, absolutely! I believe we should talk about all classical music–especially the connection between new music and old music–and not keep it caged in an Ivory Tower anymore. This is why I think [music critics] Alex Ross and Anthony Tomassinni are great! I’m also a fan of Charles Rosen, who I recently learned has formed a strong musical bond and showed deep interest in Stroppa’s Miniature Estrose (the piece I’ll be talking about is from this piano cycle). If only he wasn’t so ill now, he’d come.
Of course, there have been wonderful and great minds talking about music and philosophy throughout history. But to be able to talk and play consecutively is something only musicians can do and, I believe, should absolutely do.
As an active performer/lecturer in Shanghai, what is your view of their contemporary music scene? Do you think there is a general lack of coverage of new music in China?
The contemporary music scene in China is in its infancy now. Because I am from the very beginning of this infancy, from my personal experience, I see a big interest in Chinese people with a curiosity and challenging intellect to understand new music and the development of classical music. Classical music is not unpopular in China, mainly because people are so crazy about pianists!
On the psychoacoustic and cognitive level, music is something that crosses cultures. People certainly react very individually towards music, even in the same culture. But there are plenty of Chinese audiences who react to Western classical music in such a strong way that they don’t even know why. That is why I think it is so important to talk about music, old and new, to help the Chinese audience to identify their “vibrating frequency” with music. Also, this should be applied globally.
You’ve had various pieces written for you, including John Slover’s Mallet Dance for two prepared pianos which you premiered in Shanghai. As a commissioner of new works, do you ever feel like writing for the “unprepared” piano has become obsolete? Or are there still new sounds to discover on the instrument in its traditional state?
Oh, I think it is totally the opposite from obsolete. Preparing a piano is just a direction one can take, a style to choose to write. But it’s just like with any other form of music; can you say that a fugue has been exhausted? Or that character pieces have become obsolete? It really depends on the composer.
Plus, music composition is formed on so many levels. Besides the sound (which, say, is set to be prepared piano), the form of the piece, the musical language, the interactions between musical materials, the interplay between audience’s perceptions, and many more things can be explored infinitely. But sounds too, of course! John Slover has certainly found many amazingly new sounds which stirred up 1600 Chinese people that night. They loved it.
Many of your programs tend to mix old and new repertoire in interesting ways. Is there a particular piece from both the canon and the contemporary world that you’d like to someday pair together on a recital?
I think the next work I’d like to pair would be a Beethoven sonata. Because Beethoven has it all: the edge and the contemporary experimental spirit in him.
I am still searching for the right contemporary work to pair him with. I’m lucky to know so many of the best living and 20th century composers in person or in a very personal way. But let’s face it, Beethoven is a big match for everyone. However, I am convinced I have the choice already in my repertoire of contemporary composers. Just need to look deeper (into myself and the composers), contemplate a bit more in quiescence.
Jenny Q Chai will present “Dissecting Stroppa” on Monday, December 3, 2012 at the Manhattan School of Music’s Miller Hall. You can find out more about her at jennychai.com and composer Marco Stroppa at marco-stroppa.com.