As musicians continue to experiment with new venues and formats, could pianist Vicky Chow’s contemporary mixtape performances be the future?
‘I’m going to play a mixtape for you guys,’ Canadian pianist Vicky Chow said, stepping on stage. I was at Fast Forward Austin, a Texas festival of New Music, and it had gone long, pushing Chow’s headlining set into the sleepy side of a Sunday night. Now she glanced at her cell phone and read out her 'playlist': short pieces by Nico Muhly, John Cage, David Lang, Evan Ziporyn, and some unfamiliar young composers. As she began to play, the dark club fell silent. It would be an hour before Chow spoke again.
She began with the tender notes of A Hudson Cycle by Muhly, its poppy melody drawing us in. But like any teenager's track list worth its salt, Chow’s deftly shifted moods, and a darker shade crept in with David Lang’s Wed. Chow, a member of New York's Bang on a Can All-Stars, moved through musical peaks and valleys in a carefully crafted exhibit of minimalist works. Because they were all short pieces or selections, if one colour turned you off, another was around the bend. Difficult, dissonant pieces that might have been outliers elsewhere, now felt like eccentric parts of the whole.
The set's climax came with a kind of pulsating mania, in Digital Sustain by Ryan Francis, and we were swiftly returned to earth, specifically a dusky reflection of New York's subway system, from Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, which had Chow accompanying the sounds of subway tracks. With barely a pause between pieces, the set seemed effortless and organic, even immersive. I was enthralled.
Mixtapes are a pillar of pop music, still probably the best way to introduce friends to new artists, even if the 'tapes' have disappeared. We give them as gifts, hoping to plant our feelings for the music in others. We want our track list to be cherished for its surprising twists and turns, for the perfect song at the perfect time, hoping it might be the soundtrack at parties or on a long road trip and confirm our exquisite taste. As a student, Chow says, she and friends would burn CDs for one another as Christmas gifts. ‘We were all new music majors at the Manhattan School of Music, so, many of the songs spanned from Berio to Cage to David Lang to Stockhausen and Florence and the Machine, to Talib Kweli to Nina Simone to Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps,’ she writes. ‘It didn't matter if something was from 2010 or 1959. Great music is just great music any way you listen to it’.
As players continue to experiment with new venues and formats, they’re looking for new ways to present art music in the modern world. What will reach the audience? Do they need a micro-lecture on the composer’s intent, or will it bore them to tears? What if we skip the explanation? Will the crowd leave the hall scratching their heads? That's why Chow's mixtape felt like a possible solution. Like a pop concert, there was no program to distract you. But more importantly, her set was almost theatrical: there was no chit chat, no applause, and no intermission — nothing to break the spell. Once or twice an assistant cued electronics, but otherwise you forget your surroundings. And how it worked. She had attuned to the mood of the darkened club on a drowsy evening and the result felt like a personal concert — we could've been around a campfire (although the piano might stand out).
But is the mixtape a prescription for other performers? It’s hard to say. Chow’s playing embodies a sense of conviction and tenacity that is deadly affecting at time, and she has a technical precision with prepared piano and electronics. In short, she is a unique presence. And it's obvious Chow loves these brief works. I was curious how it came together, and when I spoke to her, what stood out to me was an utter lack of establishment fear.
Chow premiered her mixtape last year. ‘In many ways it's easier to digest,’ she says. 'It is also a great way to programme short works. Personally, it's been great for me to be able to cycle in and out different pieces that I've performed over the years and change up the playlist depending on how I'm feeling’.
But playing a set ordered to one’s mood and feelings can also be risky, and Chow wonders aloud whether there is enough contrast in this set of minimalist pieces. ‘You really don't know how long you can capture the attention of the audience'.
‘I just did a set in Toronto,’ she says. 'It was not the right place for ambient, sweet minimal music. I finally got their attention when I did Ligeti’s Étude No 4 [Fanfares] and got them out of their chairs with [Francis’s] Digital Sustain.’
Yet more often than not, the mixtape has worked its magic. 'I did a set at The Stone [in New York City] in May and everyone was mesmerised in the heat with no AC,’ Chow says. ‘So it really depends on the audience and who you are playing for. I guess that is the nature of performing for a new music audience. You never know what will intrigue them.’
Watch Vicky Chow perform Nico Muhly's A Hudson Cycle at the Carlsbad Music Festival in 2011 below:
Luke Quinton is a freelance arts journalist for the Austin American-Statesman.