Joy in Abundance: piaNYC Interview with Christina and Michelle Naughton

The identical twin performers spoke on the phone with piaNYC about their recent travels, their musical influences and approach, their upcoming New York performance, and more. The interview took place on Friday, August 5, 2016.

Piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton

Are you back home in New York now?

Yes, we are.

Welcome home!

Thank you!

How did you enjoy your residence at the Grand Teton Festival?

Oh, it was so beautiful! My gosh, . . . the people are both on vacation but they’re into music, and it’s a beautiful place to do that. Beautiful things in life: music and nature, and you combine them together. Quite amazing.

I saw a picture of one of you on horseback.

Yeah, that was a nice little treat. That was fun, definitely.

Is that an example of how there may be a richer experience when you’re playing “in residence” on one location as opposed to making one appearance and moving on? 

Oh absolutely, I mean it is a little bit different. A lot of times when you’re traveling, it’s like half the time you feel like you’re half-awake until you get onstage because you’re on a train all morning, or on a plane, wake up at some ungodly hour and then you get there, you get to the hall, and you’re totally disoriented . . . , so this was really nice, you got a little local flavor in, as well.

Any other fun stories from Wyoming travels that you’d like to relate? 

Oh, in that it took basically longer to get there than it takes to get to Europe [laughing]. It did! It took us the entire day by both ways. Flying through O’Hare is a little difficult.

When I read your online bios and saw that your dad is a computer science professor, it immediately occurred to me that computer scientists and musicians both rely on a command of patterns and sometimes very strict mathematical rules. Do you see any of your musical understanding coming from your computer-scientist dad?

[Laughing] Probably. Wow. I know music and math are very related. It’s not like you necessarily see it directly, but I think often times especially with contemporary music, which we play a lot of. I mean, on our CD is a work by John Adams, we’ve both done some solo Ligety etudes, and we love playing 20th century music, and a lot of that stuff is somewhat mathematical, I would say . . . . [And] mathematicians who really like music, you see that a lot.

Right, and even in Bach. I mean, he imposed a lot of restrictions on himself, like in counterpoint. 

Sure. Oh, yeah.

Even at the end of Gottes Zeit, I think there’s some counterpoint at the end of [that], on Visions, right?

It’s like one of those things where these formulas actually lead to beauty. It makes it really kind of touching that . . . discipline leads to freedom in a very beautiful way.

Are either of your parents involved in your careers now?

Not now, but they’re our greatest supporters, audience members, whatever. But not professionally. But our mother was our first piano teacher, and she’s the reason for all of this, so in some sense, I guess the answer to that should be yes.

I see that in May you were touring in China. Was that your first time traveling in the Far East?

No, actually, we’ve been there. It’s been several years ago, but this is the biggest tour. It was a pretty extensive tour. That was one really where we were in a different city every single day, and seeing different territories and places. But we were pretty much squeezed out by the end of it. A couple hours of sleep a day kind of thing . . . . And it really gets your adrenaline going when you’re onstage, I think, when you’re in that state, though.

Are you in contact with relatives in China on your mother’s side?

Oh no, actually we grew up with our Chinese grandparents living five minutes away from us. Yeah they have been in the states for like sixty years now, but yeah, of course.

So has Chinese culture had a large influence in your lives?

These days, what’s beautiful about classical music is that, if you notice that . . . the East is keeping western music alive in a lot of ways. Like when you go to China you see that just so many in the audience are under ten years old, and it’s pretty inspiring to see that. It just shows how music is such a cross-cultural thing. It’s a language that speaks to everyone regardless of whether we can even talk to each other. When you play a concert somewhere, I think people bond in a way that you maybe wouldn’t even get from having a conversation with people. That’s why I really like playing in different countries and places. It’s very meaningful that way.

Do you speak any languages in addition to English and music?

[Laughing] Nothing that I would want to say, because it’s so bad. Well, just enough to get you to your ride, or whatever.

Getting to your musical approach, with solo performance, pianists of all musical styles are striving for hand independence, and the ability to sound like two or even more players. When playing together, is there a shift to a different ideal, wanting to sound as coherent and unified as possible?

Not always. Yes, there are those times, which are often the most difficult times. But I would say it changes anywhere from four or five voices down to one voice, and it’s always interchanging all the time, and that’s what makes it so fun.

Would you be happy to hear praise that said you sounded like two unique individuals, or four or five, however many voices are in the piece?

It depends on the piece, you know. If it’s a piece that calls for a lot of unity and that happens, that is not so good. But if it’s a piece that’s more conversational, that would be great. So it very much depends, I think, on the music you’re playing. For example, Mozart, when he writes, is often very conversational and very spontaneous, changing characters all the time. It really feels like you’re almost talking to each other. And then there are other times where we absolutely have to play with the same voice, and even as twins that’s just really difficult. But probably that’s why we really love it so much, especially four hands on one piano, because those moments really are, I think, very moving.

My impression is that in works for two players, the secondo part is the level-headed and responsible one, supporting the primo part, which is free to shine unfettered, and be the center of attention. Does that kind of dynamic come in to in play in your music?

[Michelle] I’m the primo by the way, and I would say it’s almost quite the opposite, and in weird way. I mean, it’s one of those things where things maybe are not as they seem. And the secondo in our case, [it’s] almost like she sets the mood for everything. Like I can feel that for when I play. And it’s almost like if I play by myself without the secondo part, I just have trouble getting any kind of, in a certain way, inspiration or feeling. It’s almost a director . . . . I actually take the lead from the secondo a lot of the time. Maybe it is the secondo’s playing the harmonic background or whatever, and that’s actually what gives, I think, the emotional substance, actually, to what I’m doing on top.

I see, but do you feel like you sort of become the center of attention, especially when you’re in a [four-hands] situation?

[Michelle] Not at all. Not at all.

Even though when you’re playing four-hands, you’re closer to the audience, right?

[Michelle] Basically. [laughing] I suppose. But no, I don’t.

I think, Christina, you [always] play the secondo and Michelle, you play the primo. Is that right?

[Christina] Only when were on one piano, yes. When we’re on two pianos we switch all the time.

When on one piano, though, when did your roles settle?

[Michelle] Oh very instantly.

[Christina] Very early on, I actually stole the bottom part. And it’s fun because she can read whatever I do so quickly. I like it.

Did you say you stole the bottom part?

[Christina] Yes I did.

[Michelle] Yeah, it’s a weird thing where she just wanted the bottom part so bad, and that’s why we did it that way, which is . . .

[Christina] . . . usually it’s the opposite!

Does it stem from Christina being the older twin, and she gets to have her way?

[Michelle] Oh, my baby!

[Christina] I don’t always get my way. No, I don’t. We can fight about this for hours, can’t we?

[Michelle] Those eight minutes! It all boils down to those eight minutes of extra life experience, right?

When learning modern scores with a lot of atonal content, such as by Olivier Messiaen, even at your level of mastery, is it difficult to know whether you’re playing all the right notes, or even whether the score is one hundred percent right?

For me, I don’t know why, but . . . it’s because no other notes make sense, . . . because it’s so dissonant, in a way. . . . I feel like every note has its place. I feel like, actually, almost playing really dissonant music like that, every note has a very specific place and very specific meaning, and for me only that note fits the spot. So I don’t feel that way, actually.

Did you find any errors in the score when you were learning Visions de l’Amen?

[Both answering] Oh, who would I ask? Who would know? I can’t ask him. I wouldn’t know if I did.

I think Messiaen was living when you started playing piano, but not by the time you started playing his works.

No, definitely. We would have liked to meet him.

Have you had any external coaching while preparing your performances and recordings of Visions de l’Amen?

Well, actually we played Hallelujah Junction for John Adams himself, and that was great. Also, we recently played a new piece of his, and did the world premiere in New York recently. He’s a great guy. But it’s really something else to be able to talk to the composer and be able to ask him . . . what did you think of something? You can’t do that when you’re playing Mozart. There’s really no way of knowing. You can guess, but we can’t really know. It makes it very special when you start playing the music if you actually hear and feel the man himself, almost as though he’s there with you and talking with you and expressing things that way you know he does. And that is a really, really unique experience.

With works from a composer who’s no longer living or who’s not around, do you feel an absence? Or do you feel more freedom?

There’s a mystery. I guess I’ll call it a mystery. But I mean, there are signs and things you can go by, and you only guess. It’s interesting.

Did you hear the recording of Oliver Messiaen playing with Yvonne Loriod? Playing Visions de l’Amen?

Of course. Yes. It’s beautiful.

Do you feel that it’s definitive, or do you feel bound by it? By the recording?

No, I mean I love it but I don’t think they ever . . . . With composers, it’s funny. When you meet a live composer . . . they have very clear ideas of what they want, but I don’t think they would have wanted you to [copy]. It was individual to them at that time, and it’s absolutely beautiful and great to listen to, but I feel like different people play things differently, and that’s fine. Composers, they appreciate having different perspectives on, . . . let’s say, being read in a different way . . . . Everyone kind of interprets things with their own . . . . Even if they tried literally to reproduce, I think, exactly, it’s impossible not to have some kind of special, unique viewpoint when one’s playing a work.

[I was] watching that amazing video of you working with John Adams on Hallelujah Junction. Do you feel like one day your interpretations of John Adams’s works might become definitive for pianists now or in the future?

[Laughing] Well, we’ll have to see, right?

[I’m] looking forward to this month’s New York concert at the crypt at Church of the Intercession . . . I think the premiere of that piece, Visions de l’Amen, was played in an art gallery, but a church seems a very appropriate setting, given the work’s religious theme.

Sure. It’ll be a really great space for that. We’ve been there a couple times. The lighting, everything is just perfect for a work like this.

How does the feeling compare when performing in a sacred space? 

Well for this piece, it enhances the experience for sure. What better setting would there be for a piece like this? That can be performed in other places but I’m really looking forward to this.

I know record labels like to put their own spin on things, but on your newest CD Visions, the title and all of the selections, including the Messiaen work, seem to have a reference to religion. Even on the jacket photo, you’re projecting a serene—and I would even say heavenly—presence. I’ve heard you say that the theme of the album is all about joy, but where is that religious vibe coming from?

Well, I think with the exception of Hallelujah Junction, which actually maybe isn’t the [same as the] Bach and the Messiaen, they were written with very religious intentions. When we were choosing this theme [on] the album, we just chose these three pieces as, like as I said, as a symbolism of joy, and it just happens to be that two of them had this other component, obviously, with the composers. But I mean, the overriding theme of the album really is, these pieces bring us joy, and three very unique kinds of joy. And we thought that would be interesting to showcase on one album, and kind of bring the listener through a journey as you go through each work. And that really was what we were hoping to bring with this program.

This is a little bit of a long question. When I finished college, a friend and I traveled to Europe for a month-long summer trip, but my friend decided to head home after only two weeks. And I was upset because I expected to be lonely on my own. But probably within the first hour after I saw my friend off at the airport, my experience began to improve dramatically. And I realized that being on my own made me much more able to make spontaneous decisions about food, travel plans, making friends. And I’ve heard you say that being together prevents that loneliness that so many solo performers feel when on long tours. But is it possible—especially when traveling, but really anytime—that there is a trade-off between the benefits of sisterly companionship and having that room for spontaneity and openness to new experiences or new relationships?

[Laughing] I think there’s quite a bit of luggage between the two of us, if you’re saying that keeps us from having certain freedoms! But all in all, though, it’s great, especially, . . . obviously when you’re traveling, you always have interesting things happen, and go figure things out, go somewhere in another language and try to talk to someone, to finding your luggage somewhere where you don’t know exactly where, a map that you can’t understand, those kinds of things. It’s really nice to have someone there with you.

What about being open to new experiences and new relationships? . . . having two of you together, is it harder to form relationships with other people if you’re together a lot when you’re traveling?

It’s a good question, but no. I feel that in a way, [what] you brought up earlier about being able to do things on your own. . . . I do have actually a similar situation. When you play by yourself, technically you can make decisions without any thought of what the other person is doing. But actually, growing up as twins, we shared things since day one. Not saying it’s a completely smooth ride, but I feel like there’s something really cool about when I play, it changes based on how she’s playing, and you can’t get that when you play by yourself. And that’s part of the fun part, and actually it’s more spontaneous, not less. And even traveling together, that’s also true, because depending on what she’s doing, I’ll do something different than I would have done by myself, so it actually adds an element of fun and spontaneity traveling. I think we get to talk to more people too, honestly. Like going through a European train station, the two of us, identical twins, you cannot be missed. Even if sometimes folks here and other places, sometimes I won’t feel like people have noticed we’re twins, and I’ll be by myself . . . and somehow people will feel I am a twin, [and ask,] “Where’s your other half?”

So you have that built-in attention-getting factor.

Yes. For better or for worse, yes.

Talking about your upcoming plans, on the concerts page of your website, I see no listings following the upcoming events in Amsterdam and New York this month. What will you be up to starting in September?

Oh there’s going to be a lot! We’re finishing setting everything for tours, but there’s going to be huge Spain-and-Portugal tour, we’re going to play with a bunch of orchestras in Germany, we do a bunch of orchestras back in the Midwest, some more West Coast concerts, and South America as well. So it’s going to be a busy but exciting fall.

My interest was really piqued when I saw that Carnival of the Animals was on your program at Grand Tetons, and I’ve seen that you played that in previous appearances. 

It’s a good friend of ours.

My daughter is seven, and she’s been taking piano lessons for a few months. We love listening to music at bedtime, especially the Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals. Do you have any special feelings about Aquarium or other pieces in the Carnival?

It’s just a really fun peace. I think it’s great that your daughter is listening to it . . . . I think all kids can identify that, and how music is almost more descriptive than words, in a way. That it shows that you know the animal but you can write a little thing about what an aquarium is like, but hearing that is just a whole different feeling.

Do you have any memories of other favorite pieces—listening to other pieces—from your very young years?

Oh yes. I remember one of my first orchestral concerts that we ever went to. What was it, the Saint Paul chamber orchestra? We were on vacation, and we heard the Barber Adagio for Strings. And I was like seven at the time. And I remember I cried at the concert, it was such a . . . . To this day I’m still so moved by that piece, and I remember that very well.

As well, I think I’ve told this story very many times but, I think when my mom was pregnant with us, she was listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations 24/7. And when we were young we would listen to that piece for some reason. I mean, we listened to all kinds of stuff. So at one point we casually mentioned to our mom, “oh, I really love this recording of Goldberg Variations, it’s like my favorite.” And at that point she [said], “omigosh, it must be some kind of weird subconscious thing because I had that on the whole time before you were born.”

Do you have advice for young pianists other than ‘have supportive parents’?

Oh, that’s a big one. I guess maybe I’d say, actually a lot of things that tend to be the most boring actually are hard at first. And don’t freak out. If you’re practicing and something gets really, really tough, it’s okay. I mean, that’s part of it. And oftentimes when you get over those things, those are the things that bring you the most joy later.

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