Fealty Check: The Innovative Programming of Pianist Frederic Chiu

Frederic Chiu spoke with piaNYC on Labor Day, Monday, September 5, 2016

Frederic Chiu

Frederic Chiu spoke with piaNYC. Below are major excerpts of the phone conversation, which took place on Labor Day, Monday, September 5, 2016, just a few days prior to his performance at the DiMenna center. The order is changed of some of the topics we discussed.

He has named the performance format Classical Smackdown, where he pits one composer against another, and gathers live input from the audience about their reaction, publishing the results on a web page. What was his motivation for starting the Classical Smackdown series?

The Smackdowns that I’ve done and I’m planning to do—I have three of them—one is the Bach/Glass that you’re going to hear this weekend. The one that I’ve done a lot more, which I’ve started with, and which is really fun and really very popular, is the Debussy vs. Prokofiev. One that I’m gearing up to do is prodigy-Chopin vs. prodigy-Mendelssohn, music that they wrote before the age of twenty. These three [programs], as it turns out—I didn’t plan it this way, but somehow deep down it was planned—they approach music in three very different ways, and three very fundamentally different camps that people can be in. And now that I know it, I’m really trying to draw that out in my comments and in programming. In the Prokofiev/Debussy, of course, it’s a matter of style and personality. It’s energy vs. contemplation, improvisation vs. structure, hard vs. soft. They were contemporaries for twenty-five years, and dealing with the same kind of world: globalization, political turmoil . . . but they have such different personalities that their music came out, and you can be on one side or the other, depending on your mood.

With Bach/Glass, it’s much more abstract, not personality but more an examination/exploration of time and how our perception of time changes. There’s the counterpoint, the polyphony that happens in both of their music. The first round really brings that out. I play a Prelude and Fugue [from The Well-Tempered Clavier], which was a book of, basically exercises. Bach was considering them exercises for his sons and his students in counterpoint. I play a Glass etude which also deals with layers and counterpoint. And then there’s a time-shifting thing. I like to think of this time-lapse film in Grand Central where you see the escalator going crazy and you see clouds of people milling about. You see larger movements in the time-lapse. And then think of the classic bullet going through the apple in slow motion. Somehow there’s a similarity there. There’s an ability for us as humans to conceive of things like that. I think that somehow Bach’s music sometimes feels like the Grand Central thing, where there’s so much detail and yet there’s structure that comes out of all those details, over time. And Philip Glass is more like there’s almost no change in the details, and yet there is something happening and you start delving into it more and more and you see the intricacies of the few details that are there in a way where all of a sudden, you’re not quite sure. Am I going fast? Am I going slow? Am I seeing big structure or little detail? So there’s that kind of time play that I think both of their music creates. And finally there’s the religious/spiritual experience that they’re both inspired by.

With the prodigy-Chopin vs. prodigy-Mendelssohn match-up, Mendelssohn was just precocious [at] understanding German tradition and the fact that he was in touch with Goethe and understood Beethoven’s late piano sonatas at the age of fourteen, or even earlier, he was exposed to that. And he felt he had a place in keeping that alive and furthering that. And so very much a masterful continuation of tradition, vs. Chopin, who at the same age, at exactly the same time, was growing up in Poland and not really surrounded much by classical tradition, and was looking at this instrument called the piano and really thinking, there’s a lot of stuff that could happen here that hasn’t been explored, and creating a totally new piano technique. And integrating folk music and mazurkas and polonaises in his music, which was very new at the time. So you have somebody who’s building on a long and solid tradition versus someone who’s creating something totally from scratch, at the same time, the exact same year, using the same instrument. So do you appreciate tradition or do you appreciate futuristic thinking? Where do you situate on that perspective, on that spectrum?

We discussed the intended audience for his Classical Smackdown performances.

It’s open to all audiences, because one of the key ideas for the Smackdown is that you don’t have to have any training or any previous experience, or even interest, to be able to have an opinion about two pieces that you hear. It’s not that your personal opinion is the only thing that’s important, but it is a very key element, and it is something that can be the seed for more involvement, more investigation, more curiosity. This came to me a couple of different ways, one being food tasting. I’m a big foodie and wine lover, and I’ve always learned so much from teaching experiences, especially with people who are more experienced than I am. And the other is the rise of reality talent shows on TV, where you have audience votes, and just seeing how I got caught up myself. Those kinds of shows come on with music that I don’t really have an interest in and certainly not much knowledge, but it was something that I could experience and could experience with my kids and with my wife, and really share an interesting discussion and debate with them. I thought, with classical music that’s what’s needed; we need some kind of open-door policy for people who are interested in music, and just feel that there’s too much they need to know before they qualify as an audience member for classical music. I think it just needs to open up. That fits really well with the whole DiMenna Center and what Mirian [Conti, creator of the 5 @ 5 concert series] is thinking for this series, which is five bucks, no reservations, just come as you are, and one hour. And then, this idea of voting really engages the listener and makes even an experienced listener listen in a different way. It might not be a comfortable way, but it certainly is a more engaged and more conscious way of listening, and that is what I’m looking for from everybody who comes, no matter whether they’re experienced or not.

I wanted to know whether the results from the audience participation are part of a feedback loop to inform his artistry or future programming.

Absolutely it goes into the mix, and it has an influence, and I want to have that influence. I don’t think there’s anything direct like, “Oh, 20% of people liked this Bach, and 80% liked the Glass in this particular round, so I’m not going to play the Bach anymore.” Or, people told me it was too fast so I’m going to play it slower. It’s not that kind of a direct thing. But it is important for me, first of all to know that there are people who are thinking about this particular detail, that that came out. Then all of a sudden there’s a little light shining on that aspect of the program, and it starts making me notice details and thinking. Sometimes it reinforces: if somebody says it’s too fast and I purposely wanted it fast, it might reinforce “OK, I’m going to play faster, I’m happy playing it fast because look, it irritated this person.” [laughs] On the other hand, somebody who brings up an issue or a way of seeing things that I didn’t think about, I’m very happy for that. It’s more of an interactive dialogue than it is me presenting something that’s fully fleshed out and just needs to be put out there for people to experience. I really feel that part of the problem with “classical music” is that it has been treated more like a museum exhibit as opposed to an interactive, relevant current-events event. I think that this format really makes it clear to everybody, OK, this is not a museum. It might be a classical music program, might be classical music, it might be a pianist coming up and playing and you applauding, but in the end come on there’s something that nobody knows and we’re all waiting to find out, and that’s how you’re going to vote and how everybody’s vote is going to add up. And just having that little bit of an unknown factor that kind of hangs over the entire proceeding makes everybody involved in a very different way.

Digging into his interest in measurement and quantitative techniques related to music. Where did this interest originate?

I think what I’m looking for, the concept that really rings for me, is elegance. Like there’s an elegant way to do things. I think that that idea came to me more in the computer science side of things. I studied with a little bit with Douglas Hofstadter when I was at Indiana University. I was just crazy about Gödel Escher Bach when I was in high school. Then my first year at IU when I studied music, I saw that Hofstadter had just signed on the faculty and was offering an advanced first-year Computer Science class. So I immediately signed up for that, I brought the book in like a groupie. And he had no experience teaching computer science at that point, and so it was just a total free-form mental free-association class that was led by him but fed by all the people who are in that class, there were like twenty of us. It was an amazing seminar in artificial intelligence and abstract computer concepts. He was very interested in the concept of elegance, and I had really connected with him on that, and he and I became very good friends, and we still share lots of puzzles and things by email. So I think that was what started me on this idea of finding something simple to do something seemingly complex. At that point, I had played the piano for ten years already and I was very advanced, and had won competitions and all sorts of things. But I was really much more focused on the physical aspects of playing, and the accuracy, and the diligence, the discipline of the craft vs making music. It was from that point forward that I started studying with teachers who drew my attention to the music and the elegance of form. I started looking at the elegance of physical resources, how to physically play the piano and a very efficient way. So all of that started to come together from the computer science side over to the music side. At the same time, the kind of creative, artistic side of music started coming over to the computer science side, and especially with Hofstadter, who really understood this, that there is an art to computer science, there is an art to science. Like there are many ways to write a formula that will express a concept, but there is an artistic way to express it and there is an artistic way to get to that expression. And all a sudden all of these ideas begin to come together and I realized that for me, the music making and the computer science were both heading toward the same goal, which was kind of an elegant of understanding of why things come together the way they do. But they’re just approaching it from very different starting points.

I think that performance of music is one of these amazing places, where are you can do it a hundred times and it will be different each time. Yet there is some core, and even a very complex structure, that stays the same. Yet there is variety and variation around that core and that structure. I think that’s fascinating, that for me, that’s the combination for me, all of that together is what’s so fascinating.

Is he still using his technique of radically reduced practice time that he invented out of necessity during his first months in France when he had only very time-limited access to an instrument?

Yeah, absolutely. Right now I’m really in this kind of crunch time where I have eight different programs in eight weeks. I’m practicing maybe an hour or two every day, and every once in a while I’ll skip a day. So I’m doing a lot of mental practicing. And because I know myself, I know, for example, that if I wake up in the morning and I have to just run to an appointment and just doing stuff for the day, that I will not have had any kind of seeds planted in my mind that I’m working on the in the background. So I plan my alarm clock so that I can wake up and have five minutes to just sit in bed and say, okay, in a week I’m going to be playing this, I need to be thinking about this music, and then just let things happen. I know that, for example, if I’m going to play this Bach/Glass program on Saturday, that I need to play through it once, two weeks before that date. Then even if I don’t get to play it for another three or four days, if I’m working on other stuff, I’ll be fine. So part of it is knowing my intellectual capacity. If I start doing it ten days before, then I’m going to start feeling stressed. If I do it three weeks before, then I’m kind of wasting my time because I could have used that time for other things, and I didn’t need to start it then. So it’s knowing myself and also having confidence in my knowledge of myself that allows me say, I don’t need to practice at the piano today because I’ve been working really hard in my head and, I feel very confident and I feel very prepared.

Does his practice regimen encounter challenges when he is preparing for an ensemble performance?

I have done, with great pleasure, a number of song recital programs, with various singers [over] the years. . . . With singers, I have found with my experience, is that they like to rehearse a lot, like over many, many, many days. They can’t rehearse a lot on a single day so they like to spread it out, and so you’re meeting them over like two weeks, every day, for like an hour or two. And it’s just a lot of time. I’ve found that that has made me rethink being able to accommodate song recital in regular things that I do. So that’s part of my knowledge of myself, part of my knowledge of others, and that’s how I figure out, can I afford to do certain things?

Two of the composers influencing his musical understanding are Sergei Prokofiev and Frederic Chopin. How has the legacy of Chopin influenced his musical life?

I think one of the big [learning experiences] that I had in my life was that after all of these years of studying the piano and studying music and going to college and learning facts and figures, to actually be in Paris at the same spot that Chopin was at some point, and at the same age that I was, and to connect with Chopin as a person as opposed to a body of facts and details to learn. . . . A lot of the analysis [of Chopin’s music today] is happening after the fact. Chopin himself may not have analyzed his music in the way that we do today. He may have improvised a little mazurka and then totally forgotten it. Yet there is something core to that piece because it came out of him and he was very connected to his music making. So there was a missing element for me which came together with just being physically present in the same place and being able to, me, then empathize with him as a human being. That was a big impetus for me, to actually devote myself to being a pianist and to be able to then share that kind of experience with other people. I really felt like it had been really missing from me, and it would have been terrible to miss that all my life. That’s actually my motivation.

During this interval, Frederic revealed he was named after Chopin.

I think the connection with Chopin started when I started playing his music, which was pretty early on. The teacher gave me some etudes to study, and I started learning those, and I enjoyed the physicality of them and I enjoyed the challenge of them. But it took many years after that for me to connect with Chopin as a composer. Then I went through a phase in my twenties when I really loved Chopin’s music so much, I was so involved in it, it was actually the most difficult thing for me to play in concert because I was emotionally just carried away by the music and not able to reserve that part which you have to have reserved in order to execute this planned-out thing that you’re trying to do. I would find myself at the end of a phrase, and enjoying it so much, and not knowing what the next note was supposed to be. And then a big hole, and then big disappointment because then of course the piece kind of fell apart at that moment. It really required a kind of “fasting” of Chopin, where I really avoided, specifically the etudes. I removed myself from them for a good ten years in order to come back to them with a different perspective, with the mechanics still in my hands from having learned them when I was a teenager and pre-teen. But a musical concept and more humanist concept that I didn’t have at that age and which needed some very independent unaffected time to develop. So when I came back to it I had then the abilities to play it and to be able to do something with [his] music and really present it the way I wanted to. So Chopin has been a lifelong evolution, and I’m still working on that relationship with his music.

I was interested in finding out the imprint that his time living in France, from 1988 to 2000, has made on his personality and his musicality.

It was a very important passage for me. I think that even before I went to France and even before I wanted to go to France, even before I knew anything about France, I think there was something about the way I was thinking, the way I was just seeing the world, that mapped onto maybe a French understanding of the world. I do believe that languages and cultures have a kind of a structure, that mental structure of the world, an understanding, that’s very different from one country to another, and it’s reflected in the language. I think that somehow there was already a kind of a connection or a similarity/parallel, between how I was raised. The Chinese discipline and history and yet the freedom of the United States. That kind of blend, in me, happened to map onto France pretty well. So when the opportunity came for me to go to France, I was very excited, and I said I’m going to learn French, I love the sound of the language, I would love to be able to have familiarity with it. And when I got there, it was just immediate. I learned the language very, very quickly. I felt very comfortable there, really connected with the people. It was a great time for music. It was just coincidentally the exact right thing for me at the time. And after twelve years of living there, I really went through a whole life cycle, and I think of it as the Chinese twelve-year cycle that played out. And at the end of that, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be in France anymore but there were other things that were developing that were calling me. I made the decision to leave France, kind of regretfully, because I do love the lifestyle still, and the people and the culture. I go back as often as I can. I have family there and good friends and connections there. So I’m keeping my ties, but I really felt like my time in France had come to a completion, and had served an amazing purpose, which was to really open my eyes to what music is, to connect with Chopin and Liszt, and all the people who also had that kind of melding with France and Paris in their life.

Photo credit: Chris Craymer

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