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Pianist And Composer Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao
Brantley Gutierrez
Conrad Tao

Pianist Conrad Tao made his Tanglewood debut as soloist and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G in August 2019. Now on Saturday, August 15, at 8 p.m., he will perform as part of the Great Performers in Recital at Tanglewood online series.

Known as a composer as well as a pianist, Tao will show the breadth of his musical interests in the recital of music at the center of which is Beethoven's towering Tempest Sonata, which exploits the full range and power of the piano.

Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer, and has been dubbed "a musician of probing intellect and open-hearted vision" by the New York Times.

Joe Donahue: It is a great pleasure to welcome Conrad Tao to The Roundtable this morning. Conrad, thank you very much for being with us.

Conrad Tao: Thanks for having me.

You know through following you on social media and in just inhaling your work in my car, and, um, and whenever else, I'm out- This, this has been quite a career. And I'm curious as to- Did you- How had you designed this and how you were going to go forward? I mean, has all of this kind of thrown you, as to be able to do as much as you have been able to do?

First of all, I like the word inhale. There's a word, I hope that it makes a nice inhalant.

It does, very much.

I mean, I- Well, I started really young, I think that's, that's a big part of it. I, I- Just in terms of my life, I, I don't remember starting to play the piano. I, I- Just my earliest memories of being a musician involve me already like being in group violin lessons and stuff. And my parents say that I started playing the piano, playing nursery tunes at the piano before I was two. And so it basically like- I think, I think one motivator for all of my musical work is like, is on some level asking or trying to answer the question of like: Why do I do this?


Because there's just a basic question at the center of it, because I don't remember why I began. So I don't, for me, the experience is not necessarily one of like, an inciting incident where I'm like, "Oh, this is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life." It's been more of an investigation into why this is an impulse, urge, and a need. I think that's one reason why it's just like, it might seem really broad. I think it's just because the engine behind the exploration is just really, it's just very total and a little bit existential. So I think that's probably why. And then because I started so young, also, like just, even professionally, I started playing professionally, which I guess just means that I got paid for it. But I started that pretty young too, I started that when I was 12. And so, you know, I think I've just- Having that early amount of time to do this for people, in front of people, with people, maybe clarified what I was passionate about, which was really just the kind of constantly digging for something unfamiliar and meeting people, and just, you know, embracing all of the spontaneity that life and music can have to offer.

You've used the word impulse and, and drive. I'm interested because you- The last, the newest album is called 'American Rage'. How much of an impulse is the rage, not, not only the American rage that we're seeing, and we're living through, but even a personal rage.

Well, I mean, I think, I think we are now seeing that- I will, I also speak for myself. I definitely like, for example, in the last three months, with the protests that began, the uprising that began in Minneapolis and then spread across the country. I've been incredibly inspired by the people out on the streets in general. But also, I think one personal thing that resonates is that I, it's this realization that I was not the only person who was just feeling extremely angry with the status quo and the way things were. It's very heartening to know that you're not alone in your anger. And partially because like when you are maybe angry about the latent white supremacy of this country and when you're, you know, angry about a generation of, full of student debt after they've arguably been the first to really be told that everyone should go to college like- After, you know, and after you've seen like, generations of over-educated people enter into a job market with zero prospects, like, you know, it's nice to know that you're not the only one angry about all this stuff. The drive is definitely like a critical one, in some ways. I don't actually consider myself rage-full, certainly not all the time. But I'm motivated by like a sort of, a critical fire, I think. I believe that like, we engage with stuff critically, we, we fight hard, we point stuff out that we think is deeply wrong, mostly because we're paying attention and we love it. I mean, that's the, the complicated flipside, is like you criticize things because you're paying attention to them, which is one way of showing that you care.

One of the pieces that you'll be playing during the recital as part of this Tanglewood series is in just intonations, which is a piece that you, that you commissioned, and it's a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Talk a little bit about why you wanted, why you commissioned such a piece in the first place?

I didn't commission the piece specifically to be about Black Lives Matter. I'm very glad that it that Felipe happened to be thinking about the movement, and this was back in 2016, Felipe finished the piece in 2016. And I think, I think it was a combination of influences that led to the piece, Felipe was, Felipe's music in general, which is beautiful and colorful, tends to work with pitches and harmonies that are basically impossible to execute on a standardized concert piano, just from an intonation perspective. And yet, those are very core parts of Felipe's musical vocabulary. And so the piece in some ways is about trying to create the illusion of these more naturally occurring harmonies and intervals, naturally occurring meaning like, more aligning with physics and principles of physics. So, overtones and harmonies that you might be more likely to find in like nature, natural resonance, by trying to at- Get those through, within the limitations of the piano as an instrument. And in this thinking about how one might get towards a truly like naturally occurring, you know, principles, through systems that makes those principles seem impossible. I think that is what awaken the connection with Black Lives Matter for Felipe, a movement that was really attempting to articulate a vision of freedom that seemed like almost impossible within the system that that it was operating in. So I think that that was the guiding inspiration behind it. I hope I'm not speaking out of turn, on Felipe's behalf, but that's how I interpreted it. And I was, of course, it was, it seemed like a really worthwhile piece to bring back since. And I filmed this back in July, and so- It just was, it seemed impossible not to not like reflect what was happening in the world, and what is still happening in the world, at that time.

It's gonna be available to people on the 15th at eight o'clock, you filmed it in July. Was, were you back at Tanglewood?

Yeah, we filmed it in a beautiful studio in Tanglewood. That was wild. It was, it was really wild to walk into a dressing room for the first time in months.

Did it also bring back what it was like to play at Tanglewood for the first time last year?

It did. I mean, it was just nice to be on the campus again. It was such a beautiful setting. And I had such a good time last year. It was, it was different because we weren't in the shed this time. But it definitely took me back to that first drive out to the Berkshires.

One of the centerpieces of this recital that you'll be giving, that people have the opportunity to see, is Beethoven's Tempest. Talk a little bit about that and your choosing of it.

Well, this sonata has been in my life by now, for probably like 12 or 13 years, but I've been playing it actively for the last two years. What my primary interests in the piece now is aside from the fact that it's a great and enduring work, it's an it's a really exploratory work, like sonically, like musically exploratory, in its form as well. But I am particularly interested in the way that it's like sonically experimental, there are moments where he asks for things that, that honestly go against a lot of the impulses that were- I don't know if impulse was actually quite the right word. The habits or the expectations were like inculcated by, was, by my conservatory training, moments where he asks the pianist to hold the sustain pedal down like for an entire phrase, for an entire register key phrase, and this would entail like every single note bleeding into, into each other, and he asks for it. And the pieces', like surface, the sonic surface of it, was like, experimental, not just for its time- But yes, it was truly it's for time, but not only for its time. Once I started looking for those moments, I started seeing them everywhere. And I started seeing that Beethoven is of course extremely specific about everything in a score. Being a composer myself, like that every single that you put in the score is a choice, made with varying levels of- Delivers your confidence in some cases, but every single thing that you put in is a choice. And, um, one way that I think about what interpretation is like it's, it's a practice of learning to recognize those choices, and I think, and just kind of open up windows with each of those choices and open up windows for interpretation and thought and consideration. Like, like, "Why does this piece exist in this forum? How is it put together?" You know, in putting it on this program and putting it surrounded by newer pieces- Although there's pieces from the 1930s, all the way to 2016- So not just newer, but in putting this sonata at the center, it's basically, it's basically, it's just like, "Hey, remember that Beethoven is real radical." Like, you know, it's a very simple idea for my approach.

As my, my final question to you, is that having interviewed many artists at Tanglewood and knowing that the schedule is one that usually is so far in advance, what, what is it like not to really know what you're doing next?

I, I'm a little embarrassed to say this in public, but it's I've quite enjoyed it. I think there's a part of me that thrives in uncertainty. I think that there's like an improviser part of me, because that's an important part of the practice. It's mostly privately. There's like that part of my mind, that part of my soul, I think, benefits from uncertainty. Because in times of uncertain, in such extreme uncertainty, everything you do has consequences. That's how it feels to me. And yet also you kind of just have to make choices and be accountable to them. You know, it's hard to just refer to the path. I mean, I remember the last shows I was doing before everything shut down. We were in Seattle and LA and, and that you know it you could feel it in the distance, and that was maybe one of the weirdest sensations, was like being able to feel clouds in the distance and just realizing like, "Oh, everything, everything is going to change." And I just remember feeling in that moment, like, "Oh my gosh, then like everything I do, just feels eviscerated." I mean, I guess all I can think of is that it's just, that's the, the unique sensation of being in history in much historical time. I've kind of appreciated that I like it's something to live through- Like you have to live through it. And you-I, hopefully, I can grow through it as well. Trying not to think about this time of suspension and limbo. I'm trying not to think of it of just like, biding my time before I can go back to normal. Because I'm not, I'm not so convinced that I necessarily want things to go back to normal, in a return sense. I think that really it's more about continuing to look ahead and continuing to, you know, dream and envision what we want next. Going from a lifestyle in which I had my life planned out two years in advance, to one in which, I just kind of have to be attentive to every single day. Like I think I, I really enjoy having to pay attention all the time,

Creatively, given the isolation and the solitary that we all feel as a result of this, I think- Has, has that had an effect or even been a muse and impacted your creativity as a composer in any way?

I think it has. I mean, part- One thing that has, that I realize just because it's slightly anxiety inducing, is that I am not composing as much. I am improvising much more, and sometimes, of course, those things get, get mixed together. I basically- The pandemic has forced a lot of people in my role, sort of instrumentalists, like we're now being asked to become production companies of a certain kind. We're a lot of sort us are making video content on our own, in addition to occasional things like Tanglewood's amazing initiative, but we're, you know, we're making our own stuff. And I was very grateful to early on receive the commission, from a small little commissions firm, that works in process at the Guggenheim. And for them I made a video of just sort of a piece composed with video and I made it on my phone. And I made it with footage that I shot with my phone, a mix of footage that was shot specifically for the piece, but also- Just these videos that I felt compelled to have myself just improvising in my own in a weird way music making was one way of keying in to that state of mind, of just being really attentive to everything, and, and, and being in the present and, you know, not nostalgia-zing, not, not bemoaning what is lost, but just being extremely, trying to be very aware. And so, I think that's new. I mean, that's that is definitely a newer feeling. I, in some ways, it's very affirming too, because in absence of all the traditional external containers in which we do this as musicians, for me that it has led to really productive questions about like, "Why I do this in the first place," which as I said earlier in the interview is kind of the animating question for my entire life to begin with. And now I feel as though it's like there's just, this is I don't know if I still have an articulated answer for that question. But I can say for certain that like, it is a deep need, and it's like, it is a way of being alive. I think, you know, the pandemic really foregrounded that. And so in some ways, I think, I learned, I learned something about myself and my music making through this experience, and I'm continuing to do so since unfortunately, this experience is not over.

That's Conrad Tao. On Saturday, August 15, at 8pm, will perform as part of the Great Performers in Recital at Tanglewood online series, bso.org, for more information. Conrad, it's a great pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for taking the time out for us.

Thanks for having me, again.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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