Vicky Chow

Vicky Chow, a pianist who is well known as a member of the Bang On a Can All-Stars, is another great example of the hard-working, highly active new music community laden with creative artists and composers. Along with the All-Stars, Vicky has also been performing solo concerts regularly featuring the works of various modern and living composers, is one of the founding members of a Bang On a Can offshoot–the trio Typical Music, and is also the curator of a series of new music concerts held at the Gershwin Hotel called Contagious Sounds (which, by the way, she also participates in). In the coming year, Vicky will be releasing 2 new CDs: the new Bang On a Can All-Stars double CD to be released in February, and her second solo CD. She had a small break in her activities to chat with me about her work and her career.

CM: Tell us about the beginning of the musical upbringing.

VC: I started piano when I was 5 years old. Both my older brother and sister were taking piano lessons at the time. Whenever their teacher came to our home, I would sit in and watch. I had an early fascination with the piano. Instead of playing with Barbies or whatever 5 year old kids would do, I would spend lots of time improvising and trying to play songs I heard on the radio. My parents saw this and decided to start me on the piano as well. From there I kind of took off. I started working on my first piano concerto when I was 7. It was the Haydn Piano Concerto. When I was 9, I was invited to perform at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Michigan. I ended up debuting with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra when I was 10 with the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3. From there, I performed with them and a few other orchestras every year until I left for New York to begin studies at The Juilliard School when I was 17.

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto #3 in C (Victor Fredbill, Vancouver Academy Symphony; Orpheum Theatre, 2/22/98)

CM: So what exactly led you to the world of contemporary music and living composers?

VC: It’s a serendipitous event that introduced me to this world. I never thought I’d be playing the music that I play. I had an extremely classical background. If you had asked me what I wanted to do when I was 5, I would tell you that I’d want to perform all over the world with orchestras and doing solo recitals. I started questioning this idea when I was about 15 years old. I spent a tremendous amount of time working on the traditional classical repertoire. Somehow it didn’t fulfill my artistic needs. I knew I wanted to do music but didn’t know how to fill that void. I ignored the feeling and continued down the classical music path. I went to Juilliard for the Bachelors and Masters in Piano Performance with Yoheved Kaplinsky and Julian Martin. Both were amazing teachers and taught me a lot about how to approach the instrument and the music. One day, a composer friend of mine, Zhou Tian, came up to me and asked if I could play his piece. The concert was in a week and the original pianist wasn’t able to perform it anymore. I said, “Sure!”. I had never done anything like it before. When I opened up the score, I was so surprised to see notation I’ve never encountered. It was a whole new world and I liked being in it. It opened up my eyes to the fact that there is a lot of music out there. I quickly realized that I loved every moment I was stressing out and losing sleep over learning this music leading up to the concert. I felt energized. It was this passion and fire that I felt was missing since I was 15. From then on, I decided that I was going to dedicate my time in discovering, performing, and working with living composers. During my graduating year at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music was starting their program in Contemporary Performance. I applied and spent the next couple of years there.

CM: And this was how you found Bang On a Can, I take it?

VC: Yeah. I found out from Dan Grabois, the program chair at the time about the call for pianist. Everyone in my program at MSM were always talking about Bang on a Can (most of them had been a fellow at the Bang on a Can Summer Institute at Mass Moca…aka ‘Banglewood’) so when I heard they were holding auditions for piano, I sent in my materials immediately. I was just immersing myself into this music world and this opportunity opened up. I was very lucky and it was really good timing.

I must admit, this audition was the most fun I ever had auditioning for ANYTHING. I remember sitting and waiting for my turn at Carroll’s Studio. Mark Stewart comes out and brings me into the room. There they were: Evan Ziporyn, Robert Black, and David Cossin. I was pretty nervous (to say the least). I had to prepare 7 excerpts from their repertoire and the audition was playing it with them! I had a blast. We tore through the rep, then I got my stuff and left and waited for their phone call. A couple months later, I was asked to perform on the People’s Commissioning Fund Concert. We did a new piece by Kate Moore (which will be on our upcoming double disk album titled Big Beautiful Dark and Scary), Lok-Yin Tang (a Hong Kong composer) Alvin Lucier, Fred Frith, and a collaboration with Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever done. The show went really really well but then I heard nothing from them for 6 months! It was like going on a date and not hearing from them again even though you thought things went well! haha. I finally got an email asking me to tour with them to China. Shortly after we got back from the tour, I got the good news that they wanted me to join the band.

Michael Gordon: For Madeline (excerpt; Bang On a Can All-Stars; date and venue unknown)

CM: Besides the All-Stars, you also play with Ashley Bathgate and Todd Reynolds in Typical Music. How did this ensemble get started?

VC: Todd, Ashley and I got together to perform Evan Ziporyn’s piano trio with the same title last summer at Banglewood. It was the first time I worked with Todd Reynolds. Of course Ashley and I work closely together throughout the year in the All-Stars and to add Todd into the mix, it was the perfect recipe.
I first met Todd down in Miami during a New Music Marathon which also included Gutbucket and Mantra Percussion. He walked in during the middle of my set (I was doing some Messiaen and Ligeti) and I later got to hear his set in the evening. Up until that point, I had never heard any other electro-violinist like Todd. He’s simply amazing. When we were all finally able to work together, it was simple chemistry. We just worked. We have since then been presented at Le Poisson Rouge and Rockport Music, as well as by The Guggenheim Museum.

Typical Music (Vicky Chow, piano; Todd Reynolds, violin; Ashley Bathgate, cello; performing at The Guggenheim Museum, NY 5/24/11)

CM: Your debut recording of the Ryan Francis pieces sounds like a fantastic debut for you! How did this come about?

VC: I was sharing a recital in July 2008 with Sylvie Courvoisier at Princeton as part of the Golandsky Institute. There I performed Neil Rolnick‘s “digits” for piano and computer with video by R. Luke Dubois, a movement from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards and 6 etudes by Ryan Francis. (Digital Sustain, Harlequin, La Fee Verte, Doppelganger, and Loop). After the show, Sylvie spoke to me about how much she liked my performance, especially the Ryan Francis Etudes. She said that she had a friend, a composer and musician that she’s very much like to introduce me to and if it’s alright for her to give him my info. I said sure. Two days later, I get an email from John Zorn. He had gone to my website (at the time, I had a live recording of the premiere of Digital Sustain and Harlequin as the homepage music.) He said he checked out my website and listened to the tracks. He really liked them and then said “It would make a great release on Tzadik”. That’s how the CD came about!

There’s a side story to this as well. That same summer, I had applied to attend the Bang on a Can Summer Institute as a fellow. I asked if I would be able to miss a few days to go to Princeton to perform the concert. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to make both work so I chose to do the concert. I was really upset that I wasn’t able to go to MassMoca that summer. But somehow, it’s all worked out. I’ve now been there as guest artist for two summers. It’s a story I remind myself when I feel lost in life. Life has a funny way of working itself out somehow. There’s no point it worrying too much about which path you take. You will end up exactly where you are supposed to be even with all the detours.

CM: There’s one little part in the Ryan Francis Preludes that sounds like he used a part of one of Rossini’s overtures.

VC: Yes! The Wind-Up Bird Preludes are based on “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles” by Haruki Marukami. A lot of them are based on a scene in the book. The opening scene in the book and the opening prelude in the set is of the main character making spaghetti listening to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie. Other preludes have other references as well such as Bird as Prophet and Birdcatcher. They are influenced by Schumann and Mozart.

CM: When you play prepared piano, is that even more exciting than regular piano? It must be a long process getting it situated for performance, and there are so many pieces you play made for prepared piano like the Cage Sonatas and Interludes, Andy Akiho‘s piece Vick(i/y) and that Vivian Fung piece I heard about. Sure prepared piano is nothing new–It’s been done, but it never ceases to be astounding!

VC: The sound of a prepared piano never ceases to fascinate me. I love how the most recognizable instrument of all could become completely transformed into a new one. Thank you John Cage!….and George Crumb…and all of the composers who write using this extended technique so well. Just as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are considered the old and new testament for pianists, I consider Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes as a 20th century testament for the 21st century pianist or something of that emphasis of how important I think these pieces are. I would say the same for the Ligeti Piano Etudes. One of the downside of playing pieces written for prepared piano and any inside piano playing is it usually takes a lot of time to prepare (for example, the Cage Sonatas and Interludes) or it usually alarms the piano technician of the venue. Pieces like the one Andy Akiho wrote for me and Vicki Ray of the California E.A.R. Unit takes the least amount of time to prepare. It’s clever and makes it easy to take on the road with me to perform. Vivian Fung’s piece titled Glimpses utilizes three different types of preparations for each of the three movements. Each movement ends up sounding very different from one another but it takes a few minutes between to take out preparations and put in new ones. This is when I usually try to tell a funny story to kill time. Ha! For example, when I’m inserting the dimes into the piano for Andy Akiho’s piece, I usually like to tell the story of Andy handing me the music page by page, one week before the premiere of the piece at the Stone in November 2008. He gave me the last page a couple hours before the show!

Vicky Chow at The Stone (excerpts from pieces by Andy Akiho, Vivian Fung, Helmut Lachenmann and Ryan Francis performed at The Stone, NYC, 2/2/11; Video courtesy of Meg Wilhoite)

CM: There is yet another project of yours called Contagious Sounds where you are the curator of a series of concerts held at the Gershwin Hotel. How did this get started?

VC: Back when I was at Juilliard when I first started performing new music, I decided to put together a concert featuring all of the composers I knew. Since my interest for new sounds were relatively new at the time, I knew only five composers. I chose 2 pieces from each composer consisting of solos, duos, quartets and quintets and gathered other fellow musicians who were interested in working on new works. The composers were Ryan Francis, Mathew Fuerst, Felipe Lara, Wei-Chieh Lin, and Zhou Tian. It was held at the Chelsea Art Museum. From there, I began putting together more and more of my own projects, finding friends to work on music we liked and finding alternative venues. I came across the Gershwin Hotel one time when I went to a performance of Frederic Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ by Amir Khosrowpour. A year ago, Neke asked if I’d like to do projects there more frequently so I decided to curate a new music series there which I now call Contagious Sounds. I’m really fortunate to know so many talented people and many of them have performed on the series. It’s spans from solo saxophone and farfisa organ improvisations by Keir Neuringer to award-winning San-Francisco based Del Sol String Quartet and premieres of works by composers Tristan Perich, Robert Honstein, Ian Dicke, Angelica Negron, Neil Rolnick, and many more! I really admire what John Zorn has done throughout his multi-faceted career and one of the things it entails is his venue The Stone. Not to say that my series or the Gershwin Hotel is anything like The Stone but what it has in common is that it gives creative freedom entirely to the artist. I want it to be a place where they feel comfortable exploring areas of music that they are currently exploring. Lastly, I want to be only a few feet away from the performer, feeling the vibrations of sound as they create it. The audience can find that there at the Gershwin.

Andy Akiho: Written Yesterday (Vicky Chow, prepared piano; Andy Akiho, prepared steel pan; Gershwin Hotel, NYC, 11/29/07)

CM: Any cool commissions/projects coming up?

VC: Tristan Perich and I are collaborating on an evening length piece for 2013. It’s going to be really amazing! Through the Fromm Foundation, I will be working with Neil Rolnick and fellow Canadian Ronald Bruce Smith on two separate large multi-movement works for piano and live electronics. I’m beginning recording on my next album of solo works and I’ll be recording all of Evan Ziporyn’s piano music. I think these projects will keep me busy for a little while!

Cage: Sonatas I-III for Prepared Piano (performed at Manhattan School of Music, 5/11/09)

Vicky’s Official site

Countagious Sounds Series
Official site for Vicky’s Contagious Sounds project

Vicky’s YouTube page

Vicky’s page on Bang On a Can


5 thoughts on “Vicky Chow

  1. This post is a treasure trove! (I hope I’m not repeating myself . . .) First off, that Chow performed Prokofiev’s #3 at 10 years old, well, she can do anything she wants after that, no? I was quite interested to learn that the pivot point for her turn to contemporary/new music was Zhou Tian. I stumbled across his work in my explorations last year and quite liked what I heard. Very hard to see where he is or what he’s up to these days. Might be an interesting thread to follow. Do you know whether Chow keeps up with him/performs any of his music these days?

  2. Susan, yes I was quite shocked when she told me she was playing Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto at age 10! That’s quite prodigious isn’t it? 🙂 And progressive for a child! But as for Zhou Tian, I think she still does talk to him. A lot of these people make so many friends during the study years, and they are often also in the process of cultivating a career in music. Ashley Bathgate has made many friends from her years at Yale as well, and 2 of them are figures you may have heard of in the new music scene: Timo Andres and Missy Mazzoli! Thanks so much for reading again!

  3. Pingback: Evan Ziporyn « The Glass

  4. A reblogué ceci sur (L) ivre libre and commented:
    une grande pianiste et oui ! je trouve qu’il y a une communauté d’artistes musiciens extrèmement active et passionante dans ce cercle américain et canadien , comme pour les écrivain aussi , de quoi donner envie d’y participer

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