Sonic bloom

Pianist Conrad Tao uses 21st century tools to question classical music's place in the modern world, writes Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 10:40pm

WHAT IS THE POSITION of classical music in modern culture? How can such a long-established art form overcome the constraints placed on it by its history? These are some of the questions that Conrad Tao, 19, a former child prodigy who is now a lauded concert pianist, seeks to answer.

Tao, who gave his first piano recital at the age of four, has made a name for himself touring the world, playing with well-known orchestras, including the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

In June, Tao released his first full-length CD, Voyages, which sets standard works such as Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit next to some of his own compositions, one of which features an accompaniment from Reactable, an iPad app. He has also recently curated and performed at a three-night multimedia show, called the Unplay Festival, in the New York borough of Brooklyn. The show featured video art, a tap dancer who provided the rhythm for Tao’s own composition leaves, and laptop computer ensemble Sideband.

The idea for both album and show, Tao says, is to try and explore what classical music is – and can be – in the modern digital age.

“Unplay is about challenging the preconceptions of contemporary classical music,” he says. “That is a narrow conception in many people’s minds. I am aiming to juxtapose elements, and by doing so, create surprises.

“One of the most important things that artists can do is provide a counterpoint, critique or commentary on the culture which surrounds them,” he says. “When we revisit older works, through programming them in a certain way, we can ask questions, and make a commentary. Programming is a very powerful tool, if used correctly.”

Unplay was an attempt, Tao says, to put forward ideas about where contemporary classical music in general could go in the future.

“It looked at ways we could continue to think about classical music and contemporary classical music,” he says. “It was an attempt to put all the ideas I had into practice.”

Tao, who likes compiling playlists, says the internet has allowed him to listen to a more varied selection than was available to musicians of the pre-digital age. This has become an important influence on his ideas.

“It’s given me a wide frame of reference, and out of that, I am trying to create something new, without forgetting [the musical cultures and genres] that all the different elements came from,” he says. “I draw on many different sources with my programming. I’m trying to create something that draws on pre-existing forms and also looks for something new – an individual voice.”

Replay, the second night of the festival, was “an interrogation of the standard repertoire”, says Tao. The selection included works by Ravel, John Cage, Steve Reich and John Adams. It was an attempt to see if views of classical music could be changed by playing seminal works of the late 20th century alongside older works such as that of Ravel, which dates from 1908.

Tao says that he didn’t find an answer, but “that’s not the way I look at things. It inspired more questions”.

Tao was born in Illinois, but his parents are from the mainland. His father is an engineer and his mother is a climatology professor. Both studied for their doctorates at Princeton University. They were in the US at the time of the Tiananmen crackdown and decided not to return to Beijing.

A piano teacher noticed Conrad’s talent when he was just two years old, when he played a piano bought for his sister Connie. He says that, although his skills have made his life unusual, his parents never pushed him to do anything he didn’t want to do.

Tao says that his debut full-length album Voyages was an act of curation like Unplay: a kind of personal playlist.

He says that he had “free reign” to record what he wanted, and it enabled him to test out his ideas.

“I definitely think I ‘curated’ this album,” he says. “As someone who likes playlist culture, I am also very devoted to the sequence of tracks on an album. I like to listen to albums because I think the artist put them in that order in the manner of a playlist.

You can shape the experience of the listener, as in a live setting. It’s a bit of a cliché to say so, but I think an album provides an experience.”