What am I pulling you out of? What are you doing with your “off-season”?
Haha, my “off-season”! I do a bunch of activist things, and this is the first time I’m meeting with Awaken Dance Theater, a New York based ballet company. We’re doing [the piano version] Jospeh Hayden’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross. I’ve been working on the background stuff for this for five years. And then, this year I got in contact with this dance company who also do a lot of pieces that have an activist role – they’re doing something on climate change, they’re doing something on the election, so it seems like a good fit for this project.
Well, that sounds like a pretty solid side-gig you’ve got going on!
Well, there’s a lot of stuff! I’m also producing a CD, most of which is Bach. There’s levels to this: I had a head injury when I was 18 years old. I was in the hospital for a month, I went through operations, and blah blah blah. When I was in the hospital, I had basically nothing to do all day, so I just could listen to music. It was through the music of Bach [that made me decide] to become a musician.
Another part of the activist work I do is about mental health awareness. So along with the release of the CD, I’m also putting together a bunch of concerts that draw attention to mental illness in the arts, because it’s still a huge taboo to talk about. If you look at musical history, there’s so many instances of mental illnesses that get covered up. Beethoven, for example, wrote 300 conversational books when he went deaf with his friends and colleagues, and it portrayed a very negative impression of life. He writes that he wants to commit suicide when he figured out that he was going deaf. He also had bipolar. But when he died, his caretaker destroyed over 2/3rds of the books so the only responses that were left were more positive impressions. [Robert] Schumann also had bipolar and tried to commit suicide three times. After he died, Clara [Schumann] and [Johannes] Brahms destroyed some of his music that was “tainted by his madness.” Why are these issues, these things that make us so human, that create our emotional range and inspiration, why are we covering these up?
Parts of the funds from the CD is also going to be going to go towards the National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI]. I’m also pairing up with local branches of NAMI and Active Minds, where I’m doing performances to talk about these issues, with hope that people feel more comfortable talking about [these issues] and see what great contributions these people have given to our world. Not coming from this point of view that art comes from tragedy, but that everybody can create beauty regardless of where you’re coming from. It’s a positive way to promote this blank playing field where we’re all feeling the same things, and can all relate to the same piece of music.
It sounds like a lot of the work you’re doing involves a great deal of “unseen labor,” that your audiences don’t see when you’re performing piano. How do you find the balance between your artistry and your activism?
I think that they go hand in hand! I don’t think you can separate. I think people go into the arts with very strong opinions and with a point of view. I think it’s the industry itself that causes us to water those opinions down. It’s become so specialized today that we’ve kind of lost track of the greater meaning of what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s vital for me to go beyond this “concert hall” veneer, which is wonderful and powerful, but it also excludes a lot of people. It’s very intimidating for somebody to come into that atmosphere and not be familiar with the etiquette. It’s not something that is relaxing. To me, the point of music is to remove us from this world and to promote community.
This is what makes [LAMF] so great, because you do bring people to concerts. You fill up the halls. It’s a very user friendly atmosphere [that’s been] created. It’s beautiful to see. A lot of classical music venues don’t accomplish that.
So with everything going on right now, how are you making time for us?
I love performing. So if I have a chance to play, I’m on that bandwagon. Also, if you can bring one person in an audience to place where they get a visceral reaction from the experience it’s worth it. Whether it’s 10 people or it’s a thousand people, it doesn’t matter. The point is trying to find something to move somebody other than yourself. A lot of the concerts that I do are not for public consumption. I’m recently did a concert at a center for blind people, for their mental health program. I didn’t get any money from that, and I didn’t get any publicity from it. But if I can bring the art form that I know best to make somebody else’s life better, even if it’s just one person for five minutes, it’s worth it.
Speaking of making people’s lives better, let’s talk about this program coming up! What inspired the folk music repertoire?
I think folk music is accessible for people if they don’t know classical music to begin with. Folk music is very much about emotions and contrast. So, while people feel that classical music is very “refined,” this harkens back to a more primordial sense of being, rather than these delicate curves and phrasing. It’s one of the art forms that have stood to test of time. And the fact that this music is still meaningful 300 years later shows to me that it is powerful on its own merit.
You’re also going to be teaching a masterclass. What does your education background look like?
I was artist in residence for an organization in 2015 that focused on educational works. If we want music to change in our country, it needs to start with the next generation. It’s vital to have music education in schools. The effects of it are undeniable. It helps raise test scores even for non-musical subjects, and yet, it’s often the first thing to be cut. But, when you have music education in schools [the students] don’t often see the results [of learning and practicing]. They play their own instruments, and when you’re starting, there’s a very big steep learning curve to go. So, if you can then work with them, and show them what the end result could be it gets more exciting for them. Kids can tell quality. And they’re honest with their reactions, which you don’t get from adults. They’re helping me have fun too, so it’s not as one-sided as you may think it is.
One final question: your bio notes you were accepted into Harvard for biomedical engineering. Any interest in ever returning to that?
Ahhhhhh … I would like to be earning the money! I’m scared of blood. I would love to be in medicine, on some level, but I am quite frankly petrified of blood. It’s just a different way of serving people, and in healing their physical ailments. And I’m more concerned now with the psychological side. Just surviving isn’t enough for me. How do we find happiness in this life? Can I create happiness in my life, can I create happiness in other people’s lives? That’s what I think music can do, that medicine can’t.