INTERVIEW: Jenny Q Chai

Hi Jenny, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I’m doing very well, thank you. I’ve been traveling between three continents, right now in Shanghai, where I opened my music school and cultural exchange center FaceArt Institute of Music (FAIM) 9 years ago, with Polish pianist Piotr Tomasz from Juilliard.

What inspired you to choose Drei Klavierstücke Op. 11 (Three Piano Pieces) for your latest release?

I’ve always loved the piece. It’s one of those pieces that made a strong impression on me when I started getting into classical contemporary music about 10 years ago, and it is also a milestone in the development of Classical music history of our more recent era. The piece is 110 years old, as of 2019. But it is still not as known and heard as often.

What’s the story behind the title for “Rough Love”?

For me, the piece is completely an expressionist piece of art. It is in the free atonal period of Schoenberg’s writing, which I find freer and even more expressive than his later pieces written with his later invented Twelve-Tone theory.

I called it Rough Love, also because of the very personal happenings of Schoenberg’s life that time, was reflected in these works. He found out his wife was having an affair with his painting teacher, who was much younger than him and was his friend. Then he convinced his wife to leave the affair and she went back to him. Then he walked into the painter’s home (they lived very close by) and found him hung above his paintings, burnt together with his paintings. Can you imagine the torment and shock he went through? And all their very explosive and expressionist expressions, for love.

I believe you can hear all the intense feelings, torment, explosion, guilt, love, with the harmonic richness and phrasing gestures in this work.

How was the recording process?

It was a live recording I did many years ago. I felt very personal with the time which I was learning and performing the piece, during my student years when I first got fascinated with modern and contemporary music. Releasing this recording is really more about fulfilling my own personal wish of releasing that period of me.

How does the concept of free atonality influence some of your own material?

I can’t really answer this because I do not really compose my own works. I co-compose with composers and we come up with ideas, images, stories, and develop music and technology like AI score-following software Antescofo. Antescofo uses AI algorithms to recognize within 10-20 ms every note that is played by me, anticipating my intentions, constantly adjust its predictions and trigger frames of videos and electronic sounds  to match the continuously fluctuation tempo of my live performance. It is like performing chamber music, and a visual artist, except I’m performing with AI.

I guess what I can say about the influence of free atonal pieces, like this Schoenberg’s piece, in my own development and growing path with contemporary music was a fundamental door opening step. Without this, I would not be able to go deeper into the more experimental and technological works I do now. It freed me up from a very Classically trained and wired pianist to an artist swimming in the vast open sea of other music after 1900.

Congrats on your new role at the University of California! Tell us how it feels to be starting your new role there.

I’m still getting the gist of it.

It feels wonderful to be part of such a welcoming community! There are so many amazingly high profile composers there, who are virtuoso in electronic music. We are developing new programs, like having 10 Bay Area composers rewrite Bach Goldberg Variations for me with electronic music, many of them will develop their own electronic instruments. I’m so excited about it.

How does modern technology influence the way you approach performing and composing on Piano?

I think I already touched this question. At least the technological side of it. I think it’s a much more all-involving process. Because, from the beginning of developing an idea with a composer, we need to go for many residencies to work on developing the technology with my piano part together. Each work could take more than 1 year to be developed. Unlike playing Classical works that are already written, it’s much more personal, like they are my babies I raised up.

Can we expect more material from Jenny Q Chai in 2020?

Yes, before I embark on the huge new Goldberg project, I want to finish another personal project first. I will be recording Ives Alcotts and Schumann Kreisleriana this month at Berkeley. I’ve lived with Kreisleriana for 17 years and it is absolutely one of my favorite pieces. Schumann, although being a romantic composer, was a really forward looking composer with contemporary mindset. I performed Keisleriana at my Carnegie debut and was praised by NY Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini, which started my performing career. It adds another layer of personal feelings to this piece for me.

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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