Dear Conor, Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on behalf of our HocTok audience. You’ve performed with some of the most talented instrumentalists, conductors, ensembles, composers. Can you share with us one or two of your most memorable moments from all these amazing collaborative experiences?
No doubt I am undeservingly lucky when it comes to the people I’ve worked with and the colleagues I get to call friends. I’ve collaborated with musicians who’ve not only elevated my musicianship, but who’ve literally redefined the standards by which I even consider musicianship. This was certainly true working with giants like James Levine, or Pierre Boulez, who would routinely displayed his god-like aural gifts by, for instance, solfège’ing out of thin air a correction in the viola part, at pitch and in rhythm, of an ensemble work Elliott Carter. The line would have been buried beneath a dense bramble of notes in other instruments, which, after correcting the viola, Boulez would similarly adjust for intonation, ensemble accuracy, and dynamics, all from memory. That type of musical command was awe-inspiring.
Ditto working with my colleagues. My friend and long-time collaborator Jay, for example, is a scary-gifted cellist. He is also fearsomely original, and working together helped reconfigure my idea of what sound could do; as in, the actions it could take. We never talked about what our instruments could or couldn’t do, but instead tried to figure out something essential about the music we were playing and what that might mean in terms of sonority. Sounds simple, but one has to do with something physical, the other has to do with imagination. Understanding this in a tangible way, through actual work with another person, was essential to my musicianship and informs so much of my work at the piano.
When you travel around the country for performances, what do you look forward to exploring and experiencing outside of the performing venue? What is the biggest treat of having the opportunity to perform for audiences around the country and throughout the world?
For me, it is still really a pleasure to travel. I say “still” because despite my appreciation for it now, I can imagine a future life where I do less of it and that also being pretty great. For now though, I love experiencing the unexpected charms of new locales—eating good food, sleuthing for the best coffee. Earlier in the year I was in Birmingham, Alabama, a place I probably would have missed if it were not for a performance engagement. But, woah, Birmingham! Good times were had there. Ditto Charlottesville, Virginia; Bellingham, Washington; Albuquerque, New Mexico. Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, et al, are fine, too.
In terms of what I enjoy about sharing music with these audiences, it’s really the same anywhere —I enjoy sharing art with receptive ears. In a more selfish way, I enjoy the palpable magnetism —on good days—of having audiences “go there” with you. So much of music-making is about telling stories with sound—carrying the narrative thread, creating structure, giving almost voyeuristic access one minute and exploding your listener’s sense of expectation the next. When these elements are humming along, the experience of performing is as interactive and giving as the experience of listening.
Who are the composers and repertoire you’ll never get tired of listening to?
In terms of pieces I love listening to and exploring: Masterpieces like the Art of Fugue, or something like Winterreise always make it onto people’s desert island list. They’re no-brainers in a way. But there is so much else.
For the sake of variety and focus, I’ll stick to ten mostly recent pieces of so-called “classical” music, one of which maybe being an ambient work for Moog Synthesizer.
-Hans Abrahamsen, Let Me Tell You -Pierre Boulez, Répons -Unsuk Chin, Piano Etudes -Morton Feldman, String Quartet and Piano -Gerard Grisey, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil -Qasim Naqvi, Chronology -Andrew Norman, Play -Kate Soper, Voices from the Killing Jar -Anna Thorvaldsdottir, In the Light of Air -Eric Wubbels, "the children of fire come looking for fire”
When it comes to music of our time, what are the qualities you look for in new works and who are the composers you enjoy collaborating with?
The answer to the first part of this question shifts a lot. In a very basic way, I’m most drawn to the aspects of a new piece that most demand I be drawn to them. At this very moment that means pieces that mix really weird sounds and really beautiful harmony.
Perhaps I can say more generally that I’m drawn to music that explores consonance and dissonance, which I realize is basically all of music, but I mean it here in a broader, more figurative way. The way I’m thinking of it has something closer to do with a musical “control” — like in a science experiment — and the ways in which the control is related to an array of mutations and deformities and irregularities. A lot of really awesome music does this. Actually, a lot of the music on the above list does this.
In part, this is why I’m currently obsessed with the music of Eric Wubbels, with whom I’m also hatching a few projects. His music is somehow elemental, rhapsodic, and ordered all at the same time. Elemental because of its use of spectral harmony and justly tuned intervals; rhapsodic because of its range, virtuosity, and quickly-shifting characters; ordered because of its meticulous structuring and obsession with repetition. The way in which these elements interact in Eric’s music lights up my brain and hits me in the gut. In a good way.
Outside the world of music, what are you most passionate about and why?
I’m interested in fiction, politics, baseball, visual art, and willingly give myself over to obsessions stemming from various musical project. Those can eat up a lot of time. I also love carbohydrates: so, baking bread, exploring restaurants, and tasting local beer is all very important when not at the piano. Because of this, I run a lot, too.
Bread baking has a very appealing atomic quality to it, something very ur. Flour, salt, water, leaven. Somehow you get bread. I like that making small adjustments in the beginning stages always manifest in the end product. If you’re observant, you can trace these qualities back to the beginning and adjust. Then you start again, and over time a more perfect version emerges.
As a successful and highly talented musician, do you have or make time to get involved with the political, socio-economic, environmental issues the world faces today?
I appreciate the charitable premise of this question. In a word, yes; I make time. I try to contribute in meaningful ways to causes that are important to me and offer my time when possible. It helps with not feeling like we’re all in The Upside-Down.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met lately?
Semi-fake answer: Helga Davis. I admit to not knowing her very well despite us both working at Q2 Music, but I do admit to feeling like I know her well because of listening to her podcast, “Helga.” It’s a marvel of honesty and truth and intimacy, the conversations you wish you could always have.
Real answer: Rinde Eckert. He is a wonder.
The most impressive event you can’t wait for is ... Thomas Adés’s new opera The Exterminating Angel, which The Met Opera presents next year. The opera is based on the 1962 film by Luis Buñuel of the same name and is about a group of bourgeois characters who find themselves at a dinner party from which they mysteriously can’t leave. The opera was premiered in London last year and from all accounts people went Ape Shit for it. Plus there’s an ondes martinet in the orchestra.