Conrad Tao was never just another prodigy
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Conrad Tao was never just another prodigy
Musician Conrad Tao, who has a new album, “American Rage,” and an upcoming debut at Carnegie Hall, at his home in the Bronx, on Oct. 28, 2019. Whipping between the establishment and the avant-garde, the pianist and composer is a rising star at 25. Gioncarlo Valentine/The New York Times.

by Gioncarlo Valentine

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Conrad Tao tends to slip into celestial metaphors. During a recent interview, this musician — a veteran at just 25 — referred to his ideas about concert programming as “constellatory.” When he thought he was rambling, he cut himself off and apologized for “galaxy-braining.”

Here’s another one: He’s a rising star — both as a concert pianist, with a new album and a Carnegie Hall debut this fall, and as a composer, attracting commissions from the likes of the New York Philharmonic. He is also part of the first generation of artists to have been raised on the internet, which has informed his music and relationships, and offered a playground for his omnivorous taste and curiosity.

If the online world can seem at times overwhelming and scattered, so does Tao’s schedule: oscillating between the establishment and avant-garde; writing new pieces in between gigs; and using what little time he has left over for collaborations with like-minded contemporaries.

“I try to recognize how lucky I am,” said Tao, who has been playing professionally since an age when most children haven’t even begun to learn algebra. “I am pursuing all this partially because I have a modicum of security. For me that’s also what gives me a strong sense of responsibility that I pursue a more personal path. And I want to share it.”

He will share some of it Nov. 20, when he makes his debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, in a program that includes contemporary music alongside classics by Bach, Rachmaninoff and Schumann.

“I love putting together a program,” he said. “I get to think like a composer while also performing like a pianist. In this, I’m playing with applause breaks more intentionally and experimenting with juxtapositions. Like when I put Bach and Elliott Carter together, I’m not suturing the gap between them, but maybe one can hear both a little differently.”

Tao talks a lot; his friend Charmaine Lee, a vocalist and improviser, described him as being “in perpetual interview mode.” He seems to always be scrutinizing, not only the world around him, but also his own ideas as they’re formed. Days after discussing the Carnegie program, he sent a long text message adding to his thoughts about the recital format and the audience’s role in it, how their listening — “to the totality of the concert space, the hiss of the ventilation system, the breath or lack thereof of an audience, phones and crinkles and the like” — can be “the site of music-making.”

It’s easy, given Tao’s rigorous attention to his programs and their possible readings, to take his latest album, “American Rage,” as a political statement about the present. But, he’s quick to point out, the selections began as a 2015 recital. “It’s not just a post-Trump thing,” he said, waving his hands as if to stop a moving train.

Tao, who had gone into the studio to record three Mozart sonatas, also laid down the tracks that became “American Rage”; he doesn’t know what will come of that planned Mozart album. What he ended up with is a program whose concerns are more historical than ripped-from-the-headlines. It opens and closes with pieces by Frederic Rzewski, the master of furiously political music, inspired by past examples of labor unrest; in between are Copland’s Piano Sonata and Julia Wolfe’s “Compassion.”

Tao’s playing shines in extremity, through the muscular chords of the Wolfe piece — her raw response to the Sept. 11 attacks — and the bitterness of the Rzewski selections. These works also bring out new darkness in Copland’s sonata, which Tao said he views as a work “of rage and reflection and resignation.”

“Which Side Are You On?” — a Rzewski piece based on a 1931 protest song — features an extended improvisation, which has become integral to Tao’s performance practice over the past few years. It’s a far cry from the standard repertory with which he began his career.

Tao grew up in the Midwest and Manhattan, with a climate scientist for a mother and a telecommunications engineer for a father. Having begun to play professionally by the age of 11, he got a manager when he was 12 and toured with showpieces like Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.

“I think I’ve been in denial a little bit about how unusual my life is,” said Tao, who was also a violin prodigy. “It probably messed with me in ways that I’ve only begun to understand.”

One of his earliest jobs was as a standby for a North American tour by the cancellation-prone piano legend Martha Argerich. Tao was 13, dreading how an audience might react to learning that he was their soloist instead of Argerich. (Luckily, that never happened.) During these first years, Tao spent most of his time with his parents when many children would want to do the opposite; only now, he said, have they admitted how scared they were for him.

Through a mixture of self-motivation and guidance from teachers, Tao was introduced to the work of living composers: Steve Reich, John Adams, the Bang on a Can crowd. And the internet expanded his musical taste beyond classical music; as a teenager, he was active on Tumblr and 4chan, and spent countless hours on YouTube.

These websites, he said, were “an enormous help, super useful for someone living in a bunch of beige boxes and taking a lot of planes.” He was coming into his own as an artist during a time when lo-fi, DIY music flourished on blogs and Bandcamp. He found that noise music tapped into his appetite for extremity; the dark subgenre of witch house became so ingrained in his bones that, he said, “it will never leave.”

“Knowledge systems seemed so calcified and hierarchical in the conservatory system,” Tao recalled. “With computer music, you didn’t have to play an instrument. I appreciated the low pressure of this music-making.”

He would post playful experiments, a lot of them made with GarageBand, to the music board of 4chan and other sites — always anonymously. Sometimes, though, his work would go viral and he would be outed; among his greatest hits is a haunting mashup of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and the “Twin Peaks” theme song.

Nowadays Tao is online less than he used to be. Like many people his age, he still falls into long bouts on YouTube and Instagram, but for the most part, he said, “I actually am out living a life, not cobbling a sense of self together anymore.”

The internet, however, still permeates his music. His friend Jay Campbell, the JACK Quartet’s cellist and a member of the Junction Trio with Tao and violinist Stefan Jackiw, recalled Tao’s Nightcap performance with the New York Philharmonic last year.

Following the premiere of “Everything Must Go,” his Bruckner curtain raiser for the full orchestra, he gave an intimate concert that included improvisations with Lee and tap dancer Caleb Teicher. At one point, Campbell recalled, Tao played a Bruckner chorale that, put through the software Ableton, sounded like “a chorus of anime characters.”

“For me, that’s so distinctly internet-y,” Campbell said. “But because he understands practice and context and how to build narrative, it becomes touching.”

That may also be because Tao is obsessed with his music reflecting the particular humans playing it. It’s an idea that he has been exploring lately in chamber music and improvisation, but it doesn’t necessarily scale to the orchestral playing, in which premieres are given little rehearsal time and intimate sounds struggle to be heard. Indeed, the symphonic form raises a whole set of other questions for Tao: “How much do I pretend I can control all these forces, and can I embrace how much I can’t?”

Where he can exert the most control is in smaller collaborations with friends, who tend to be prodigies in their own fields. Teicher is roughly Tao’s age but has already found widespread success in the tap world. Together, they received an evening-length commission from the Guggenheim Museum: the wistful “More Forever,” which premiered earlier this year.

And Tao’s work with Lee, whose vocabulary of sounds recalls the internet culture of ASMR, has been transformative. Through her, he said, “I got to think of improvisation as a mode of social interaction, which really changed everything about my music-making.” Their most recent appearance together was at the Resonant Bodies Festival in Brooklyn this summer; Lee said they plan to record an album soon.

“I feel artistically young, because I’m at the beginning of so many things,” Tao said. “I am figuring stuff out, but with faith that whatever I do is me.”

This is what Tao’s friends admire about him, even if his dense and varied schedule means they don’t see him for months at a time. “He’s constantly pushing himself into new, unfamiliar territories,” Campbell said. “You don’t see that with a lot of soloists. You see them and think, ‘What century are we in?’ Then you see Conrad.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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