Interview with Zubin Kanga

Zubin Kanga was in Perth touring “Cyborg Pianist”, a new program of multi-media works commissioned to Australian and European composers. I caught up with him at the WA Academy of Performing Arts where he had been rehearsing John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes” for upcoming shows over east. The pianist spoke with the same intensity present in his performances, and seemed energized by various artistic projects as well as his current research at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

A big part of your practice involves collaborating with contemporary composers, commissioning works from young and established ones alike. What kind of relationship develops between you and the composers you work with?

This was the subject of my PhD actually, I looked at whether there is a difference in working with someone who is younger or a more senior composer. But I found that composers of similar seniority and standing had very diverse approaches. George Benjamin, for example, is someone who is very precise about what he notates and the workshops focus on all those details, while Michael Finnissy is very much about drawing the performer into the notation, leaving dynamics and articulations off the score and saying “I want you to show me whether it’s forte or piano”. So it was more about the attitude of the composer rather than seniority, and both these approaches by these composers to the workshop were well tailored to complement their scores.  There were other similar explorations of factors that affect the collaborative process: when using graphic notation the relationship changes, because you need to talk about what are you going to do; or if you are working with technology, the technology takes so much of your focus. The most interesting collaborations are the ones you develop over several commissions. You develop a common language and composers get to know what you like to do, what are good at and what you enjoy doing on stage.

On the subject of graphic notation, you have performed David Young’s “Not Music Yet” a piece whose score is an abstract watercolor painting. What possibilities do you find in graphic notation compared to traditional notation?

Graphic notation is in a way an old movement dating back at least to the graphic scores of John Cage in the fifties, when it was in vogue. But now composers are coming back and reassessing it. David Young produces notation as a watercolor painting that is much more free and performative in itself than those older printed scores, but he is very specific in the realization. You play each color in turn – the black, then white, then blue – the pitch is specific as well as the duration, as you either have a 7 minute version or a 42 minute version. So there is an interesting tension between the loose character of the painting and the strictness of the instructions. From those experiments new types of notation are emerging, Aaron Cassidy writes tablature lines specifying every parameter of performance, like the angle of the bow or the position of each finger. New approaches to notation allow these new ways of choreographing the musician or drawing a different type of performance out of them.     

Choreography is an interesting term for it. Your current tour “Cyborg Pianist” explores extending the piano as an instrument but also the extending the body of the performer. When did you become interested in more theatrical practices?

When I went to London, one of my teachers was Rolf Hind, who has been a major figure in the UK, he has always had this interesting left-field side to what he does. He worked with major figures George Benjamin and Olivier Messiaen, but his first record deal was with Factory Records, which was at the centre of the 80’s British eighties alternative music scene with bands like Joy Division. He released two albums with them, played Ligeti at clubs and worked with contemporary dance groups so he was working outside of the classical scene from very early on. He showed me pieces where he uses movement and extended techniques inside the piano such as his own work “Towers of Silence”, and there is a certain choreography to how you do that, moving to play inside the piano and back to the keyboard in an elegant way. There were also works like Claudia Molitor’s “Tango” which had explicit choreography, performing yoga moves around and on the piano. So playing the repertoire that was written for him I began to think about the visual aspect of performance, because music is not a just sonic medium, it is an audio-visual medium.

A few of the works in Cyborg Pianist, like Johannes Kreidler’s “Study for piano, electronics and video” and Adam de la Cour’s “Transplant, the movie!”, are parodies on music and culture . Can you expand on the concepts these works explore?

There has always been theatrical and absurdist music since the sixties and seventies, but in the last ten years there has developed this new scene, particularly in the UK, Denmark, Germany some other pockets around Europe. Composer Jennifer Walsh wrote an article recently, calling it the “New Discipline” and named Matthew Shlomowitz, Kreidler, Simon Steen-Andersen and others as composers in a kind of new scene or genre drawing on diverse influences like film, video art, stand-up comedy, the internet and pop culture. In this recital, Adam de la Cour is commenting on the piano tradition while a horror movie is shown on screen; while Kreidler explores the idea of being overwhelmed by multiple TV screens where there is so much happening at once but at the same time everything on the screens is so similar. And Neil Luck draws on B-movie sci-fi influences in his work about mutant pianists of the future. It is an interesting scene and an important new development in Europe, and I wanted to bring some of that repertoire to Australia as it hasn’t been seen here that much. 

Michael Finnissy wrote a piece for you titled Z/K, what can you tell us about this work?

Z/K is a portrait of the history of the symphony and also portrait of me as well. It takes as a model an early symphony by Sammartini who was one of the first symphonic writers in the early 18th century; and then uses material that is sort of Second Viennese school, like Berg and Mahler, and constantly transitioning between those two. It’s a very different approach to the referencing of older canonical works in the works I’m playing on this tour by Kreidler, Ricketson, Whale, and de la Cour, but what all these composers have in common is that they are commenting on the past as a way of looking forward to the future.