Like many formerly globetrotting musicians, Conrad Tao is grounded until further notice. Unsurprisingly, the Manhattan-based pianist has filled his schedule with playing remote performances: He streamed a recital from Caramoor, a summer festival destination just north of New York City; he stormed through Frederic Rzewski’s “Which Side Are You On?” during an online Bang on a Can marathon; he recorded a program at Tanglewood’s Studio E for the online festival’s Great Performers series — which will be available starting this Saturday evening.
But in his own time, Tao is choosy about which livestreams he tunes into. He’s already online to keep up with the news and housing justice efforts. What he needs, he says, is a “sense of community” — like in an experimental music Facebook group where he often attends a weekly open mic, sometimes performing and sometimes just listening.
“Everyone’s individually going live for agreed-upon 10-minute sets, which means you’re not watching a single passive livestream. You have to keep up and figure out who’s going live,” he said via Zoom from his New York apartment. “It requires some effort — but another way of thinking about it is that it demands active participation.”
Tao was originally on the books to play a Mozart concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in mid-August. His replacement solo program for Tanglewood’s online festival is more adventurous, including music by Tania León, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Felipe Lara, David Lang, and one piece of his own. A Beethoven sonata fills the slot of the “token standard repertoire piece.”
In the weeks before and after the recording session, Tao spent time responding to calls for allies and supplies at Abolition Park, an encampment of activists that originally sprang up to call for cuts to police funding but quickly incorporated community care when New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity and homelessness started showing up. Police raided the encampment in late July.
Tao grew reflective as he recounted his experiences there; in the weeks since the raid, the atmosphere of hope and generosity he noticed there has somewhat dissipated. However, the lessons he learned remain. “It grew from a strategic attempt at getting a very specific demand, to a community project that was about proposing other ways of taking care of one another. And to get to witness that in any way... I’m very grateful I had that.”
Q. About the Tanglewood recital — what was the recording experience like, playing to robotic cameras?
A. It was nice. There were additional people helping to make sure that everything was running fine — spaced apart and everything, but it didn’t feel like I was totally playing to nothing.
But it was weird. It was a sort of in-between space between a recording session and a performance. It was an interesting balance, trying to maintain fealty to the spontaneity of a performance and then having the ability to think of it as a recording, thinking “Do I want to change anything? Do I want to go back?”
Q. Broadly speaking, what do you wish audiences would ask more?
A. The question I really wish audiences would ask them themselves more is “How do I feel about this?” Which I think is inevitably wrapped up with, “How am I thinking about this? Why am I thinking about it this way?”
My biggest frustration about the culture around this music is that it is also a culture in which oftentimes people are trying to prove themselves, or prove something about themselves, via their tastes. I have my political disagreements with that as a mode, but also I’m just like — are you listening, then? Like, are you actually letting the music affect you?
Q. I mean, if you don’t, it’s just using concert music as a status symbol instead of something you’re actually engaging with.
A. Exactly. As a signifier. I’m quite familiar with those dynamics of class, because I’ve been in this industry since I was 12 years old, and I have firsthand experience of being courted by the echelon that is on boards, or heads of boards. I have experience with what this music can mean in those contexts, and I have objections to that. More than anything it bums me out because I love this music, and this is not the way to get to that deep relationship with this music. The way that you get to a real deeply affirmed love for this music is through criticality, and through curiosity, and through digging into what the music has meant to you and why that might be.
Sometimes when I talk about this, the resistance I encounter is usually like, “Don’t you like anything? Like, why are you complaining all the time?” Sometimes, people are just afraid, like, “No, you can’t destroy this, we’re gonna lose it!”
And I think I get it, emotionally. I think I understand where people are coming from. But I’m not that worried about the music going away, because I know the music is real. I know that I have this deep lived experience with this music and also in life, with my friends and the people I care about. These are very deep, real things.
Now that I’m saying it out loud, I’m resistant to necessarily characterizing it as an audience problem. I feel like it might be a status quo issue. But this notion of relating to the music or supporting it that is primarily about maintaining its sheen — strikes me as the wrong approach. I’m just like, that’s not how you push the work forward. That’s not how you appreciate it.
Q. What’s your favorite place on the Internet these days?
A. We are a few years past my happiest days online, but I think that’s true for many of us. Tom and Lorenzo [bloggers on fashion, costumes, and celebrity culture] is maybe one candidate — it’s one of the few places of escapism that is self aware, and smart, and funny.
Every place I go is more utilitarian now. The last expressive online space that I engage in is Instagram. I like the expressive container of the Instagram story, and I appreciate the ephemerality of that.
CONRAD TAO AT TANGLEWOOD
Available 8 p.m., Aug. 15. $12. www.tanglewood.org
Interview was edited and condensed. Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.