“They say art is long, life is short – only life is long and art is short; may its breath lift us to the Gods – That is an instant’s grace.” – copied by Ludwig van Beethoven into a conversation book, 1820
As an artist, I ask myself: Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my purpose as an artist? What are my responsibilities to art and to the world? And even before asking those questions, I asked, what is the purpose of art in toto? While studying in Germany with the brilliant French pianist and artist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, I would spend hours with him, perfecting every sound, every pedal, every grace note. And while I enjoyed this near feverish time of obsession with detail and perfection – even during this time, I questioned the meaning of art and of my work. It became a truly artistic existential dilemma for me.
When I think about these issues, my Curtis teacher, Seymour Lipkin, comes to my mind. My most vivid memory was of my 14-year-old self, playing a Ravel concerto during a regular lesson at his West End apartment. We were excited as he was accompanying me on the other piano, and he shared several ways in which to perfect my work. But then suddenly and without warning, he fell into a low place. He sat silently for some time, and when he finally spoke he said, “We spend so much time perfecting all the details in music. Yet sometimes I think, what difference does it make? The audience just wants you to play something loud and fast, and they will clap.”
In many ways, the dilemma he raised added to my existential questioning. What difference does it make? Or perhaps a more essential question, what difference can we make?
Mr. Lipkin died last year. A week from now, I’ll be at Carnegie, performing in his memorial concert. When I look back, I see that many people who loved him agree that he was a life force. Until the end of his time on earth, almost 90 years, he did not stop working – even touring China at age 87, playing Beethoven sonatas. He would come to many of my contemporary piano concerts and lectures, even braving Hurricane Sandy to hear me at Le Poisson Rouge.
Many years later, while visiting his apartment, I understood that despite some momentary dips he was one of those true musicians who never gave up. He lived his entire life purely for his love and passion for music. That in itself was inspiring to me. The difference he made in this world with his work and devotion moved me closer to answering my questions as to our purpose as musicians and artists.
In speaking of my questions during this time with German friends, they would say, “Come on, you make art! Art makes a huge difference in humanity!” That sounded vague and not very convincing, but I kept playing, teaching, and concertizing because making music is what I know best. I also began to observe the many different reasons musicians have for making music, beyond their shared love for the art. There were composers who wanted their music to live on in order to immortalize themselves, and performers who enjoyed the attention and the applause from their audience, taking reassurance from this adoration. Some simply can express their feelings only through music. Some find more comfort and intimacy with their instrument than with their lovers. Some who are visionaries who think they are elevating the world with their art.
For me, there really isn’t a right or wrong: The beauty of making music is that it means so many personal and important things to so many. So then, having spent almost my entire conscious life learning about music, what is my motivation for making it?
When a unique management company, Ariel Artists, invited me to be on their roster, their publicist began to refer to me as a storyteller. This was surprising to me at first: Although my concerts were frequently themed, I did not think of myself as “telling a story.” But I started to realize that more and more people were thinking of me as a performer who uses the piano to tell stories. This new realization was revelatory: If I was viewed as a storyteller, then what stories am I telling? And with this, I recognized that indeed, I bear responsibilities.
Once this occurred, and I became clearer about my social identity and responsibility, its expression through translation evolved more easily. It emerged that the purpose for me to be not just a classical pianist but a contemporary classical pianist is to reflect our time: thus, current social issues and important matters of our time, at the same time incorporating science and technology.
Residencies at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris with Stanford composer Jarosław (Jarek) Kapuscinski enabled me to use the score following artificial intelligence software Antescofo, invented by scientist Arshia Cont in collaboration with composer Marco Stroppa. Many of Jarek’s and my special needs to make the software follow my playing in real time, while also projecting specific note-to-note visual images and electronics, pushed the already cutting-edge scientific software even farther. It was fascinating to see the scientists programming together, releasing an update of this already famous software almost once every two weeks.
The idea of Acqua Alta (High Water) came to me about seven years ago, while engaged in my favorite Venetian pastime: sitting on the stairs across from the Ducal Palace, admiring its beyond-words condensation of beauty, grandeur, and simplicity. And then something happened: In less than 10 minutes, water covered the whole of San Marco Square, reaching up to my knees. I later learned that the Italians call this “Acqua Alta.” The mystery of its beauty, the overwhelming speed of the rising water, and the hidden, alarming trouble behind it captivated me. In my mind, I began to create a piano program that would reflect all parts of these facades.
When I raised the idea of an Acqua Alta program to Glenn Cornett, founder of the New York City concert venue Spectrum, he was excited. He called Dr. Ian Fenty, whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology dissertation investigated the ocean’s impact on the seasonal rhythm of Arctic sea ice, and asked him to provide visual data. I have not yet performed Acqua Alta at the Spectrum, but was able to perform John Cage’s Water Walk, a dream come true.
A few years later, when Ariel Management founder Oni Buchanan wanted to pick up the Acqua Alta program again, she established direct contact with Ian, who had become a scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles. When he heard the proposal to use climate data to enrich my program, he enthusiastically offered his support. Thus began the collaboration and birth of music and science for this program.
For two years afterward, Ian provided me with many visualizations of climate-change data videos, provided by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. I worked with composers who were interested to write for the program. Some used the NASA visualizations, and others developed their own pieces. Milica Paranosic wrote Bubble (in Trouble) for piano and electronics; Theodore Wiprud shot his own videos of water, and wrote a piece called Faces of the Deep based on his own relationship to the sea as a fisherman; digital artist Relja Penezic provided digital paintings related to water for me to match with existing music – one of them paired by his wife Victoria Jordanova’s piece Loveling.
Technologically speaking, perhaps the most outstanding work is Entropy by Cole Ingraham, who is a programmer and a composer. He wrote software specifically for Acqua Alta that integrates visual effects triggered by the piano’s sounds into the NASA visualizations during the performance. I have also chosen two unadulterated visualizations to pair with Ligeti’s Musica Ricercatas.
In late October at the University of Dayton in Ohio, Ian and I joined together for our first Acqua Alta performance. Before the concert, he presented a lecture on the science of global sea-level rise, in which he shared that global warming has caused levels to increase by more than 500 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution and more than 200 percent since the early 1990s, due to the accelerated melting of high-mountain glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctica Ice Sheets. Dr. Eileen Carr, director of the university’s ArtsLive program, juxtaposed the evening’s discussion of global warming’s terrible consequences with those offered to the American public during the presidential campaigns and national debates – which, as we all know, largely ignored the subject.
It was this event that allowed Ian and I to connect in person in Dayton, after seven years of brewing on the Acqua Alta idea. We met at breakfast, and it was somewhat miraculous: we talked instantly about everything, including life views, the meaning of words on different levels individually, culturally, and institutionally, psychoanalysis, veganism, and the similarities and differences between science and music.
Neither of us could remember how we came to collaborate over the years. Later, I asked Oni, who kindly recalled for me a step-by-step history. Yet I suppose I like Ian’s way better. He said, “I don’t care how it happened. I am happy to accept the mystery of the universe.” And that, too, is the beauty of science and music.
Jenny Q. Chai, a pianist widely renowned for her ability to illuminate musical connections throughout the centuries, presents Acqua Alta at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m., www.lpr.com; and participates in a Seymour Lipkin Memorial Concert at Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, on Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m, www.carnegiehall.org