From Bang On A Can and New Amsterdam via CutCommon: “Vicky Chow deconstructs the way we think about ‘new’ music”

New Amsterdam Records is at the heart of the New Music environment

Bang On a Can is the original DIY New Music Organization





Vicky Chow by Kaitlin Jane – Cantaloupe Music

As a musician, it can be challenging to find a balance between preserving the traditions of classical music and wanting to explore new musical ideas.

However, much of the repertoire we would consider to be ‘traditional’ Western classical music often pushes boundaries in its own way. So perhaps rather than become preoccupied with either maintaining or breaking out of tradition, we should instead simply perform, create, and listen to music that speaks to us.

This is a view to which Vicky Chow seems to subscribe. The pianist is a member of innovative modern music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Bang on a Can All-Stars by Lisa Bauso

Bang on a Can performs effortless fusions of jazz, classical, rock, and world music. Its talent and uniquely experimental ideas have earned it worldwide recognition, including the 2005 Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts’ Ensemble of the Year Award (yep, they’ve been making exciting music for quite a while).

Described as “the new star of new music” by The Los Angeles Times, Vicky is certainly making waves in the world of contemporary music. In addition to her ensemble work, Vicky has a successful solo career in which she has recorded multiple critically acclaimed albums.

When speaking with CutCommon, Vicky Chow helps us deconstruct the imagined barrier between ‘new’ and ‘old’ music, and shows us how an inclusive and diverse musical career can be rewarding.

Thanks for speaking with us, Vicky. Many kids learning instruments are brought up on a diet of repertoire in which new music is, at best, sparse. Was this the case for you?

I learnt how to play the piano through all of this amazing repertoire from Scarlatti to Liszt and Chopin, from Beethoven to Bartok and Prokofiev, and many more. During that time, all music was ‘new’ to me, so the idea that this was ‘old’ music didn’t even cross my mind.

It wasn’t until when I moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School that I realised I had a desire and need to explore outside of the box. One day, a friend and composer Zhou Tian asked me to play his piece for a concert in a week. Every minute leading up to the concert was exhilarating. Opening the score was opening a whole new musical world I didn’t know about. That was the moment I realised I wanted to play new music, and I haven’t turned back since.

When speaking to friends and family outside the music industry, I’ve noticed the term ‘modern music’ can be met with some trepidation. What can we do to lessen this? How do we make new music accessible to an audience already unfamiliar with ‘traditional’ classical music?

In many other genres of music, the idea of ‘new’ and ‘old’ music almost doesn’t exist. No one wonders if the music on a recent album that was dropped by Nicki Minaj or Oneohtrix Point Never is ‘new’ or ‘old’. When Mozart or Schumann was writing music, it was being performed and consumed at the moment when it was written. It was always ‘modern’. When did Western classical music become only about playing the ‘hits’ from the past 300+ hundred years?

What we can do is to perform, listen, respect, and present all music as music. The more ideas we share with one another about different musical backgrounds and cultures, the larger the musical world we can all live in and enjoy together.

As a musician, how do you balance the desire to preserve tradition and experiment with new ideas?

I explored the ‘old’ repertoire growing up, and that has given me the technical foundation for how to play my instrument. All of the historical context informs me on how to make ‘old’ music new, and ‘new’ music come to life.

When I was younger, I thought all of the rules and tradition of classical music were very constraining. Now, I’m seeing that learning about all of these boundaries gives me insight as to how to push them and break them, and that’s very exciting for me musically.

Part of my work on top of performing this music is to educate and spread the word about what it means to be a living, working, breathing classical music performer, or composer, or both. That’s how we can continue to preserve and build an audience that may or may not know about what ‘new’ or ‘modern’ classical music is.

Bang on a Can draws from the traditions of music from classical to rock. Do you think genre distinctions are important in order to classify music, or can they make us less open to the possibility of listening to different sorts of music?

Labels and names used to classify music is a means to communicate to the audience, and music appreciators, what to expect.

Labels could help us understand what we are listening to, or it could hinder us to be open. But if I had to choose whether or not there should be any classification, I would choose to have information and knowledge (preferably after experiencing the music so I would not be influenced beforehand).

The better we understand the music, the better we can write about it and help the audience understand as well.

All of this has led to a successful career, which continues to take you jet-setting around the world on a busy schedule. Do you ever suffer from burnout?

Mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health is very important! This is a topic that I feel hasn’t been widely discussed in our field. I have experienced burnout and actively do things to make sure I don’t suffer from burnout again.

Doing even the smallest thing can help. Whenever I travel, I always bring a few small items with me, and place them in my hotel room to make the place feel a bit more like my home, even if it is only for 24 hours.

Make time for yourself. Taking a break from obsessing over your art is just as important as practising and making the art itself. I’ve learned to be more realistic about what I can and cannot handle.

Ask for help by loved ones around you if you feel you might be suffering from burnout or better yet, see a doctor if the symptoms are serious. If you see someone that might be experiencing burnout, offer them assistance.

Finally, what would be your advice to young musicians who might be newer to the modern music scene but want to get involved?

Go see shows! Find like-minded music appreciators and tell each other about the music you’re listening to. Reach out to artists that are performing new works and ask them questions. Do the research and go make the music you want to hear. Explore resources like the Composer Diversity Database or the Australian Music Centre website and browse through their list of composers and sound artists.

Talk to a composer! Start playing the music you want to hear, or write the music you want to listen to. The choice is in your hands!

Vicky Chow is in Australia as part of the Bang On a Can All-Stars tour. You can see them perform live at Sydney’s City Recital Hall, August 25 in Extended Play; the Melbourne Recital Centre, August 28; and the Gold Coast’s HOTA, Home of the Arts, August 30.

See the full article here.


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Bang on a Can is dedicated to making music new. Since its first Marathon concert in 1987, Bang on a Can has been creating an international community dedicated to innovative music, wherever it is found. With adventurous programs, it commissions new composers, performs, presents, and records new work, develops new audiences, and educates the musicians of the future. Bang on a Can is building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders. Bang on a Can plays “a central role in fostering a new kind of audience that doesn’t concern itself with boundaries. If music is made with originality and integrity, these listeners will come.” (The New York Times)
Bang on a Can has grown from a one-day New York-based Marathon concert (on Mother’s Day in 1987 in a SoHo art gallery) to a multi-faceted performing arts organization with a broad range of year-round international activities. “When we started Bang on a Can, we never imagined that our 12-hour marathon festival of mostly unknown music would morph into a giant international organization dedicated to the support of experimental music, wherever we would find it,” write Bang on a Can Co-Founders Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. “But it has, and we are so gratified to be still hard at work, all these years later. The reason is really clear to us – we started this organization because we believed that making new music is a utopian act – that people needed to hear this music and they needed to hear it presented in the most persuasive way, with the best players, with the best programs, for the best listeners, in the best context. Our commitment to changing the environment for this music has kept us busy and growing, and we are not done yet.”

Bang On A Can David Lang- Michael Gordon- Julia Wolfe © Peter Serling

Bang On A Can All-Stars Members Ashley Bathgate, cello
Robert Black, bass
Vicky Chow, piano
David Cossin, percussion
Mark Stewart, guitars
Ken Thomson, clarinet

Formed in 1992, the Bang on a Can All-Stars are recognized worldwide for their ultra-dynamic live performances and recordings of today’s most innovative music. Freely crossing the boundaries between classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental music, this six-member amplified ensemble has consistently forged a distinct category-defying identity, taking music into uncharted territories. Performing each year throughout the U.S. and internationally, the All-Stars have shattered the definition of what concert music is today.

Together, the All-Stars have worked in unprecedented close collaboration with some of the most important and inspiring musicians of our time, including Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, Burmese circle drum master Kyaw Kyaw Naing, Tan Dun, DJ Spooky, and many more. The group’s celebrated projects include their landmark recordings of Brian Eno’s ambient classic Music for Airports and Terry Riley’s In C, as well as live performances with Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Don Byron, Iva Bittova, Thurston Moore, Owen Pallett and others. The All-Stars were awarded Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year and have been heralded as “the country’s most important vehicle for contemporary music” by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Current and recent project highlights include the touring performances and recording of Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize winning Anthracite Fields for the All-Stars and guest choir, the record release of Wolfe’s acclaimed Steel Hammer, featuring Trio Mediaeval, plus a moving theatrically staged collaboration with SITI Company and director Anne Bogart; Field Recordings, a major multi-media project and CD/DVD now featuring 30 commissioned works by Tyondai Braxton, Mira Calix, Anna Clyne, Bryce Dessner, Florent Ghys, Michael Gordon, Jóhann Jóhannsson, David Lang, Christian Marclay, Steve Reich, Todd Reynolds, Julia Wolfe, and more; the Lincoln Center Festival 2017 world premiere of Cloud River Mountain, a new collaboration featuring Chinese superstar singer Gong Linna; the world premiere performance and recording of Steve Reich’s 2×5 including a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, and much more. With a massive repertoire of works written specifically for the group’s distinctive instrumentation and style of performance, the All-Stars have become a genre in their own right. The All-Stars record on Cantaloupe Music and have released past recordings on Sony, Universal and Nonesuch.

In all of our presenting and recording activities, NewAm holds firmly to its mission to support artists whose work lies outside of traditional music industry infrastructure – whether that be classical, pop/rock/indie, jazz, world, or experimental. In pursuit of this calling, NewAm often collaborates with like-minded organizations. Our past and ongoing partnerships with the River to River Festival, Ecstatic Music Festival, Art of Elan, the Indianapolis Symphony (multi-year residency), MoMA PS 1, Liquid Music, Galapagos Artspace and National Sawdust have yielded high-profile opportunities for our artists to present their work. On the records side, we often partner with other labels in order to offer our artists the best possible representation for their projects. Partner labels have included Bedroom Community (Iceland), Nonclassical (UK), One Little Indian (UK), Sono Luminus (USA), Cantaloupe (USA) and NNA Tapes (USA).

John Schaefer

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