While many of us are looking forward to relaxing this summer, Conrad Tao, Columbia-Juilliard '15, plans on opening his new music festival, UNPLAY, releasing his first full-length album, and celebrating his 19th birthday all on the same day.
For Tao, who first began playing piano at 18 months, the UNPLAY Festival represents a new direction in his already successful career as a pianist, violinist, and composer. He has traveled around the world to play in a variety of contexts, be it studying at the Aspen Music Festival and School or accompanying American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center. He both draws from and challenges his experiences with UNPLAY, exploring new territories and opportunities within the realm of classical music.
Each night of the festival, which runs from June 11 to 13 at the Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, examines a unique narrative of classical music in today's society. The first evening, named "ePhemera," uses electronics to challenge the popular concept of what classical music can and should be.
"REPlay," the second evening, responds to the standard repertoire of classical music by combining works both new and old.
Tao said he's curious to see what happens when the two worlds collide.
"I have a pretty strong feeling that they might combust," he said.
The festival closes with "Hi/r/stories," which questions the relationship between classical music and dominant historical narratives.
"It's all about engagement with what classical music represents and has come to mean and, most importantly, what is the musician's role today in the post-Internet age," Tao said. "Each of these nights sort of corresponds with a way of thinking that may not have originated from this post-Internet way of thinking but has at least intensified that way of thinking."
The opening night of UNPLAY also corresponds with the release of Tao's first full-length album, "Voyages," which also happens to be his birthday. The album includes pieces by Ravel, Meredith Monk, Rachmaninov, and Tao himself.
"I'm finally reaching that point where I can listen to it [the new album]," Tao said. "I usually never listen to my own playing, but I'm finally far enough removed from the recording process where I can listen to it and observe it and almost enjoy it."
In 2012, he released his first EP, "The Juilliard Sessions: Conrad Tao Plays Debussy and Stravinsky," and a synthpop album titled "Eyelids."
Tao hopes that his work will spark discussion and actively engage his audience in questioning dominant ideas about what classical music and concert performances should be like. He embraces the challenges that these ideas raise—not only for listeners, but for himself as an artist.
"Once you start trying to critically consider that concert context, you run into the challenges of it and the difficulty, because it's such a rigid conception in so many minds, and it's fascinating to try and think about it," Tao said. "As a composer and performer, it's important to keep thinking about what comes next and how we can continue the discussion further instead of having the same conversation over and over again."
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