WATCH: Rising Pianist Joey Chang Mines the Improvisational Roots of Classical Music

WATCH: Rising Pianist Joey Chang Mines the Improvisational Roots of Classical Music

Pianist Joey Chang, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in piano performance from Juilliard, discusses his musical background and his process of revisiting the improvisational roots of Western classical music. Chang is one of several young artists profiled in ALL ARTS’ “Rising Artists” series, which shines a spotlight on the works and personal stories of students striving to make a difference through creative pursuits. On the occasion of the release of Chang’s episode, we caught up with him via email to discuss his artistic practice, future goals and life after Juilliard.

Can you talk a bit about your work as an artist?

I’m going to focus in on the work that goes into my artistic practice.

As a person that is now heavily invested in freeform improvisation, a lot of my growth centers on trying to understand other artists through experiencing. That could mean a lot of things. Most commonly it means getting in a room with at least one other person and creating music together and talking about it for a few hours. It also means that I spend a lot of time listening to recordings of a diverse set of music and trying bring them into my fingers — maybe listen to five minutes of a work by George Crumb, play; listen to five minutes of a work by Alice Coltrane, play; Flying Lotus, play, etc. I also take out works from traditional classical repertoire, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, read through and study them, give myself a task based on what I learn and try it — it’s a similar but still different mental muscle to try to emulate a composer’s style rather than execute their piece. Regardless, my fingers need to touch and flex on the piano regularly, and I ideally like to treat my technique athletically, with the same vigor in practices of routine and experimentation.

What are you currently working on?

Since beginning of January 2019, I have been music director at Two Bridges Music, which is a music school and concert series that runs under the non-profit organization Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. I had been teaching piano at this program prior to assuming directorship of the program, and now I’m applying my experience as a group organizer and project leader to chisel and mold this program. I work to teach all my students to improvise to at least some extent, if nothing else because I find it a joyful activity to take with yourself into the future.

The biggest personal artistic project I’m currently working on is a performance piece centered on audio recordings of interviews I took with my grandparents when I went back to see extended family in Taiwan. Over the course of a week, I asked my mother to act as a translator so I could ask them about who they were and what they thought about life and their own identity growing up. The piece will be an hour-long loose structured program that plays clips from the audio recordings as well as my own piano playing. My Taiwanese-American identity is one where I understand the American part much more than the Taiwanese, which has probably been true of myself my entire life, and is probably true of a lot of others who grew up as the children of immigrants. I’m in a position to be able to not only investigate my Taiwanese heritage, but also perform it, and it has become important to me to give respect to that privilege through this creation.

You recently graduated from the master’s program at Juilliard. Did anything surprise you when you left school and began this new chapter in your life?

When I left school, I had a part-time teaching position, very supportive parents and a grant from The Juilliard School to financially support me for my first two years out.

These were true gifts to a person who left school knowing that my life wasn’t planned past the next week. I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how much I had to learn about developing the creative workflow I needed as a freelance artist. I think it took me a good four months of intense soul searching before I began to achieve a rhythm that matched my enthusiasm to be an artist, and I think four months is generally considered pretty quick for reaching that point.

Whenever I mention my process of leaving school, I have, foremost, gratitude to the things in life that gave me the financial and emotional stability to learn how to structure my time and my energy.

What are your professional and creative goals in the next five to ten years?

I think I’d like to see myself in a position of leadership, as performer, organizer and networker, operating for the communities of my family, friends and collaborators. I have a goal of forming my own collective, built from a base of my closest collaborators, and extending that energy outwards into institutionalized music, music practice, music industry in America. I’d like to be in a position where I can highlight the artistic work of people that often go vastly underappreciated. Maybe above all, I hope to be in a position also where I’m continually learning from people, working through conversations with more and more artists and understanding the community on as many scales possible.

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What are some of the challenges you face or anticipate in achieving those goals?

I guess I’ll find out what walls I hit as I go forward — maybe overall, I think I realize that I still have much to learn about how I best devote my time, pick my battles. Since being out of school, I’ve started a lot of commitments with a lot of people. I really intend to follow through on everything, but timelines have had to been pushed back a lot, and circumstances change in that time, and projects and goals morph. I want to get things done, but I want to be effective.

What’s one of your favorite pieces you’ve created, and why?

Also because it’s a good story — the last piece I played in my graduation concert was an improvisation with Jasmine Wilson (voice, featured in this video) and Liana Kleinman (dancer). Liana and I were backstage, but Jasmine was nowhere to be found, and we were up. Liana and I had decided to text Jasmine to come in through the doors whenever she got herself over to Juilliard, and Liana and I began the piece with just ourselves. I remember being on stage in a sort of surreal survival state thinking I had no idea what I was gonna do if Jasmine didn’t show up. So lo and behold, imagine my surprise as Liana and I are exchanging phrases onstage and I catch, out of the corner of my eye, someone moving in the shadows of the audience. Jasmine leaps onstage and instantly assumes the persona of an entity of pure evil and the rest of the piece plays out like a real-life nightmare.

I talked to people afterwards and nobody knew that Jasmine entering late wasn’t planned. If anything, it was a stroke of genius facilitated by bad cell reception (we learned that Jasmine hadn’t received an earlier text about our call time). You have a lot of odd possibilities when you improvise onstage, and I think that’s pretty illustrative of an odd something that could happen.

What advice do you have for current students in your graduate program?

I’d say that it’s important to remember that a music conservatory is a very strange place, and it’s set up that way because it’s geared towards helping you achieve something very specific in a very specific way.

I’d say it’s important to remember that you always have the right to ask that your education, your teachers and your peers fulfill more of your needs as a student, as much as you absorb the material that you are offered.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.