Interview: Tzu-Yi Zoe Chen Piano's musical philosophy and life
July 1st, 2018
Written by Yu-Chen Tsai
Eng | Cn
During her February this year "228 Memorial Concert" at Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in D.C., the notes of the Firebird Suite circled at the fingertips with pianist Tzu-Yi Chen’s virtuoso touch, just like the plot described by the Russian composer Stravinsky. A full-house audience at Washington, D.C.’s Taiwanese Presbyterian Church completely followed the composer’s storyline. Their heartbeats were dancing with the wizard and got lost with the melody of the beautiful lullaby. Until the last chord ended with the bright glissando flying like the firebird to the sky, the whole audience was astonished with a few seconds silence, and rejoiced with thunderous applause.
Tzu-yi's music draws your emotions and grabs your attention as she tells you many stories behind each sound she makes. I wonder why there is such a difference between "When you play the notes right" and "When your music actually touches people.” Guided by my curiosity, I very fortunately caught an opportunity to interview her and get some answers from a great pianist!
After graduating from the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University, she was admitted with unanimous jury votes to study at the prestigious National Paris Conservatory of Music in France, regarded as a Master’s-level study in the French government.
That's right! It is the music school where famous Japanese TV drama and Live-action movie “Nodame Cantabile” took place a few years ago.
Tzu-Yi was laughing that the movie’s storyline was completely inspired and created by students’ lives and surroundings at the Paris Conservatory, how the conductor Shinichi Chiaki and the pianist Megumi Noda fell in love with each other, and at their adventures and journeys accompanied by music.
In contrast to the words "romantic" and “spontaneous," which for me easily associate with the country of France, the French classical music education is surprisingly very academic, and famous for its strictness.
Before entering the conservatory, Tzu-Yi had already won various national and international competitions. However, her Parisian master asked her to forget the pursuit of fame and applause and to take more time understanding the European cultural background, getting into the essence of finding the different sounds and different styles of each composer she played, redefining the space and time of the written notes and the history placed behind each piece of written music, and based on all of those elements, find that it is possible to distinguish the subtle differences and be able to play the notes with sense, spirit, and great understanding.
This is like the process of reassembling an Empire building, undoubtedly a painful experience for an Asian foreign student. Unlike pianists from many other parts of the world who place “amazing fingers” as their top training goal, European education places a great importance on the music itself and sees it as cultural heritage instead of producing another star pianist. When I talked with Tzu-Yi, I remarked that music is in her life so deeply that all composers are like her real friends. She can chat about anything in their life stories, such as Franz Liszt, who was famous as a rock star in the world and favored by women, and who went back and forth four times to monastery life, studying for the priesthood to seek a quiet and peaceful mind, or Frédéric Chopin, who created nuances with his unique soft-finger touches noted by the concert reviewers of his time, or Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who lived in foreign countries but whose heart was in his motherland Russia.
When pianists play their works, they have to project the souls of different composers as if they were speaking with them. When talking about those composers, it is as if Tzu-Yi had known each of them for many years. I began to understand why her music sounds so much deeper and sincere than many others. There is a difference when someone puts her life and soul into every piece she plays.
Tzu-yi recalled the struggles of studying abroad. She often prepared for an entire week before class, but got only strict criticism. In addition to a broad cultural understanding, she has extensive knowledge of various artistic forms, books, movies, paintings, museums, sculptures, meditation, all to immerse her into a sound-imagination world and to fully release the emotions during a performance (which reminds me of an actor too deep in the script who sometimes can hardly pull himself out of the role he plays).
Tzu-yi said that there are times, seeing the music with its human emotions, desires, and devils, that it is often not comfortable. But she must be honest to face her inner anxiety. Although born in a Christian home, she was baptized a few years ago and returned to God's embrace. Religion provides her with the power of stability, so that she will not be confused when she throws herself into the ocean of imagination.
At such a young age, it took a great deal of effort living alone in France, Germany, the United States, and traveling to the rest of the world. This kind of experience had a profound impact on Ms. Chen. She often engages in a deep and profound dialogue with herself, touching very difficult topics such as love and doubt, truth and fiction, anxiety, fear, and other emotions. She is one of the very rare Taiwanese girls I have met who went alone to the cinema, to the forest, and dared to walk, crossing those Parisian streets from the Opera theatre back home when it was almost three o’clock in the morning.
However, at the same time, she is very warm and hospitable. She recalled her school years, her mother always filling up the dining table before she came back home. The warmth of the family cultivated her taste, and the travels around the world have added more flavors to her cooking menu. The last time I was fortunate enough to be invited to taste the dishes Tzu-yi made—Russian herring salad, Spanish paella, crepes—all were so delicious and amazing. I can see that what makes her successful in her career is her self-discipline and high standard for herself, and her love for her friends and openness to new friendships helped her to quickly establish herself in a foreign country.
However, like all immigrants who have a hard-working life, the road is groped and formed step by step. “Did you ever think of going back to Taiwan and live there?” I asked, just as many of us have seriously thought about going back to Taiwan because of family or work.
“When God closes a door, he opens another window for you,” she answered. “The difficulty is that living in foreign countries, everything has to be done by myself. Even hosting a concert, I often have to think of every detail from the program printing, recording and stage management, to the piano tuner.” But she paused a moment, and said ”Why do humans have to discover the moon and explore outer space, when they are ultimately well enough living in the earth?” For her it is the same question as “Why do I have to continue to learn new pieces, even if I have played piano for so many years?” It is simply because she does not want to stop at the same point in life, so she bravely walks into the unknown." Life is not always smooth and peaceful, but music is the best friend, accompanying her through all the high and low points of her life.
In talking about classical music education to the next generation, Tzu-yi suggests not being afraid to bring kids to the concert hall, listening to classical music radio stations while driving, and creating opportunities for music to be part of every day, so that in family life, children are accompanied by music as a habit. "In any good live performance, the audience's feeling and perception are elevated and sublimated to a high level." The American school system has many opportunities for music exposure, such as school orchestra and marching band. Parents' efforts can cultivate children’s interest. However, to become a professional it takes a different level of commitment. Many other activities must be given up in order to be highly focused. It takes a lot of time to practice before a child can progress from short, boring pieces to highly challenging repertoire and being able to excel in playing.
Despite her busy concert traveling schedules and her dedicated piano practicing time, Tzu-Yi teaches at the Levine School of Music and maintains a home private studio. How can an Asian artist find his/her way in a western society? Tzu-yi said, "We must collaborate across nations, across genders and cultures, across media. Any combination of music, social topics, painting, dance, and other different art forms will show the flexibility of music, and we will be able to see common values." Many cultures co-exist in America. There are many opportunities to reach out to different people. Asian musicians gather together to create platforms such as The New Asia Chamber Music Society (NACMS) in NY joined by Tzu-yi. NACMS connects outstanding rising Asian musicians and helps them to create their own stage. In addition to promoting classical music, it reaches out to a wider audience, enabling people to appreciate Asian cultures by producing high-quality concerts performed by top Asian musicians. NACMS will release its first piano quartet album in November of this year. Another non-profit organization in NY which also recruited Tzu-yi for its artist roster is Muse Connect. It is one of the rare music-charity organizations established in New York. Tzu-yi will perform at its opening Gala concert in October of this year. This organization will support emerging talents of the music world by holding top-quality concerts crossing cultural boundaries.