5 Questions to Conrad Tao (composer) about Everything Must Go

Twenty-four-year-old pianist-composer Conrad Tao is no stranger to major orchestra audiences worldwide. He has performed with or had his compositions played by the likes of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Utah Symphony and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. On September 27th, he will add the New York Philharmonic and its new Music Director Jaap van Zweden to his roster with the world premiere of his latest composition Everything Must Go. Commissioned by the Philharmonic for its 2018-2019 season,  Everything Must Go functions as a “curtain raiser,” or overture of sorts, to a performance of Anton Bruckner’s monumental Symphony No. 8 composed in 1887-1890. I CARE IF YOU LISTEN had the opportunity to ask Conrad Tao 5 questions about his new work and some of his current and future projects.

Your latest orchestral work Everything Must Go will receive its world premiere on September 27th with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of its new Music Director Jaap van Zweden. Give our readers some specifics on the program and your new work.

Everything Must Go was a work written to be performed before Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony; I knew from the outset that it was going to proceed attacca into the Bruckner. The piece utilizes some traditional “overture” signifiers–for instance, an opening fanfare comprising double- and triple-dotted rhythms, the traditional French overture figuration. I was thinking of cinematic title sequences as a reference point; great title sequences often function as distinct pieces of filmmaking that relate, sometimes obliquely, to the larger whole.

The piece also grew out of an image I could not quite shake: the image of a cathedral melting and, through its melting, gaining sentience. This idea of collapse or ostensible decay as a generative thing–as creating consciousness–would not leave me. On some level, the piece is an organism that, after shedding its initial form as an edifice, is awakened to the complexity, the constant questioning, and the sense of shared responsibility that comes with being alive.

What are some of the reasons you named a work designed to be a curtain raiser, Everything Must Go?

The difficulty and necessity of imagining a future that does not punish people for being alive, that actually nourishes the soul instead of slowly corroding it, that affords everyone dignity–that is part of what the piece is about. I think it is unusually obvious right now that this world, exploitative and entitled and nihilistic, is not sustainable. So: everything must go. But at whose hands? And what do we do with this world until then? And what might the world look like when everything has gone?

Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao–Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

How deeply did Bruckner’s 8th Symphony influence Everything Must Go? Would a listener hear some Brucknerian sonorities in your work?

The harmonic and timbral world of my piece definitely lives in reverberations from the Bruckner. This wasn’t even intentional, but I suspect the symphony was so firmly in my ears during the writing process. The most significant influence, though, is in the way Bruckner navigates time. The churning, insistently slow pace of the symphony inspired a lot of the form for my piece.

You have an additional New York Philharmonic “Nightcap” program in New York on September 28th–tell us about that.

My “Nightcap” program uses as its jumping-off point two Bruckner motets–”Ave maria” and “Christus factus est”–from which the program launches into an exploration of ritual and spiritual music, or the idea of rituality and spirituality. The intense shared experience that much spiritual music seems attuned to or at least tries to access has, for me, an analogue in playing collaboratively with others. Thus, I will be bringing on two close collaborators and friends, vocal improviser Charmaine Lee and tap dancer-choreographer Caleb Teicher, with whom I’m lucky enough to make lots of different music. The evening will encompass improvisation, computer choirs, harsh sheets of sound, ASMR, those aforementioned Bruckner motets, and more.

You have a dual career as composer and pianist. Tell our readers about some of your latest piano projects and your upcoming concerts.

I have some recently recorded material that I need to hunker down on and really work with, but: expect some solo piano albums in the future! In addition, I just announced my 2018-2019 season, the details of which you can find on my website. Particularly excited about my first concerto date of the fall–I’m returning to Stockholm to play with the Swedish Radio Symphony conducted by Susanna Mälkki, and we will be performing Suspend, Andrew Norman’s gorgeous piano concerto, together. I’m also performing Brahms’s first piano concerto for the first time in Honolulu come November. Very grateful that I’m still learning plenty of new repertoire twelve years into my career.