When a unique management company, Ariel Artists, invited me to be on their roster, their publicist began to refer to me as a storyteller. This was surprising to me at first: Although my concerts were frequently themed, I did not think of myself as “telling a story.” But I started to realize that more and more people were thinking of me as a performer who uses the piano to tell stories. This new realization was revelatory: If I was viewed as a storyteller, then what stories am I telling? And with this, I recognized that indeed, I bear responsibilities.
Once this occurred, and I became clearer about my social identity and responsibility, its expression through translation evolved more easily. It emerged that the purpose for me to be not just a classical pianist but a contemporary classical pianist is to reflect our time: thus, current social issues and important matters of our time, at the same time incorporating science and technology.
Residencies at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris with Stanford composer Jarosław (Jarek) Kapuscinski enabled me to use the score following artificial intelligence software Antescofo, invented by scientist Arshia Cont in collaboration with composer Marco Stroppa. Many of Jarek’s and my special needs to make the software follow my playing in real time, while also projecting specific note-to-note visual images and electronics, pushed the already cutting-edge scientific software even farther. It was fascinating to see the scientists programming together, releasing an update of this already famous software almost once every two weeks.
The idea of Acqua Alta (High Water) came to me about seven years ago, while engaged in my favorite Venetian pastime: sitting on the stairs across from the Ducal Palace, admiring its beyond-words condensation of beauty, grandeur, and simplicity. And then something happened: In less than 10 minutes, water covered the whole of San Marco Square, reaching up to my knees. I later learned that the Italians call this “Acqua Alta.” The mystery of its beauty, the overwhelming speed of the rising water, and the hidden, alarming trouble behind it captivated me. In my mind, I began to create a piano program that would reflect all parts of these facades.
When I raised the idea of an Acqua Alta program to Glenn Cornett, founder of the New York City concert venue Spectrum, he was excited. He called Dr. Ian Fenty, whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology dissertation investigated the ocean’s impact on the seasonal rhythm of Arctic sea ice, and asked him to provide visual data. I have not yet performed Acqua Alta at the Spectrum, but was able to perform John Cage’s Water Walk, a dream come true.
A few years later, when Ariel Management founder Oni Buchanan wanted to pick up the Acqua Alta program again, she established direct contact with Ian, who had become a scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles. When he heard the proposal to use climate data to enrich my program, he enthusiastically offered his support. Thus began the collaboration and birth of music and science for this program.
For two years afterward, Ian provided me with many visualizations of climate-change data videos, provided by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. I worked with composers who were interested to write for the program. Some used the NASA visualizations, and others developed their own pieces. Milica Paranosic wrote Bubble (in Trouble) for piano and electronics; Theodore Wiprud shot his own videos of water, and wrote a piece called Faces of the Deep based on his own relationship to the sea as a fisherman; digital artist Relja Penezic provided digital paintings related to water for me to match with existing music – one of them paired by his wife Victoria Jordanova’s piece Loveling.
Technologically speaking, perhaps the most outstanding work is Entropy by Cole Ingraham, who is a programmer and a composer. He wrote software specifically for Acqua Alta that integrates visual effects triggered by the piano’s sounds into the NASA visualizations during the performance. I have also chosen two unadulterated visualizations to pair with Ligeti’s Musica Ricercatas.
In late October at the University of Dayton in Ohio, Ian and I joined together for our first Acqua Alta performance. Before the concert, he presented a lecture on the science of global sea-level rise, in which he shared that global warming has caused levels to increase by more than 500 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution and more than 200 percent since the early 1990s, due to the accelerated melting of high-mountain glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctica Ice Sheets. Dr. Eileen Carr, director of the university’s ArtsLive program, juxtaposed the evening’s discussion of global warming’s terrible consequences with those offered to the American public during the presidential campaigns and national debates – which, as we all know, largely ignored the subject.
It was this event that allowed Ian and I to connect in person in Dayton, after seven years of brewing on the Acqua Alta idea. We met at breakfast, and it was somewhat miraculous: we talked instantly about everything, including life views, the meaning of words on different levels individually, culturally, and institutionally, psychoanalysis, veganism, and the similarities and differences between science and music.
Neither of us could remember how we came to collaborate over the years. Later, I asked Oni, who kindly recalled for me a step-by-step history. Yet I suppose I like Ian’s way better. He said, “I don’t care how it happened. I am happy to accept the mystery of the universe.” And that, too, is the beauty of science and music.
Jenny Q. Chai, a pianist widely renowned for her ability to illuminate musical connections throughout the centuries, presents Acqua Alta at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m., www.lpr.com; and participates in a Seymour Lipkin Memorial Concert at Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, on Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m, www.carnegiehall.org