In Conversation: Zubin Kanga

In Conversation: Zubin Kanga

The acclaimed pianist on research, composition and music as a multimedia art form.

In Conversation: Zubin Kanga

The acclaimed pianist on research, composition and music as a multimedia art form.

Backstage Music will present Sound-Light Geometries this Saturday - an exploration of music, light, architecture and movement. Tell me about these elements; what interests you about them and why music works as a way of interpreting their relationship?

Musical performance is not just a sonic art – it is (and always has been) a multimedia art, drawing together the sonic and the visual. A lot of composers have played with these different elements in different ways by drawing together different art forms – Xenakis created analogous music and architecture using the same mathematical processes, and Kagel integrated surreal theatrical elements into his music. 

In recent years, there's been a renewed interest in exploring these different connections between the arts, but now with the frame of the internet and modern digital culture. This new approach (which in Europe is called various names including The New Discipline and Music in the Extended Field) has gone from being a fringe genre to now becoming one of the dominant features of the contemporary music scene in Europe. In London (where I live) most of the exciting new work by younger composers and performers is interdisciplinary and exploring these connections of music, film, video art, theatre, comedy and internet culture. A lot of my recent solo work has been in this field, and so it's great to put on a performance of this type with local Sydney musicians who have their own very unique take on combining sound and visuals. 

You are a performer as a well as a composer in this concert; how does each practice inform the other for you? Is your compositional work influenced by the ways you perform and is your compositional style informed by your intimate knowledge of performance practice and collaboration?

Yes, these practices are symbiotic. I started out wanting to be a composer, but my confidence in my work waned just as my performing career was taking off. So it's really great to come back to it with the knowledge I've gained by being a performer and commissioner. As a performer working with composers, I play many roles: a coach, a sounding board, a project manager, an expert consultant, a puppet and a lab rat – I've learned a lot from every composer I've worked with and try to share my knowledge of the instrument with them too. 

I actually think all composers should be able to perform and all performers should be able to compose – they're complementary skills and specialisation into one or the other is quite a modern invention. 

As a pianist - a role that is often associated with solo repertoire and practice - what do you enjoy about working in collaboration with so many different artists, including those working outside music in sound design, electronics, etc.?

Being a pianist is a very lonely profession – only composers are bigger loners than us! A lot of it is hard work behind closed doors, so I always enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians or artists of any type. And I fundamentally believe that true creativity is always a social act and being part of a living, growing creative ecosystem is the primary purpose of being an artist. 

Your work looks at expanding the piano by incorporating interactive multimedia. What are the synergies between the keyboard and multimedia platforms, and how did you come across this combination initially?

I don't think there are obvious synergies. A piano is a machine of sorts, and keyboards are very useful for controlling other media. But I really started integrating these elements because I found there was so much more that could happen in a concert, and that the integration of music with the other arts is the way forward for contemporary music. And I also just have a great passion for all these other art forms, and it's been very enjoyable bringing together my musical practice with my love of film, comedy, theatre and internet culture (Alexander Schubert's WIKI-PIANO.NET*, which is co-composed by the internet community and changes with every performance is one of my favourite recent commissions). There's also something really interesting about having all these different digital components interacting with a live musician on stage – it's just far more compelling than if you had all these same technologies but without a live performer. 

*Wiki Piano: A piece for piano and the internet community. It is composed by everyone. At every time. The composition is notated as an editable Wiki internet page and is subject to constant change and fluctuation.

How does your current research practice impact your performance and composition? Has commencing this type of work changed your approach in any way?

Research for me has always been connected to my practice, and an avenue to do some deeper thinking about the big questions that emerge from our work as musicians. My current post-doc at Royal Holloway, University of London is looking at soloists (mainly in the UK, but with a number of international participants) who are using new technologies to extend their bodies and instruments in different ways. I really want to look at these questions of music, technology and the growth of interdisciplinary work from the perspective of performers, rather than composers. This has an obvious impact on my own work, as it facilitates a lot of auto-ethnographic reflection on my practice, and also allows me to learn from amazing colleagues around the world by observing and discussing their practices in a lot of detail. And as with composing and performing, I think all musicians should be researchers to some extent – thinking deeply about the bigger questions of our art and practice should be central to being an artist. 

Backstage Music presents SOUND-LIGHT GEOMETRIES at Woodburn Creatives on August 11 2018. Photos by Richard Hedger.