Conrad Tao hates classical music. Not the music itself, of course, but the institution: grossly normative, capitalistic, and steeped in established, unchallenged practices, “classical” has long been code for privileged traditions and the aesthetic sensibilities to which they give rise. You can hear the man himself talk about this kind of stuff--on the finely-tuned lowercase of his Twitter, on his blog, on Facebook, and even in real life, walking around the campus of a college that forces him to read way too much (i.e., any at all) Nietzsche and Adam Smith. This is not to imply that Tao's fight against classical music as it is currently apprehended is too insistent for its own good; as someone who spends large chunks of his life ripping it on Rachmaninoff and Mozart all around the world, he certainly has the right to engage with the cultural implications of that very same music. But it also leaves him in an interesting position.
Because Conrad Tao, probably much to his own chagrin, also loves classical music. On his major label debut Voyages
and in his concerts, he plays it thoughtfully and beautifully and with dedication. This makes him something of an Andy Warhol for the classical set, working within the very same structures he seeks to subvert. Those who have ever talked with Conrad about music and society may be surprised to hear that he does not sabotage Rachmaninoff's gorgeous Preludes by suddenly slamming his head against the piano or feeding each bass ostinato through a GarageBand Bitcrusher. Those pieces are instead performed with surprising technical control and expression--that is to say, how they “should” be played. The closest thing to incendiary here is probably Tao's own “iridescence,” in which he enlists the iPad app Reactable to create something...well, still very pretty, still very palatable.
This, of course, isn't at all a bad thing. But it means that Voyages
is that most despised of beasts, the normatively “great” classical album, perfect in all the conventional ways: masterfully performed and composed (by the aforementioned Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Tao himself), cleanly produced, and impeccably sequenced. Whatever your thoughts are on the tradition from which this music comes, this album is just about as compulsively listenable as an hour of classical piano gets. Tao awesomely launches the album with a take on living composer Meredith Monk's previously unrecorded “Railroad (Travel Song),” a clean and pretty minimalist piece that adeptly establishes the album's mood. From there, the Rachmaninoff preludes, Tao's own impressionistic “vestiges” (including “upon ripping perforated pages,” the album's one rambunctious moment), and Maurice Ravel's notoriously difficult “Gaspard De La Nuit” are all aggregated into one exploration of sounds both precise and suggestive. It's an absolute joy to hear him fly through each of these pieces, the essences of which are not overwhelmed but rather recontextualized, given new life--I've never been so excited by the tumbling climax of Ravel's “Ondine” as I am here, following as it does the dreamlike original “upon viewing two porcelain figures”. Tao, like many of his peers, has the chops to honor the intensity and genius of these pieces, but he also has the creative mind to think of them in new ways.
All of this still leaves the question, I suppose, of whether Voyages
is a “successful” album, apart from its clearly being a great one. Is this a challenging album, or is its beauty clearly a sign of recapitulation? To be honest, I'm not quite sure. Voyages
feels to me like an even more satisfying third option; through pairing his more consciously modern compositions with those of the masters, Tao chooses not to brandish a weapon of ideology or to lie down in defeat but rather to open a door. Possibility emanates from this album, as if the aesthetic fabric of classical music can be made all-encompassing and completely inclusive without the reactionary destruction of works past. More than anything, Voyages
sounds like the work of a ferociously intelligent and talented young artist trying to process exactly what it means to be those things in the world today. And though he may not have the answer just yet, his journey sounds awfully beautiful to me.