In an increasingly conservative music landscape, pianist Zubin Kanga is a champion of the modern.
It takes a particular kind of musician to specialise in modern music. Analytical, precise, technically robust yet willing to experiment and stretch the boundaries of conventional music-making, and perhaps most importantly, excited by tackling the unknown. It’s a rare combination, but all these qualities can be found in plentiful supply in Australian pianist and contemporary music champion Zubin Kanga.
Going where many other pianists fear to tread, Kanga has cemented a reputation as the country’s preeminent exponent of contemporary repertoire, and as a highly in-demand international artist, he has made it his mission to be an ambassador for Australian composers overseas. “It’s really important to me to promote Australian music as much as possible, wherever I play. But I’m also keen to explore the links that foreign composers have with Australia. [British composer] Michael Finnissy has written some terrific pieces about the Australian landscape for example,” Kanga says. “I was working with Thomas Adès in Australia in 2013, and I was able to share with him some Australian works, so there’s also lots of opportunity for cultural exchange in the opposite direction too.”
Spreading his time between London, where he recently completed a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, Nice and Paris in France where he is currently engaged in postdoctoral research, and Australia, where he regularly performs as a solo recitalist and as the principal keyboardist of contemporary music juggernaut Ensemble Offspring, Kanga’s dogged commitment to new music is as rooted in his academic accomplishments as it is in his abilities as a pianist. For Kanga, understanding the music on an intellectual level is part and parcel of specialising in this area. “It’s vital to be able to reflect back on your own work, and be able to think about it in depth,” Kanga shares. “If you document everything you’re doing, you can work out what you’re doing well, which collaborations have been successful, what methodologies worked the best, and hopefully this leads to making better art in the future.”
An intertwining of the cerebral and visceral has become a calling card of Kanga’s preferred repertoire, and this has led the pianist to commission numerous new works from composers working on the outer-fringes of modern composition. Kanga stands unafraid on the bleeding edge of musical thinking, and it has led him to inexhaustibly seek out collaborators who share his passion for the experimental. The results of some of these partnerships form the backbone of Kanga’s first major solo Australian tour. Three years in the making, the Dark Twin performances feature the work of three composers, handpicked by Kanga for their extensive experience with electronics, in a programme of exclusively 21st Century music.
The new pieces by ABC Classic FM Breakfast presenter Julian Day, Australian electronic music pioneer Daniel Blinkhorn, and sound artist and installationist Cat Hope play with a simple premise in some mind-bendingly complex ways: a piano duet with a single pianist. Using multiple approaches from lo-fi tools such as portable radios, to artificial intelligence systems that react to a pianist’s improvisations, Kanga’s uncompromising dedication to the avant garde bucks the trend of the often conservative programming in the Australian classical music arena.
Equally bold is Kanga’s recently released disc of David Young’s 47 minute piece, Not Music Yet, a highly unique and esoterically constructed composition based on a watercolour score. Interpreting this graphic representation of music might seem a daunting task to many pianists. “I found it a really fun challenge,” Kanga says. “I could use everything in my tool box and really be creative in how I took this score and not only found ways for it to challenge me, but also produce music that would be interesting to listen to.” In his characteristically meticulous way, Kanga painstakingly deconstructed Young’s watercolour to assign different sonorities, extended techniques and specific harmonic areas of the piano to different colours. Precisely measuring the relationships between different areas of the painting, Kanga has unriddled this seemingly non-musical source material, producing a colourful, rich and highly sophisticated realisation. The process of translating the visual into the sonic involves some athletic performance techniques, including playing the internal strings with percussion mallets, wire brushes, and a large rubber-band ball. Again, Kanga is unphased by these demands that other pianists would point-blank refuse. “I think it’s pretty cool actually,” he says. “These kind of performance techniques make the music so much more interesting, and help to keep different sections of the piece very distinct.”
Committing to a musical niche on the fringes of an already non-populist musical tradition might seem unappealing to some. After all, while it is undoubtable that the staples of the well-loved classical repertoire would never have existed if audiences of the past were unwilling to welcome new music, the crippling contradiction of the entrenched hostility that tradition-minded classical listeners have toward contemporary composition remains nonetheless. For Kanga however, it’s a quest to make this challenging aesthetic communicate with people who are uninitiated into the world of modern music that drives him. “It’s all about being able to communicate about what you do,” he says. “If you can communicate well, it should be something that anybody can engage with.”
Zubin Kanga presents Dark Twin, on tour until May 22.
Not Music Yet, released by Hospital Hill, is available now.