Surface Image: Interview with Vicky Chow / by Liquid Music

By Lauren McNee

We had a chance to catch up with pianist Vicky Chow following our in depth conversation with composer Tristan Perich earlier this week in preparation for the Twin Cities premiere of Surface Image. Below Chow answers a few of our questions about collaborating with Tristan Perich, her pre-concert rituals, the creative process of commissioning music and the magic of Surface Image.

Don't miss the free show on March 24, copresented with the Walker Art Center's Sound Horizon Series.

Photo Credit:  Kaitlin Jane Photography


What are 3 things you can't live without?
My dog, the beach, noodles
My family, my piano, my iPhone
Sushi, my Murakami books, bathrobe
...I think it'll depend on the day you ask me

What is your first memory?
When I was 2 years old living in Hong Kong, I remember my aunt always picking me up and washing my feet in the bathroom sink because I'd always run around with my bare feet. 

Favorite pre-concert rituals?
Getting a good night's sleep the day before, a good meal, and stretching. 

Favorite cocktail?
I like bourbon straight up, neat. Not really a cocktail person.

Best advice you ever received?
Everybody's winging it. 

When do you feel the happiest?
Late at night in my apartment in Brooklyn, and everyone's asleep. It is calm and I can finally hear my own thoughts. 

Who are your musical heroes?
Nik Bartsch, Maria Chavez, Martha Argerich, Steve Reich, John Cage, Shara Worden, Glenn Gould

Day in the Life

At what moment did you realize you wanted to become a professional musician?
I knew the moment I started piano when I was 5 that this is what I wanted to do. I reconfirmed it when I had to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up in class when I was 8. I knew I wanted to attend Juilliard and move to New York and be a pianist. 

What does a typical day of practicing/rehearsing look like for you?
Wake up, caffeinate, walk dog, procrastinate, emails, fb, meal, tea, procrastinate, clean my apartment, do laundry (if there’s dirty clothes), and finally when I’ve done all the mundane stuff, I can sit down and immerse myself at the piano. For some reason I have to organize my physical space and life before I can concentrate. I get distracted by all of the things that are out of place. I think it is because I know that once I do that, I will fail to clean my apartment for a while so I need a clean slate before I do anything like that. These days, I’m barely home, usually only coming back for 2-3 days before having to leave for the next thing. So I always do a sweep, laundry, and practice before I leave again.

What was the last piece of music you listened to?
My Brightest Diamond "This is My Hand"

Arrangements of Shara Worden "This is My Hand", New Music Detroit

Creative Process

Tell us more about the creative process of self commissioning this piece. Did you have any specific sounds in mind when you started to work with Tristan? How did the piece evolve as you worked together?
I just knew after I discovered Tristan’s music that he was someone I really wanted to work with. His musical sound, his medium, his voice, was something that resonated very strongly with me. I was always fascinated with electronics and with him being also a pianist, he understood the capabilities of the instrument extremely well and was able to push and challenge my virtuosity as a performer. One of the satisfying and rewarding things about working with a composer is that they understand who you are as a performing artist and they can incorporate and write things that will push me and highlight my strengths and abilities on the instrument. Tristan was aware of the things that I could do really well and he went that route when proceeding with writing Surface Image. I think it also helps that his pianistic interests kind of line up with what I also like doing and do well. I think with working on this scale in number of speakers and with such a powerful instrument, it allowed Tristan to explore some sonic areas that some of the other instruments are incapable of. The sonic canvas is a lot larger.  

When was the first time you heard Tristan’s music and what inspired you to commission a piece from him? Are there certain aspects of his compositional style that resonated with you?
I first heard Tristan’s music when he released his 1-bit symphony album. I was a big fan. I remember going to all of his shows and introducing myself to him. I had also just joined Bang on a Can All-Stars as their pianist and our paths naturally crossed more and culminated on this collaboration. I think we were in mutual agreement that we both wanted to work together. For me, it was one of those unexplained moments in life when I felt it was necessary for it to happen and that it will happen. I’m not sure if you call these things fate or not, but it felt very powerful when the idea came to me to work with Tristan. I was riding in a car going up to MASS MoCA in July for the summer festival there. I remember texting Tristan about it and I think he had a similarly positive reaction. He may have a different story, but this if mine and I’m sticking to it!

What advice do you have for performers looking to commission projects from composers?
When you hear a piece of music and it sends chills down your spine and makes you feel joyful from deep inside, that is probably a person you should work with. Listen to your instinct. Work with composers whose music moves you deeply. That is when a truly meaningful collaboration will take place. 

The Magic of Surface Image

Surface Image has been described as a "minimalist tesseract comes to life" (I Care If You Listen) and a "sonic landscape not all that distinct from the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley" (Bandcamp). Do you classify this piece as minimalist? What stylistic characteristics point to why or why not?
Surface Image is a minimalist piece. It is at the scale of works similar to Reich’s Music for 18 and Glass’s earlier keyboard works. The musical material, the patterns and process, are somewhat apparent but the changes are very subtle.  It is in several distinct sections and each musical motive is constantly shifting ever so slightly, flickering and dancing around the patterns. Before you know it, it somehow moved to the next section. There’s something very magical about it when that happens. This piece is unlike the processes of Reich in the music like his counterpoints/phases, or with Glass’s literal numerical additions in repetitions. I would compare this to some of the music of David Lang - in it’s great beauty and intimate delicacy and somewhat fragile dance my fingers have to make while performing Surface Image in some of the sections. I wouldn’t compare this to Riley’s keyboard works. 

Surface Image seems to require a high level of virtuosity and mental stamina - what do you do to prepare yourself mentally and/or physically before a performance of this piece?
The more I get to perform Surface Image, the easier it gets. However, there are still moments that gets to me depending on my mental/physical state. These places either come easily or are a struggle. It is a way for me to monitor what state my body/mind is at. I need to be well rested to perform this work. If not, one could easily get lost! 

Surface Image has gotten a lot of ink since the album’s release on New Amsterdam Records in 2014, including being named #4 in Rolling Stone's 20 Best Avant Albums of 2014. What about this project has allowed it to play out so successfully?
There is something about Tristan’s music that is so compelling. This was the reason why I was drawn to work with him in the first place and I think this is why others feel the same. This piece exists now in this world and I think it has caught the attention of so many music lovers because it really is unique. There is no other piece of music that I know of that is like this. It is a piece that marries the classical piano genre with the electronic art world perfectly. 

Photo Credit:  Kaitlin Jane Photography

You’ve had the opportunity to perform Surface Image at many different venues across the country since the Brooklyn premiere in 2013. What makes the Liquid Music/WAC show unique?
First of all this performance on the Liquid Music Series at the Walker Museum will be a premiere and it is always exciting to be able to present a work for the first time anywhere. The recording of the work on New Amsterdam was beautifully produced by Argeo Ascani and recorded by Jeff Svatek up at EMPAC but the live experience of this work is a lot different than listening to this through a pair of speakers in your home or in your car. In a beautiful gallery, you will see all of the speakers displayed, flanked beside the grand piano. The visual presentation is just as important as the musical journey it takes you. Each 1-bit sound is produced by one speaker. In a recording they are all mixed down to two channels. In this setting, you will hear and see the physical vibrations of each individual speaker. With a live gallery setting, the different sonic blend of the acoustic piano with the 1-bit electronics changes depending on where one stands in the space. It is almost like an installation, as the audience gets to move around and experience different perspectives of this work. 

See Surface Image live at the Walker at Center Galleries Thursday, March 24 (free)

Twitter: @LiquidMusicSPCO (
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Follow Vicky:
Twitter/Instagram: @vcpianos

Follow Tristan:
Twitter: @tristanperich