“Musicians are like gypsies, always on the road,” concert pianist Roman Rabinovich writes me. As we chat, he’s on his way to Germany to play a recital of composer Joseph Haydn‘s music. This Saturday, he’s going to play at the Kennedy Center. His upcoming program will also include Haydn, as well as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin and an original composition.
Rabinovich was born in Uzbekistan but grew up in Israel and later studied at Julliard. Lately he’s become known for his “Haydn Marathon” performances, but he has also referred to legendary concert pianist Sir András Schiff as his “musical guru.” He is also an accomplished visual artist who often illustrates his own programs.
Rabinovich has played the Kennedy Center before, but at the time he played the Millennium Stage for the free concert series. Presented by Washington Performing Arts, he returns to the Kennedy Center, this time to play the Terrace Theater. It’s obvious the 24-year old is ascending and in our correspondence I ask him about what the life of a concert pianist is like, his other work as an artist and how he balances his life as a concert pianist with composition.
“It’s not an easy life,” he says, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”
On Tap: I know from talking with other classical musicians that you spend a lot of time flying, so how do you pass the time? Gianandrea Noseda of the NSO told me he likes to read his scores, but I understand that you sketch. Do you find yourself sketching or reading scores more while you fly?
Roman Rabinovich: I usually get a lot of work done on the plane. I either compose, or draw or read. Sometimes it is important to just sleep, especially if I have to play shortly after I land.
OT: How do you balance all the travel time with your practice schedule? which I understand to be rigorous for pianists.
RR: I have to be disciplined about devoting a few hours every day to practicing no matter what. I always ask to block four to six hours before concerts so I get to know the piano and the acoustics of the hall as much as I can. I also do a lot of mental practicing without the piano.
OT: What does a typical practice day look like?
RR: Usually the first thing I do after I wake up in the morning is go to the piano and improvise for a few minutes, to let the creative juices out. After that, I practice my repertoire for a few hours. Pianists usually have to prepare a lot of repertoire so one has to compartmentalize: two hours for recital for this week, one hour for concerto for next week, another two hours for chamber music for next month and new repertoire for next year. Then it is important to get outside and take a walk at some point before the sunset.
OT: How do you balance practice with composing?
RR: I always compose in my head – when I walk or wait in line at the airport; it never stops. Sometimes it can be quite annoying, because I don’t have any control over it, and it just keeps going. Sometimes it’s difficult to fall asleep. Writing it down is the final step.
OT: Who are composers you would situate in the same sonic-space as your own compositions?
RR: I’m not sure I can answer this question objectively. I can tell you who my musical heroes are: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Bartok, Ligeti, Kurtag, Keith Jarrett, Zakir Hussain and Radiohead. The musical material, however, has to come from the heart, essentially from the subconscious.
OT: Tell me about your piece “Memory Box.”
RR: “Memory Box” is a suite of six contrasting miniatures. I wanted to explore the world of dreams and fantasies. The seed for the piece was a series of paintings I did with the same title. The inspirations for the movements span from Stefan Zweig to ancient ruins.
OT: Tell me about the Kennedy Center concert program otherwise. What are you most looking forward to playing and why?
RR: Choosing a recital program is one of the the most thrilling and challenging tasks. It is like a visit card. One can get a sense of who the artist is before they play anything, just by looking at the choice of their program. For my Kennedy Center debut I chose pieces I particularly love. I’m starting the program with a rarely played sonata by Haydn, a composer who I adore, and whose music I’ve been extensively exploring in the last two years. I’ll continue with my piece “Memory Box,” followed by my favorite Rachmaninoff piece, “Variations on a Theme by Corelli.” It is a late piece that Rachmaninov wrote after he left Russia and one feels a tremendous sense of nostalgia and longing in it. It is extremely tender and bitter and full of beauty. I will conclude the program with Chopin’s Four Ballades in the second half.
OT: How does your drawing figure into your day? How do you balance it with everything else?
RR: I’ve always loved drawing. Ever since I was a little kid I could spend many hours with a notebook and a markers, completely consumed by shapes and colors. I felt that I was creating my own emotional world, which I was in control of. I was always fascinated by the physicality of paints, canvases and brushes. And by the fact that it was permanent, as opposed to music which is so transient. You play a note, and it’s gone.
OT: Who are some inspirations for your art?
RR: Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Titian, Hogarth, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Hockney, Richter, Kiefer.
OT: Do you sell your art? Where do you hope it will go?
RR: I’ve sold some paintings over the years. I’d like to find a synthesis between visual art and music. In trying to achieve this I recently made a short animation, (together with Adam McRae), about my imaginary encounters with Joseph Haydn which features one of his sonatas.
OT: What else do you have coming up? Are you preparing to add some new pieces to your repertoire? Are you working on any new compositions?
RR: I’m about to play the complete Haydn Sonatas at the Bath Festival in the UK in May. It will be 45 sonatas in 10 concerts over a two-week period. Besides this I’m constantly working on new repertoire. Piano repertoire is immense and I have broad interests, so it keeps me busy. For next season I’m preparing Schubert’s C minor Sonata, Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata,” Bach’s Partitas and Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety,” among other pieces. As to my own music, I’m currently writing a violin sonata.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org
On Tap’s third day at SXSW 2018 was packed with a visit to the DC Comics booth and gaming expo. We also ventured out to catch some national acts including rapper-entertainer Action Bronson, Wavves, The Frights and Cuco at the StubHub showcase. Plus, we snapped some photos to capture the scene down in Austin. Photos: Trent Johnson
Ghost Twin, made up of Karen and Jaimz Asmundson, originally got rejected when placing a bid to play at this year’s iteration of SXSW. That is, until they were booked for a show, and then another, and another. And now that they’re here in Austin, the synth pop duo from Winnipeg, Canada has taken in multiple shows and even had a chance to catch some of the festival’s tech showcases. We had a chance to catch up with them in the back of the very crowded Swan Dive on March 15 to talk about all things SXSW.
On Tap: Have you played at SXSW before?
Jaimz Asmundson: No, this was our second show outside of Canada – like, today.
OT: Well, they say Canadians are typically polite. How have Americans been so far?
JA: Mostly quite nice.
Karen Asumundson: The guy at Starbucks today seemed really tired, but I don’t think he was rude.
OT: How did you guys get involved in SXSW?
JA: I really have no idea how this festival works, actually. First of all, we didn’t get into the festival; we got rejected, but then we got into the festival and people just started asking us to play shows.
KA: It somehow comes together. It seems there are all these different groups that are organizing all these showcases.
OT: You guys bring a darker edge to synth pop, with your name and thematics. I feel like most of that genre is upbeat and bright, and you two are sort of an alternative side of that.
JA: You’re 100 percent right. Personally, I gravitate toward songs that are dark and mysterious, [in] minor keys. Whenever we try writing music, it just comes out that way.
KA: I’ve always written dark stuff too.
JA: Even our songs in major keys are still dark somehow, and we’re not sure how that works exactly.
OT: How are people responding to your music here so far?
JA: I feel like we’re connecting with people here. Sometimes you play to a room, and people are talking and drinking or whatever, but here people have just been stopping and watching.
KA: People are here to listen to music. They’re not here to simply drink and eat tacos.
OT: You can do both.
KA: You can do both [laughs]. The music seems very important to everyone, and that’s very powerful.
OT: What has been the most challenging part so far?
KA: I don’t know.
JA: It hasn’t really been.
KA: Last night the DIs [direct inputs] died, and that’s something that no one can predict.
JA: They just replaced them and we kept playing, so it wasn’t that bad.
OT: What are you hopes for after the festival?
KA: We’ve wanted to participate in this festival for a long time, and it’s been very exciting for us to have done this. We’d like to do more performances in the United States. It’s quite the process for us to play in the States for money.
JA: Before we started this band, I was more of a filmmaker. I was always trying to get my films into this festival and I never did. I feel like in some stupid way, as an artist, [I’ve] been legitimized.
OT: Has it lived up to those expectations?
JA: I’ve tried for the last couple of years to have no expectations in life; that way I can’t really be disappointed in anything. If I expect no one at my shows, and two people are there, I get all excited. I try never to expect those things.
KA: I like to keep an open mind and see what the experiences end up being. I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I just try to collect experiences.
OT: Have you taken in any other experiences from the festival outside of music?
JA: We wandered into a few of the tech conferences, and there’s a lot of really strange ideas of what the future holds – just artificial intelligence curating your life for you, and blocking out things that upset you. It decides what you like and pushes you toward that direction, and it’s terrifying.
KA: If that was the case, you’d never be able to have the experiences that shake you up.
JA: Nobody would hear us, because they’d be all, “Oh, I don’t wanna go down that road.” It was really fascinating, but I got angry [laughs]. I wanted to yell at those people.
OT: How did you come up with your band name?
KA: Because Jaimz sees ghosts.
OT: Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense?
JA: No, not like that. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with ghosts because we lived in my great grannie’s place. Lots of weird stuff [happened], like the door would open and we would close it and it would open again with the lights on. I got obsessed with ghosts, and I saw this weird green blob come into my room when I was a kid. I also had this book, and in that book, there was a whole chapter on doppelgängers. And the meaning of the word is not someone who looks like you, but a ghost of you from the future coming to warn you when you die. I got obsessed with the idea of waking up and my ghost from the future telling me, “Don’t go to school today.”
OT: Wait, you wanted it to happen? Most people want that not to happen.
JA: Yeah, I always hope for weird things. I hope for weird things to happen, and they do.
For more information about Ghost Twin, check them out here.
The voices in Mint Field songs sound like echoes you hear in dream sequences that are often found in films, just barely audible over the ethereal music backing them. This sensation is liberating, allowing your brain to explore the shifts in pace and delicate vocals, often for six to seven minutes at a time. The band is comprised of Amor Amezcua and Estrella Sánchez, who bring reflections of their upbringing in Tijuana, Mexico to the forefront of their music. During our last day at SXSW on March 16, we had the chance to talk to Amezcua about their exhausting schedule, their recent tour in Europe and a guy driving a banana car.
On Tap: So, I heard that Estrella lost her voice.
Amor Amezcua: Mhm. We got really sick out on our Europe tour, with the mix of the weather and jet lag. We still have coughs and bad voices, but we’re okay to play. She’s not sick; she just needs some rest.
OT: Speaking of which, how was your Europe tour?
AA: Traveling somewhere else to play your own music with people from around the world listening to you play is weird, but it’s great. People received us in an amazing way. The venues have showers and washing machines, and they give you so much food. I can say it’s better than Mexico – there’s no culture of even giving the band water.
OT: I’ve never really heard your sound with Spanish lyrics before. Are there other bands under your umbrella that people should look for if they dig you two?
AA: Yeah, there are so many bands in Mexico. One that’s sort of similar to our sound is here at SXSW: a band called Jóvenes Adultos. There’s so many, and if you dig into the scene in Mexico City and Tijuana, you’ll find so many bands.
OT: Are there other bands that you guys look up to?
AA: I couldn’t say many Mexican bands. I think mostly like Trish Keenan from Broadcast, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and other bands from that 80s [and] 90s era. There are a lot of new bands that are inspiring us right now also.
OT: Has anything changed for you two since releasing Pasar de las Luces in February?
AA: We had only released one EP before, and we hadn’t put anything out in like two years. So all we had was this EP, and it’s not even what we sound like anymore. It’s great to have people listen to the music you’re playing now.
OT: How much did you throw out for the record? Did you have to cut it down a lot?
AA: Just one [song], and it didn’t really fit. It was only a one-minute song. Most of our songs are seven or eight minutes, and that’s the point of our music. It feels – I don’t know how to say it English – entero. It’s there, it’s floating.
OT: How has your SXSW experience been compared to last year?
AA: We mostly did house and DIY shows, which are great. I love them. This year, we’ve just been playing in bigger venues, like Hotel Vegas and a bunch of others. We rented a van this year, and that’s a big step. Last year we’d drive around in Ride Austin, and it was horrible [laughs].
OT: Are there any tough parts about playing this festival?
AA: No, we love playing show after show day after day – like, we love that. We thought we could play every day, but we can’t. We need some rest [laughs]. We thought we were invincible and could play a month straight without stopping. This is our free day, so we’re looking to chill out a little for sure. We can’t play every day of our life – bummer.
OT: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen so far?
AA: I’m so glad you asked this question! I’m staying at a friend’s house south of downtown, and I was just washing my dishes when out of nowhere, a little car in the shape of a banana being driven by a guy with a helmet just sped past. It was just so random. I was like “What?” So weird.
To learn more about Mint Field, check them out here.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Action Bronson climb the stairs to Bangers’ stage with something other than a microphone in his hand. This is a guy who previously had a television show where he discussed the ridiculous claims of Ancient Aliens with his friends over copious amounts of food and weed, while it played on a giant green screen behind him.
However, the former chef is much more than a stoner rapper. That would literally be selling him short, as he’s transformed himself into a media company of his own – producing television, books and of course, music. His music sometimes seems lost in the shuffle of it all, but it’s where his journey as an entertainer began. As a huge fan, regardless of platform, I was more than a little giddy to see the Queens-bred Bronson take the stage at SXSW on March 15, and he did not disappoint in the slightest.
A rotund man, Bronson moves like a much lighter human, often racing back and forth on the stage with a tremendous amount of energy. Rapping through a bright red beard, the lyricist sounds exactly like he does over recordings – only louder and more aggressive. He never stumbles or stutters, and his voice is deafening.
This carries over to his stage presence, looming large over a crowd full of middle fingers, clenched fists and even a few people grasping F*ck, That’s Delicious books. And if you were one of the lucky few within arm’s length of Bronson, you got it signed, as he took a moment during the first couple songs to scribble some signatures.
The setlist included popular singles like “Baby Blue,” “Easy Rider” and “Let Me Breathe” off of Mr. Wonderful and Blue Chips 7000. But he also played old songs from before talk show interviews with Jimmy Fallon and his Viceland block of programming. My favorite track was “Mr. Two Face,” a song he conjured up while in Jamaica for his food show. While there, he met a wickedly talented reggae singer on the streets and brought him into the studio to record.
Unfortunately, because this is SXSW, the sets are shortened. And even though Bronson returned for an encore to raucous shouts of “Action,” it was disappointing for everyone to see him climb down the stairs and return to the alley from which he arrived.
Learn more about Action Bronson here.
The highlight for me on day two of our SXSW adventures was getting to sit in the same room as the iconic Kim Deal as she fielded questions from audio engineer and frequent collaborator Steve Albini. Deal, the former bassist for the Pixies (her backing vocals on “Where Is My Mind?” are among the most memorable in the soundtrack of my youth) and frontwoman for The Breeders, was refreshingly honest and funny to boot during her one-hour chat with Albini on March 14 in Austin.
The two have known each other since the late 80s, when Albini worked with the Pixies on their 1987 album Surfer Rosa, and are clearly good friends in real life. Albini’s wife Heather, also a close friend of Deal’s, was side stage the entire chat and chimed in a few times, including to answer an audience member’s question about what Albini made her for dinner most recently.
This level of intimacy was captivating, and the packed conference room lived vicariously through the pair’s personal jokes and random asides, giggling along with them (the best was the music geek in front of me whose laugh was a literal “Hah-HAH” that definitely belonged to a Family Guy character). Much of the conversation felt like it could’ve just been the two of them in the room, rather than a SXSW panel. One memorable moment of banter came when Albini said, “I don’t know what the f–k you were doing in New York” in the middle of a question, and Deal replied, “Drugs, probably.”
Witty quips aside, for those of us who love her music but don’t spend time in the studio, the conversation got a little technical after about 20 minutes. Albini started with biographical questions, weaving from Deal’s childhood in a West Virginia “holler” (including a heartbreaking story about her mom being bathed in lye as an infant and dropped in a shoe box on someone’s doorstep) to her move to Boston with her “transient” husband to her roles in the Pixies (she was the epitome of amicability when discussing the band’s split and her working relationship with Black Francis) and later, The Breeders.
But at a certain point, the chat became more about sounds they created together in studio, or questions they had for one another on the same topic. Not to say that wasn’t interesting, but I think some of us in the audience were hoping for a little bit more about her life and career – the kind of stories that make famous musicians and rock icons more relatable to their fans.
It was fascinating (to me, anyway) to hear about Deal’s sister Kelley (also in The Breeders) bringing her sewing machine into the studio, which led to the song “S.O.S.” beginning with the sounds of a zipper stitch. And later, a self-deprecating Albini saying how mortified he was by how many of his fingerprints you can see on Surfer Rosa (the two were discussing the Pixies’ intentional chatter between tracks on the album, something Albini had pushed for). He said he’s learned since then to remove his aspirations from other people’s work, but Deal dug his lasting impact on the record: “Thank God you did that [i.e., worked on leaving less fingerprints] after our album.”
But conversations about metronomes and other more technical topics left my eyes glazing over, even though it was still bucket list for me to be there. At the end of the hour, the pair answered some lackluster audience questions and Deal had some kind words to say about Albini. All in all, I was thrilled to be at the panel, but would love to see Deal speak again if the opportunity presents itself – this time, hopefully with more details about her experiences outside of the studio.
Learn more about Kim Deal and her music projects here.
On Tap’s first two days at SXSW 2018 were packed with shows, from DC musicians like Bad Moves and Rico Nasty to national acts including Starcrawler, Okkervil River, Partner and Superorganism. Plus, an interview with DC/North Carolina-based band Bat Fangs, fantastic people watching (Austin is definitely nailing it in the weird department), a brief adventure through the tech expo and much more. Photos: Trent Johnson
During the entirety of Okkervil River‘s set up at SXSW‘s NPR showcase on Wednesday, March 14, I couldn’t help but think, “Is this band FROM Austin?” To be fair, I’ve never heard of them before, which may be blasphemous to some, but oh well, get over yourself.
Back to my thoughts: each looked like a stereotypical person from Austin. There was the bearded guy, a girl in a weird – but chic – dress, a guy with the curly hair shoved in a trucker hat, a guy who channels Keanu from Point Break, and so on and so on.
This band looks like Austin, with each representing a different aesthetic that I’ve witnessed in only two days in town. So when lead singer Will Sheff exclaimed, “We’re originally from Austin,” everything made sense.
Comments about appearance aside, the folk group provided a warm, but fun, jam. This band is far removed from playing at small barbecue joints, but the music provides a stellar backdrop to Lone Star Tall Boys and smoked brisket.
It was a heartwarming set, but within the emotional vignettes and heartfelt lyrics was a folksy easiness leaving you grinning as you walked to the next performance on the schedule.
For more information about Okkervil River, check out their website here.
Let’s set the scenario: You’ve been in Austin for a few days, and so far you’ve been staying up all night and getting up relatively early to take care of teleworking, writing or whatever. The point is, you’ve been out late for two straight nights, and on your third, a wall is approaching. The wall is your brain telling you, “This is great and all, but if I can’t process it, what’s the point?” The brain is correct, which is funny because it really isn’t correct all that much, like that time when you…never mind.
However, instead of granting your brain this victory, you decide that all you need is to boot and rally with the help of energetic music. Your reasoning is, if a band is electric with energy, then I will then wake up and be good to go until tomorrow. You just need to arrive at the back end of the week, because that’s when the festival really picks up steam.
And then you stumble across Low at NPR Music’s SXSW showcase on March 14. Low has been around for 25 years, so they’re undeniably successful; I’m not here to tell you they’re not. However, they are not the band for a fledgling brain in the middle of SXSW, because their performance is a moody, dark brand of sound, which makes you sad and tired.
I thought the music was interesting and intricately put together, with all three members providing vocals accompanied by your typical bass, guitar and drums, with some delicately played piano thrown in. However, putting this in the middle of two high-energy acts is like trying to trick your five-year-old into eating broccoli after you give him a brownie – probably not a great plan.
Low has earned every accolade they’ve been given, and in a vacuum are definitely worth the price of admission for a concert. But when your brain wants sleep and you don’t feel like giving in, Low’s probably not the jolt you need.
To learn more about Low, visit their website here.