As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players are staying in touch with their audience or students during the global coronavirus pandemic and its lingering impact on live concerts and classroom education. Even as society seeks to reopen, virtual performances and social media outreach programs have kept performers in the public sphere, since concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely unsafe.
Strings recently caught up with cellist Jeremy Tai, a founding member of the Konpeito Cello Quartet. On October 7, Tai enlisted 138 cellists from around the world to perform “Moon River” online. “This is my most ambitious project yet, with hundreds of hours put into it!” he says. “My version of ‘Moon River’ is based off of Jacob Collier’s Grammy-winning extreme jazz, reharmonized, a capella version of ‘Moon River,’ from the album Djesse Vol. 2. For the introduction, just like how Jacob got 138 musicians and celebrities to sing the word ‘moon,’ I got 138 cellists from all over the world to send me a single note. The rest of the cover is written for roughly ten cellos.” At 22, Tai already has appeared with the Utah Symphony, the Santa Cruz Symphony, the Peninsula Symphony, Symphony Parnassus in San Francisco, and the Palo Alto Philharmonic Orchestra. An alum of NPR’s From the Top program, he won first prize 32nd Annual Irving M. Klein International String Competition, held in 2017 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Tell me about your daily routine while quarantined.
I graduated from Northwestern University with a B.M. in cello performance, and am taking a gap year while taking lessons from Hans Jensen [professor of cello at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University]. As a result, my daily routine varies quite a bit, as I do not have classes. If I am working on a YouTube video, I can easily spend eight to 15 hours a day on it. For each video, I need to write out the music, record the audio, record the video, edit the music video, and manage the release on all the different platforms. Depending on the complexity of the project, each step can easily take many hours. When I am not working on my arrangements, I practice my own repertoire for a few hours a day.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
Being alone for so long has given me a deeper insight into how my productivity levels fluctuate. I have always known that for short periods of time, like a week or two, I will be extremely inspired and extraordinarily productive. For my own classical repertoire, these are the times when all the work that I had done in the past starts clicking and usually represents a paradigm shift, opening my eyes to a new layer of colors or musicality that was inaccessible before. Whenever I pick up the cello, I feel like I’m on top of the world. Of course, these bursts of inspiration do not last forever and eventually I come back down to normalcy.
This year, in the month of August and first half of September, I had an unusually intense burst of inspiration. In the very first week I had actually finished the production of three music videos in a single week, each one taking around ten to 30 hours. My brain was so active at night coming up with new ideas and planning existing ones that usually after a couple hours of fruitlessly trying to sleep, I would give up and start working on the projects I was thinking of. I remember actually recording the video for “The Legend of Korra” music video at 3 AM, and finishing the transcription of “Moon River” in a single 20-hour stretch! Honestly, it was not a great time for my mental health because I was not getting enough sleep. Many times I simply could not sleep for 24 to 48 hours at a time because my brain was too active. However, I knew that this wave would not last forever, so I simply took advantage of it and finally got a bunch of projects on my bucket list completed.
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world, and how it will change the string world in the future?
For years and years, I have always heard that classical music is dying, and that we needed a paradigm shift soon. I think the pandemic has simply moved the timeline forward to an extent that no one could have predicted. Now that live performances are essentially impossible or severely limited, virtual innovations are the future forward. While many of my peers are doing live performances of classical music online, and I respect that approach, I do think that there is so much more innovation that can be done. I think the direction that classical music must face will involve more thought in the presentation of a music video, and the exploration of different repertoire, other than just the classics. Take a look at music videos for pop music or EDM: some of them are just straight up weird! I think classical music needs to embrace the weirdness in order to survive into the future.
How have you selected your internet programming?
My choices in my internet programming all have one thing in common: I was inspired in one way or another by it. The first piece that started it all came from my parents, actually, when they asked me to make a cello arrangement of the Taiwanese folk song “Spring Breeze” for my grandfather’s birthday. Based on Teng Yu-Hsien’s arrangement for violin and piano, I was inspired to change a few harmonies to add more jazzy tension into an Asian-styled piece, and I was also particularly proud of the four-part harmonies at the end. My next projects were “The Legend of Korra” and “Service and Sacrifice,” coming from the animated TV show “Legend of Korra.” For seven years, this show has been one of my favorites, and the music, composed by Jeremy Zuckerman, was absolutely stellar. Making the cello covers finally fulfilled my bucket list entry that came from when I was a teenager.
Then, I made a cello mashup of “Physical,” recorded in 2020 by Dua Lipa, and by Olivia Newton-John in 1981, going back to my roots in classical-pop fusion. After that, I had contacted a composer that I had met at a Klein Competition concert, the three-time Emmy-winning John Wineglass. I had stumbled across his “Death of a Princess” piano trio, and I wanted to try making a cello cover of a classical-styled piece in tribute to Princess Diana on the anniversary of her untimely death. My next project was “Tonari no Totoro” from the movie “My Neighbor Totoro.” For this one, I had actually dug up an old arrangement for a cello quartet I had made when I was 14, edited it heavily for five cellos, and asked my friends at Northwestern to play each part.
Finally, I made my music video for “Moon River,” by Jacob Collier. I had discovered Jacob’s music a year ago, and was absolutely moved by his incredibly ambitious uses of advanced jazz harmony to further color a piece. I think hearing the D half-sharp major section of Jacob’s “Moon River” is the most emotionally moving experience that I had ever had with music, which is why I spent so much effort on this project to make sure I could convey that very same emotional impact that I had felt. Long story short, I choose my pieces based on how meaningful I think they will be to me regardless of genre or popularity.
What is the response like?
So far the response to my videos has been overwhelmingly positive from everyone who has ever heard them! While my viewership numbers are not nearly as high as others, I think that my music videos are fulfilling musically by themselves. I also had the privilege of having a few of the artists see my videos. After making my “The Legend of Korra” video, I had shared it via a tweet to the composer, Jeremy Zuckerman. To my surprise, he actually saw my tweet and video and really liked it. Furthermore, when I shared my “Moon River” video on Instagram, Jacob Collier ended up seeing the video and really liked it as well, sharing the video in his Instagram story. To me as an artist, these kinds of interactions with the original artists are really fulfilling.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
I think it’s really important for those who want to do performing arts to be active on social media. It is hard to show your work to other people or build a following if you do not have a social-media presence. For me, I have only recently started to become active on all channels of social media, so I have a lot of work ahead of me in that regard.
What have you learned about your audience in this difficult time?
Music is really powerful and can bring people together no matter their background. I remember when I shared my “The Legend of Korra” video on Facebook, I received so many comments from a wide variety of people. In particular, I remember a pregnant commenter posting that she was playing my music for her baby. I spend so much time in the practice room or working on videos by myself that sometimes I forget that music is a social experience. The audience plays a critical role in the world of music.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
I think virtual performance is the future. It certainly is more time consuming in its own way, but it also opens up so many more possibilities that live performances cannot emulate.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
I would say to invest in professional-grade software for both video and audio. I personally use Logic Pro X for the audio, and Adobe Premiere Pro for the video. Most of the free options have severe limitations that you will run into really quickly. All of the video and audio editing software do have steep learning curves, so be patient and just try to figure out one thing at a time. I also think that excellence on the cello is extremely important for these kinds of projects. While I certainly encourage pursuing interesting video projects no matter your skill level, I also do think that a lot of the time technical deficiency can be an obstacle to the musical experience. This certainly applies to normal classical music as well.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen slowly?
My main goal is to get better at the cello. When I am not working on my videos, I have also been hard at work on the cello. I have made some breakthroughs in my classical repertoire during quarantine, and I can’t wait to be able to put my best foot forward when I get to finally perform again live. I am currently applying to pursue a master’s degree in cello performance! In the longterm, I would also like to pursue a D.M.A., and see if I could find a teaching position, as teaching is another one of my passions.
What projects are you working on?
I’ve had two major projects [during the pandemic], the first being Jacob Collier’s “Moon River.” The other major project I have in the works is a 30-minute Game of Thrones suite for five cellos. I had actually written out the music over a year ago, and my plan was to play the suite live for my senior recital at Northwestern. Obviously, the pandemic put an end to that, but I still wanted to finish what I had started. I am recording all five parts myself and will hopefully complete it soon. On October 30, I officially released an EP of “Moon River.” I have selected five of the best arrangements that also make sense musically together. You can find it on iTunes and Spotify and all major streaming platforms.
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
There has never been a better time to pursue your passion. The pandemic has given the gift of time alone for everyone, and it is up to all of you to find out how to use that gift most effectively. If you are a music student, try and get lessons from other teachers. All of it is online now, and all of the major teachers have already adapted to the challenges of online teaching. Access to teachers from all around the world has never been easier.