Ning Yu is a very talented pianist who specializes in performing today's cutting edge music. As a young girl growing up in China, Ning had the privilege of being accepted into the prestigious China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. After paying her dues in this disciplined learning institution, she enrolled in a music competition at the Idyllwild Arts institute in California. Ning was spotted right away and offered a full scholarship to the Academy at age fifteen. Her learning progression led her to other schools such as Eastman and Stony Brook and she eventually received her Doctorate. Now a New York native, Ning performs as a solo artist and also with very prominent ensembles such as Yarn/Wire, Bang on a Can All Stars, counter)induction, Ensemble Signal and others. Ning works with a wide variety of today's most innovative composers and is always ready to perform at the highest level. I recently caught up with the trendsetting artist.
N.Y. - Hello Robert
R.V.B. - Good morning. How are you today?
N.Y. - Very good.
R.V.B. - We have a rainy day here in New York.
N.Y. - Yeah I know... I'm back to New York now. How are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing good. How did your performance go up north?
N.Y. - Oh... very, very good. It went very well.
R.V.B. - How does it feel being on the cutting edge of today's new music?
N.Y. - How does it feel? It often feels to me as I try to do my best to make music. It feels simpler to play Beethoven or Bach actually. I mean not to say that the feeling of playing them is the same and I'm talking about emotional feeling. I'm talking about when I'm working on them and preparing them. The best way to express them. The process is the same but I guess you're not asking me about my playing process.
R.V.B. - The Beethoven standards have their own emotional feeling but the new music that you are tackling has a different type of feeling. It's new and it's exciting and it's different.
N.Y. - It is. It's very, very new. Often times, I get a piece and the notation is completely different from traditional notation and the technique is something that this composer has invented, or it's something very new that I haven't seen. It's very much like finding out in the lab. It's like trying out... different things and you imagine what the composer would be looking for. I often work with composers very closely. So after being in the so called "lab" and trying out different things. I have the opportunity to present those different options to the composers and ask "Is this what you're looking for?, or is that what you're looking for? I feel like... if we did it this way it would come out more what you're looking for?". Things like that.
R.V.B. - I noticed that when I saw the city performance in the Bruno Auditorium, you acknowledged that the composer was in the audience. You actually pointed at her.
N.Y. - Whenever there is a composer present in the hall we always do that. It is not possible in most concerts, because you cannot point to Beethoven. (Hahaha) It's a common practice in new music that if the composer is present, you always acknowledge them. I'll often bow with them if they created the work.
R.V.B. - I sampled some Yarn/Wire videos on Youtube, and I noticed apart from it being very trendsetting and cutting edge... you did some techniques such as picking the strings inside the piano.
N.Y. - I do a lot of that. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - When you did that with the percussion instruments playing at the same time, it gave it a very unusual sound. Do you work with different composers with that group?
N.Y. - Yes, very much so. That all came from the last century, so the piece that you actually heard is George Crumb from 1979 "Music for Summer Nights". Yarn Wire is actually found on the instrumentation from that masterpiece. Of course there is earlier Bartok sonatas for piano and percussion. It essentially came from that instrumentation and all of those techniques that George Crumb used. Basically it's a whole genre for piano. I use the inside of the piano so much. At the Yarn/Wire rehearsal studio, our piaon lid is never on the piano because we have to access the inside of the piano at almost every rehearsal.
R.V.B. - Did John Cage also experiment with that technique?
N.Y. - Of course, I'm not sure if John Cage was the very first.
R.V.B. - Now you put various items in the strings also right?
N.Y. - Yes, a lot of bolts, nails and all of that stuff which is called a prepared piano. It's being prepared for pre-performance. It changes the entire timber of the piano. It was really revolutionary.
R.V.B. - Now when you grew up in China. What kind of music did you start with? The usual classical standards? Did you take formal lessons at a very young age in China?
N.Y. - Yes I did... in every traditional way that you could imagine. I started as a classical pianist and I still play classical music. I started when I was five. I went to Shen Yang Conservatory. That's the city that I grew up in, and then when I was twelve I started more serious professional training. I went to the Central Conservatory in Beijing. It was more like a boarding situation... we all lived at the school. I moved to Beijing. Most of the training was very, very classical. The China Conservatories were very influenced by the Moscow Conservatories. The teachers all had their degrees from Moscow back in the early ages. So all the music and all the technique was very Russian influenced.
N.Y. - Yes, of course. One of the requirements in American Conservatories at the year end juries as a test, you have to play a 20th or 21st centuries piece. In China when I was growing up, you must play Chinese composed music. By then, a lot of the Chinese pieces were actually transcriptions of much older music written for other instruments like erhu and the pipa. There are a lot of transcriptions of old music for them. Of course there were Chinese composers as well, but we didn't play experimental music... it was much more traditional.
R.V.B. - Were you bread to be a musician right from the start in China. Did you know that's what you were going to do in your life?
N.Y. - You know it did seem like I was going to be on that track. Even though it was very vague as a child because growing up in China is very different than growing up in America. I've been in America for almost twenty years and I see some of my students... the way they grow up and it's very different. So at a young age, if you were accepted at a conservatory... you were being trained as a professional for the future. That is your job. Many of my friends, once they came to America for schooling and college changed their career path. But yes, while we were in China, if you were accepted at one of the best conservatories... your tract was to become a musician.
R.V.B. - So did you enjoy yourself as a young girl? How much did you have to practice?
N.Y. - In my adult years, I practice soooo much. I don't know I have so much discipline, because before I went to the conservatory in Beijing, I was not a very disciplined child. The conservatory put so much pressure on the kids. There was such an aura of competitiveness you just cannot resist. I mean I really enjoyed myself, but looking back I don't know how nurturing it was. Frankly, I don't really remember being encouraged. It was more of an aura of "You must live up to the standards of the school.". I still have fond memories. I was only there for two and a half years before I came to America for high school.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up here and where did you first come to?
N.Y. - When I was fifteen, one of my father's friends who is a pianist, suggested that I do a competition out in California. The competition was called "The Idyllwild International Young Artist Competition". The competition was hosted by The Idyllwild Arts Academy which is up in the mountains in a beautiful place. Do you know Interlochen? that's a bigger version of Idlewild.
R.V.B. - Yes, I'm aware of that one. That's the school in Michigan.
N.Y. - Idyllwild has maybe 270 kids all together... out of those, there are 70 kids who are musicians. It was almost a boutiquie' kind of high school academy. The music competition was for all kids under the age of 18. So I went to the competition, and I was offered a full scholarship to study there. The school approached my father, who was with me at the time and of course my father said yes. That was my first contact in the music world in America. I went to Idlewild for a year and a half and from there I went to Manhattan Prep Music School. I was there for one year before I went to Eastman.
R.V.B. - Was it a big adjustment for you getting used to the American lifestyle?
N.Y. - Very much so. Like I told you, we were trained to be super self disciplined at the school in China. I was living with thirteen other girls in one huge dorm room and we had to take care of ourselves with basically everything. In the early 1990's China was very, very different than the kids growing up there now.
R.V.B. - Things have changed?
N.Y. - Things have changed so much. The economy is very different. I was told by my parents that I lived in a honey jar, compared to when they grew up. looking at the kids now... it's very different. I remember having one tiny little dresser with one drawer and a small storage area for all my stuff at the dorm. There was thirteen other girls in the same room. When I moved to Idyllwild, there was a gi-nomous' beautiful cafeteria. You got to eat anything you want. I had a one bedroom apartment with a Japanese girl with a piano in the second room. That was like nothing I've ever seen or imagined. I felt like the kids were being praised much more. So that was very hard for me to adjust to even though maybe they didn't work as hard as they could have. They were still being praised and encouraged.
R.V.B. - It sounds very rural where you first went to school in America. How was the move to a big city like New York?
N.Y. - Oh yes, I moved to Manhattan when I was sixteen all by myself. It was the result of many reasons. That's why I moved from such a beautiful place into Manhattan. My parents didn't have much money and if I left the school, I left all the privilege of the scholarship. I also had full boarding and everything. So when I moved to Manhattan, I had very limited money and I had to cook by myself. I rented a place on my own... a room in this lady's house. I signed myself up at a Catholic school because that was a year in 1996, where all of a sudden the American government decided that foreigners cannot go to public school. I think things might have changed slightly since then but that was the first year that that law was being put into act. I was about to go to LaGuardia High School and then go to Manhattan School of Music on the weekend but all of a sudden I couldn't. So I had to sign myself up to a private Catholic school.
R.V.B. - That's not necessarily a bad move because Catholic schools give a good education.
N.Y. - It did... in fact that was the only time in my life where I went to a school that was not a music school. Very interesting, I've never been to a normal school in my life before. All the teachers were super supportive because they found out I could play the piano, so I basically played every single school function. I actually skipped my senior year and went to Eastman. It was very hard as a sixteen year old living on my own in Manhattan in New York. Hahaha
R.V.B. - Well you must have got a little street smarts under your wing though.
N.Y. - (Hahaha) A tiny little bit but I did get really tough. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy the Eastman experience?
N.Y. - Very much... Eastman was amazing. I met so many of my colleagues now from Eastman when I was eighteen. It's something that I didn't imagine. Half the people I ran into, I play with and associate with are from my student days at Eastman. When I was at Eastman, I had only been in America for about three years at the time. My English was "Ok" but not as good as now. Eastman has pretty tough academics, so it was a big challenge so I learned all kinds of things about myself.
N.Y. - Oh thank you.
R.V.B. - I see you received your Doctorate at Stony Brook. I'm about ten minutes from there.
N.Y. - Yes I did. At Stony Brook I studied with Christina Dahl, and I feel she's responsible for making me the pianist that I could be. I'm talking about the way I play. I really am grateful and have so much respect for her. I actually met her when I was sixteen going to Eastern Music Festival and then years later, when I was doing the Doctorate... I auditioned at Stony Brook and then became her student again. Stony Brook is another place where the other half of my colleagues which includes everyone at Yarn Wire. So Yarn Wire is...
R.V.B. - An entity that is entirely represented by Stony Brook alumni?
N.Y. - Yep. Everybody has a Doctorate at Stony Brook.
R.V.B. - Did you live on Campus or did you commute there?
N.Y. - I commuted. It was a little difficult from Manhattan several times a week. At the time I was already involved with some of the performances in Manhattan.
R.V.B. - So when you made the transition into your professional career... how did you go about it? Did you take jobs playing standard classical music?
N.Y. - You know I never did. I did play standard classical concerts, but they were never really part of the "new" music. My very first professional job lasted about ten years. I got really lucky, and basically traveled the world. It was right out of Eastman before I even graduated. In my last year at Eastman I was involved in this avant garde theater with a group called Mabou Mines. It is basically a group that Philip Glass and Lee Breuer started back in the 1960's.
R.V.B. - Was that was more of a theatrical type of production?
N.Y. - The production, was actually me playing classical music. I was playing Edvard Grieg. So I was playing a lot of Grieg's short pieces. The show was about two and a half hours long and that was all the music I played, and I was the only musician for that. It was a very, very unique situation and production, and I learned so much from it.
R.V.B. - Is that the outfit that you went all over Europe, the Middle East and to Moscow with?
N.Y. - Yes, we did a lot of shows because the show was very successful. It got put on the best festivals in the world basically. I met a lot of people and played a lot.
R.V.B. - You played a lot of really nice halls, I'm sure.
N.Y. - Exactly... I was only like twenty three during that and at the early stages of the show, I did some workshops at the Sundance Theater Institute. I went there and met a lot of people. On Broadway, I did Beethoven... and it was called Thirty Three Variations starring Jane Fonda. That was with Moises Kaufman. He had heard me play at Sundance with Mabou Mines. He hired me to play Beethoven Diabelli Variations. It was really funny. It was always like this. I was never intentionally doing one thing or another so...
R.V.B. - It's just the way it turned out
N.Y. - Yeah, so one person heard me playing this and asked me to do that, and I started pulling in a lot of my friends at Eastman and that became a group called "Ensemble Signal"... and I was playing with them a lot. Then someone recommended me to Bang on a Can All-Stars... and I was playing with them for a couple of years. Then Yarn/Wire asked me to join them.
R.V.B. - How long have you been with Yarn/Wire?
N.Y. - Over four years now.
R.V.B. - Now do you change up the pieces for different performances?
N.Y. - We have our own repertoire but we do change music a lot. In the last couple of years our repertoire has become more popular and more acceptable with some of the presenters. So we are able to present the same pieces at several concerts. In my first couple of years with Yarn/Wire, we were literally playing different pieces every concert, which was pretty stressful.
R.V.B. - I could imagine. What was the process of deciding who plays what part?... because there was obviously two talented pianists.
N.Y. - It's soooo easy... basically we look at the part and it's like "Hey, can you take this part and I'll take that part?". It's like "sure" or it's like "Do you mind if I take this part this time and you can have it the next time?". It's very cordial.
R.V.B. - I noticed that your schedule is very busy. It looks like you have a lot of work.
N.Y. - Yeah... last year and this year has just become super crazy to me. Some of my friends are even more busy, and have more concerts than me, but for me I have become quite busy and I'm thankful. I just need to be on top of things and be at my best for all concerts.
R.V.B. - Now throughout your monthly routine, do you mix performances with meeting composers and rehearsing? Do you have a practice regiment to stay on top of the latest music?
N.Y. - Yes, especially with Yarn/Wire. We do a lot of concerts and we commission a lot of new composers. I get tons of emails every day. These days are different. It's really hard to meet with get composers if they are from Norway. In the morning I go through emails setting up logistics for booking. I do my own booking. I do everything on my own. the groups that I play with don't have agents. Everybody's fending for themselves.
R.V.B. - Are you the leader of these groups?
N.Y. - No, there is no leader. It's purely a group effort. For example, Yarn/Wire does quite a bit on concerts and we all have our own projects that we work on. So yeah, it's really a group effort. One of the percussionists takes care of all the budget. The other percussionist takes care of all the media by sending out emails and sends out our twitter feeds. One of them does all the testing. I try to do as much booking for us as possible. I'm basically reaching out to a lot of people and saying "we would love to present this program. "Would it be possible for this and that?".
R.V.B. - I noticed with Yarn/Wire, that sometimes you have the acoustic piano and I saw pictures when you have an electronic pianos. What do you have in your rehearsal studio?
N.Y. - Our rehearsal studio is so crazy right now. Right now we have four pianos and five to seven different kinds of keyboards and unlimited percussion gear. It's crazy there right now. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - I appreciate what you are doing with your music. You are kind of taking chances in the fact that the music isn't for everybody, but I would think that it's more of a select audience than let's say if you're playing straight ahead classical.
N.Y. - That's very true. In New York we are in partnership with ISSUE Project room. That's the only concert series that Yarn/Wire actually produces in partnership with another institution. So everything else we're being hired. ISSUE Project has a certain following so people who go there are really... of course there are a lot of first time comers, but they have built a huge audience for music that's much more experimental... more genre bending if you may. So we do have quite a nice following in New York who know us, and the rest of the country so we literally go to a place in the middle of Ohio and people and people come up to us after the concert and say "Wow, we love you guys. We just drove two hours to come to this concert." and I'm like "really... wow?".
R.V.B. - Well it sounds like you're doing something right. It's nice to have a draw and it's always about connecting with the audience.
N.Y. - Exactly, we really try hard not to be just weird or kind of strange on purpose. We just really want to present the music that we feel strongly about, the best we can... to really bring out the composers voice. If we really believe in it and be really sincere and honest about the work that we do, hopefully people will enjoy it also. Of course there will be always someone in the audience that will say "Well that was king of interesting? I have no idea what you just did, because it's so out there". So there are a lot of those comments also, but it's ok because I feel that their vocabulary just expanded just a little bit. They are less likely to walk away and not think about it again. They're trying like "Why was that so weird? Why was that so unusual to me?". So then that would be good if they are thinking about it a little bit.
R.V.B. - That's true, you're changing their way of thinking. Do you have more and more composers approaching you to do their music?
N.Y. - Yeah, we have more and more composers approaching us and saying "We'd love to do a project with you. I have written a piece for your instrumentation... would you take a look at it?". We have a lot of those inquiries. A lot of things, believe it or not are based on logistics. I can send you a picture of our set up at EMPAC that we just played. We had three large pianos all being prepared on stage in different ways and it was crazy. I mean, the was an incredible amount of wire and gear on the stage.
R.V.B. - I can imagine that it takes a lot of time to set that up.
N.Y. - Oh yeah, usually people can say "Ok the show's at 8, let's do a soundcheck and dress rehearsal from 4 to 6.". For us it an all day long ordeal, and then after the concert we have to take it all down and pack it up. We have a lot of homemade instruments as well that we use because the composer wants a specific sound. So if the composer gives us a project proposal and it's entirely not possible, we really cannot do it.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I can see the preparation that's involved in putting on a production like that. Do you guys all live in close proximity to each other?
N.Y. - Not that local. I live in Manhattan right near Columbia University and the other three all live in Queens. The two percussionists live in Ridgewood... very close to our rehearsal studio, within walking distance. The other pianist lives a little further up in queens.
R.V.B. - So you take the subway to rehearsal.
N.Y. - Yeah, and it's an hour commute each way
R.V.B. - How often do you rehearse?
N.Y. - We rehearse pretty often, basically two to three times a week which is about eight to ten hours every week.
R.V.B. - It sounds like you're in the midst of a trend setting career. I think it's fantastic and some of it must be very difficult to play.
N.Y. - My husband is not in music, but he's very supportive. I also give solo concerts that include Beethoven and Bach which he really loves. Although it doesn't matter what I play, he's always supportive and he always brings his friends. When he does bring his friends they usually ask "Oh, what kind of music do you play?". I'm always a little bit speechless in how to describe the music that we play with different groups or even on my own with some of the solo work. I don't want to scare them off with my description and at the same time I don't want them to hate me after the concert. (Hahaha) It's like "Why did you bring me to this? (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - Well you know having a supportive husband is a very important thing because you obviously have a talent that you have to showcase and people want to see it and it's a continual process that takes time and effort.
N.Y. - Yes, it's so much work. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - Well thank you very much for spending this morning with me.
N.Y. - Thank you so much for reaching out to me.
R.V.B. - Have a nice day.
N.Y. - You too.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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