Valerie Chiang on Classical Piano

1. What's your background with music exactly? Has your relationship with listening and playing changed over time?

I started playing the piano when I was three, almost four years old. I went to a music conservatory for the first two years of college before transferring to a different school to study TV/Film.

It changes, and it continues to change. Playing, at least. Listening, probably not so much. I want to go back and play all the pieces I learned before, because I know I will interpret them differently now. Maturity plays a big part in that. I see toddlers on YouTube tackling huge works that are much too difficult for them to understand emotionally. They’re obviously very talented and technically proficient, even prodigious, but their playing has no soul. They can’t possibly understand the composer’s intent. And it’s not even their fault; they just haven’t experienced enough in their life to play a piece like that.

2. What does music do for you that photography doesn't? What about the reverse?

It allows me to express emotion physically and immediately, like all forms of performing arts. And it doesn’t last, so it’s very in-the-moment. Every performance is different.

As for the reverse, I’ve never been very good with music theory, so I don’t compose my own music. Photography allows me to create something, whereas in music, I’m interpreting someone else’s work.

3. When you're driving and making photographs what sort of music do you listen to?

One of my friends likes to joke that I have an archive of different playlists for different situations, like “San Francisco – Rainy Day,” or “Desert – Sunny Day”, and in some ways, I do! I usually pick artists whose music reminds of the landscape outside my car window. Townes van Zandt is great for mountains, Tom Waits or Billie Holiday are favorites for when I’m driving through cities at night. The song I always listen to at sunrise on a highway is Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Cheesy? Yeah, probably.

4. When you're listening to/playing music do you visualize anything?

Well, when I was studying piano, I would listen to the pieces I was learning at the time and visualize myself playing them. It would help me figure out what parts I still needed to work on, especially when it came to memorization.

I think the first band that directly inspired me to create something based on the images that came to mind was Beirut. I was in my last year of high school, and I made a lot of photographs at the beaches in North Carolina that year. Their songs reminded me of melodies you would hear in the background of Super 8 home movies, and I started to plan out photo shoots that were in that same nostalgic vein.

I’m still very inspired by music when it comes to shooting portraits or fashion. Like for Beirut, I’ll usually imagine the song as some kind of cinematic score, and create characters or scenes based on the lyrics and melody.

5. Which musician did you admire during your youth? Why were they so special to you?

I’ve always loved J. S. Bach. To a lot of young musicians, playing Bach is like eating broccoli, something that is necessary to become a better musician but not particularly enjoyable.

Bach was the music director for two churches in Leipzig, Germany, and a lot of his compositions were choral works, which are by definition polyphonic, or having multiple melody lines. He wrote for other instruments, including the piano, in the same way, with two, three, four, sometimes even five different voices all playing at once and independent from one another. They’re never muddled together, but it’s also the musician’s job (and challenge) to bring out each voice. Each voice gets its chance to shine, so to speak. It’s like an imaginary society where every person is equally important. And I think that’s very beautiful.

6. Are there any instruments you'd love to learn how to play?

Yes, the banjo! Such a unique sound, and so full of history. There’s a documentary called Bring Me The Banjo that’s pretty well done. I’d recommend it to others who are also banjo enthusiasts.

7. How does the process of getting better at photography differ from getting better as a musician, if at all?

I used to think that getting better at photography was all in the mind. In piano, the act of pressing down the keys and the different ways in which you do them – the weight of your keystroke, how your finger comes into contact with the key, how long you hold each key down, etc – requires tremendous patience and deliberate thought as well as muscle memory to completely master. It’s very physical.

In photography, everything happens outside of the very tool you’re using to create the photo – where your subject is placed in relation to the light, what colors are inside your frame, etc -- and sometimes you have no control over any of those things. When you’re ready to take the picture, you press the shutter once. Beaton or Eggleston presses the shutter the same way you or I would, there’s no “special” way to do it.

So I thought that having a so-called “eye” for photos was something that one was either born with or without, and the act of taking a photograph and capturing something worthwhile owed itself a lot to luck. To be in the right place at the right time. Which is partly true, but the mere act of seeing takes time to develop and refine. I’ve learned to simplify, to subtract unwanted things from within my frame, and to observe the world in the way I want to see it portrayed. And there are also other technical things that took trial and error to figure out. There’s a lot of nuance to photography that I didn’t appreciate until I began to study it seriously.

8. Can you link us to a YouTube clip of a musical performance that really moves you?