Updated: May 6
1. What is your name and your profession(s)? Serene (Ethnic: 树风 (I never use it)). I am a concert pianist and computer scientist.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? Mostly Chinese. US citizen, naturalized.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Neither of my parents are musicians.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. The contexts I grew up in are a mix-up. East coast, West coast, Midwest -- before that, Canada, and before that, China, which I emigrated from as a 6 month-old and remember nothing. So, my ability to deal with Language and normal questions like “where are you from?” is a little strange. One of the fun default follow-up questions “no, where are you originally from?” ranks up there with “wow you’re tall, do you play basketball?” in the world of NPC-like semantic reactions.
I genuinely thought Chinese and English were the same language when I was little. (In a metalinguistic sense they are.) My first words were in both, and I kept using both languages in the same sentences for a while. Of course I got made fun of for that, and attempting to explain sapir-whorf to other little kids didn’t work very well.
With constant shifts, I never felt any place was my “hometown.” Certainly, being AAPI was part of that, with different flavors of treatment depending on context. As I grew older, got different kinds of attention, plus the crossing of socioeconomic boundaries - many things changed. Some places treated me rather badly, while other places I loved. Of everywhere I’ve been, NYC has felt like most like home to me so far, with Vienna, Budapest, and San Francisco pre-2014 in the running. Though I speak both, neither Chinese nor English ever felt like my “native tongue” - nor any other language like Russian, Japanese, etc. But music does.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? Not much at all, at least if by cultural heritage we mean what described by ethnicities or geographies.
On the other hand, I feel quite connected to the heritage of music, classical music, and some sub-cultures like the world of obsessive piano nerds :)
In addition, I do feel quite connected to our shared experience of being creatures on a rock flying through space, which is much more interesting to me than hometown affiliations, genetic lineages, and nationstates.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? I always loved music, but I did not major in music or attend conservatory. The piano chose me, nevertheless. Since childhood, I kept finding - perhaps by instinct - pianos out in the wild. You’d have to pull me off them, they made more sense than anything else in my life, and I’d just keep playing.
My degree is in Computer Science, from Carnegie Mellon University. Whilst there, after long coding sessions and projects -- perhaps deep in a compiler or microkernel -- I would in a daze feel a piano somewhere calling to me, and I would be compelled to go play it immediately. So I’d sneak into the theatre building, or drama school, where such delectable piano(s) existed... and play from midnight til dawn. That’s how I learned Gaspard de la Nuit in a week. All-night piano binges kept me centered. I graduated one year early to immediately begin working at Google, which saved a lot of time and money, so I could finally begin to afford a piano of my own.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? The process of getting into music professionally happened sort of inevitably, though certainly non-linearly. While an engineer at Google NYC, there was a Yamaha Upright (U3) in of one of the main event rooms on the 4th floor. I found myself playing it all the time. This gradually became my “desk.” With laptop beside piano, I’d code, then whilst waiting for it to compile, I would practice. Coworkers would often hang around and listen to me play. Something was happening.
During those days, I lived on an old Catalina 30 sailboat on the Hudson river. (Within walking distance from Google.) My nautical neighbors included a wonderful elderly couple on a giant mississippi paddle-wheeled riverboat, a beautiful floating triple-decker which contained a grand piano. They took me in, and I found myself playing on that boat quite a lot, even doing some pretty cool fundraiser performances. Thankfully not sinking any boats. I also found myself at that thing in the desert, and went on “piano quests” to find and play every piano. Folks would join me on this journey, which resulted in fun things like performing on that Boeing 747 and such. One adventure led to another, like being featured pianist for Flower Piano in Golden Gate Park, which I’ve done every year since its inception. Or in various bars and churches. At first, the gigs were definitely not frequent or lucrative compared to later (and even if they were, none of this is guaranteed to be pandemic-proof...) but that didn’t affect whether I wanted to play the piano all the time. It became clear to me that in order to take my music situation as far as possible, I’d have to quit all that other stuff somehow, while still being able to eat.
I didn’t have a “credentials”, or backing. All I had was the way I played the piano, and how people felt when I did. But that was enough. More and more people started paying me to perform. Eventually I got invited to solo with orchestras, the first being in San Francisco, to perform at Herbst Theatre, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto which I learned in 3 weeks.
Some other pianists have had the benefit of stable homes with nice pianos while growing up. It took a bit longer for me to obtain that... so I had a great sense of urgency when I did have a good piano to work on. Time was of the essense.
My decision to leave the cushy tech job was generally unsupported, and quite a lot of people thought I was crazy to quit Google. I thought it’d be crazy not to play the piano all the time.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. - Learning Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in one month and performing it. It’s supposedly the “Mount Everest” of piano -- there’s some film called SHINE about a conservatoire pianist who literally goes crazy trying to play it and has a psychotic breakdown. Here’s the first time I recorded it, with the Macedonian Philharmonic. https://youtu.be/kq1suXK0sqI?t=2493
- Last fall, I ended up combining some engineering chops with music chops, to thow together a driveable piano rig. I’d drive with my knees, while playing. In addition, I connected the audio to some code I wrote for synesthetic particle effects, which got 360-projected on the walls of PORTAL at AREA15. This was while working in Vegas with the founder of Blue Man Group.
- Before the pandemic, I was a composer on Kanye West’s opera, which was premiered at Art Basel and Lincoln Center. A very interesting experience.
In recent years, I’ve done a partnership with Bogányi Gergely and Hungary to bring one of their Carbon Fiber Concert Grand pianos to the US for the first time, and created a livestream during peak pandemic.
As far as other endorsements and such, I have a couple standing offers and ongoing conversations.... stay tuned.
8. Describe your dream project. As always, there’s tons of repertoire I’m excited to play, and that’s already a life-long project. I’d also love to compose more, and write some piano concertos too.
If we want to have fun with this question, I’d say.... A dream would be to perform those piano concertos in space :) Perhaps in an orbital concert hall. Think: an epic orchestra of cyborg musicians, playing on futuristic instruments suited for extreme-environments (probably with graphene components, all of which is yet to be designed and engineered) yet capable of producing profoundly beautiful sound due to humans having figured out much better acoustics and aesthetics technology. We’d record those concerts to generate musical artifacts, and launch them far away into the stars like Voyager. A fun way to celebrate the new stage of civilization, as we’d probably have to be at least a Kardachev I+ to do this project ;)
But back to this planet. For me, I just love to create, play, and share music. In any context. Even on a half-broken street piano. As long as the music can move you, renew spirits, or improve the day of the listener even a little bit. That is a dream - which had already been an ongoing and evolving reality.
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? One of the challenges I’ve faced in classical music is coming from a non-traditional path. Not having gone to conservatory, while also being AAPI, adds an interesting twist given expectations of “asian classical pianists.” Of course those obstacles were only one of the many I had to surpass to first *have a piano*.
Previously, I have considered piano competitions. Often they would ignore my application, and not even listen to my recordings. The combination of being “yet another asian pianist” -- but without a nice conservatory to list on the application, means they write me off. But, since the point is to play concerts, which I already do, I don’t mind. Plus, the work I do to prepare audition recordings prepares me for my actual concerts, which is great.
In general, there’s a “double-bind” of being AAPI, I think in in any field. Factoring in age-ism, misogyny, and whatever other identity-politics thing is hot in the current news cycle, the pattern I’ve seen is: if you’re <something favorable>, it’s not because of you. It’s because of your race/identity/age/noun. However, if you’re <something unfavorable>, it’s definitely because of you! Specifically, you’re also disappointment to your race/identity/age/noun. E.g. If you’re good at playing an instrument, it’s not because of hard work and talent -- it’s because “of course you play the piano, you’re asian” and/or had a “tiger mom” (I didn’t) and/or whatever “model minority” assumptions are in play. While pursuit of excellence is great, I’ve also seen this judgementalism internal to asian communities upon themselves, a sort of self-flagelation. If we zoom one level up, the default behavior of judging and assigning “credit” based on limited perception, then fixating on the noun-based concepts rather than verb-based concepts -- which is a combination of fundamental attribution error and confirmation bias -- is hurting everyone, musicians, artists, and creators of any sort, culturally, economically, and spiritually.
Beyond the music world, another obstacle I’ve dealt with relates to being fetishized as an asian woman. The usual pattern is, someone starts projecting whatever desires and ideas they have about the “exotic china doll” which has just come into their field of vision onto me, can’t take responsibility for what’s in their own head, and then blame me, and attempt to control / punish / scapegoat. I don’t want to talk too much about the yellow fever thing, as there are some pretty funny things on the internet already which address it wonderfully. But, it certainly still exists, and has been rather inconvenient at times.
As usual, my solution is just to say “fuck that, time to go play the piano.”
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? 10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? There are many AAPI artists out there who inspire me. First of all, you, Summer! For not only being badass on the keys, but also putting together this awesome project for AAPI month. In addition, there are so many folks out there who are amazing on all kinds of instruments, styles, devoted to their craft and everything in inspiring ways. Tina Guo, Conrad Tao, Yuja Wang, Yvette Young... if I keep going it would overflow the page (which it seems has already happened).
I’m inspired by work in all creative fields (which definitely includes science and mathematics!) Generally anyone who has the curiosity and drive to dive deep into hard stuff and figure out as much as possible. All these seemingly different paths lead to the same essential task: exploring this amazing universe, and how to exist and do stuff in it. I’ve found that when you explore seemingly-disparate fields deep enough, you start to find many interesting and connections which surprisingly complementary aspects of your craft(s). If you’re also an engineer-artist of some sort, hit me up, there’s lots of cool stuff to do! :)
I hope that AAPIs, and everyone, can enjoy the beauty of music together. Without nonsense, violence, misunderstandings, pettiness, and the general squandering of time and energy on things which aren’t simply creating amazing things together.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? The “fuck it, time to play the piano” instinct is correct. Keep doing that!
Trust that your memory is great, perhaps world-class. After all, with all that concert rep you easily memorize... if it seems someone is trying to gaslight you, they are! Oh by the way, don’t date the wrong person, and don’t get scapegoated by jealous people.
Only live on a sailboat in NYC if you’re ready to almost freeze to death.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? I have upcoming new records and recording projects, one with an exciting new label in NYC, in which I’ll play some Russian Jazz. I’m also building some fun VSTs & sample-packs which you’ll hear more about soon. I’ve recently become Artist in Residence at Klavierhaus, and in addition to performances, will probably work on more fun combinations of my piano and technology.
Non-music related: as we all know, it’s been a tremendously screwed up year. I almost died a couple times, but have survived. So, overall I’m very excited to keep bringing beautiful things back to NYC, as it, and the world, comes back to life!
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. In my former career, both as the first Software Engineer at Google IDEAS, and Senior Research Fellow at UC Berkeley, I worked on internet freedom. This is a super-nerd world of online infrastructure and network protocols, the layer underneath all those apps and websites which most people don’t think about -- but that stuff is very important to keep the internet in good shape. If you’re at all familiar with some of those tools, you might have actually used some code I’ve written. In this digital world, where our lives are so mediated by internet (including as artists and musicians, we’re in some ways rather obligated to participate in whatever platform is current...) internet freedom is a basic human right with direct effect on economic survival. Thankfully, the privacy and mass surveillance questions have finally gone mainstream in the last handful of years, but things are far from in a good state to actually preserve our freedoms of expression and freedoms of access to unfiltered information and knowledge. As soon as the substrate for our online existence is manipulated... we’re cooked.
I also used to live on a sailboat, which I converted to solar. One weekend I extricated the old Atomic-4 gas engine out by myself using some lines and winches and almost died. I currently ride a ZERO (electric) motorcycle, and in 2015 I went on a solo motorcycle ride from NYC to SF.
14. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? I usually don’t write this many words - I prefer just playing the piano. But, due to almost dying a couple times recently, relating to the asian thing (the threats weren’t limited to online) I figured I do want to share my voice and take a stand to stop hate. Thanks for reading all this.
A question for the AAPI community / everyone is: how to heal? Rather than succumb to target fixation. Which I see happening in many other identity-politic related movements. Let me describe quickly - one thing I think about sometimes, from motorcycling for 10 years, is “target fixation.” It causes many crashes. Eg. When you’re on a tight turn, and there’s something scary ahead which you want to avoid crashing into, the fact that your eyes are tracking it mean your body will naturally cause your momentum to crash into the thing you don’t want to crash into. The solution is to track and focus on the path you actually want to go. I think this is a great metaphor.
Final thoughts... if you’re a musician, always remember to begin with the music you love. Even if you’re busy as hell, play what makes you come most alive, which you’d perform for yourself regardless of anything or anybody else.
One thing I really appreciated from the CMU days was this Carnegie quote:
“My Heart is in the Work”.
Photo provided by Serene