Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
Although I’d learnt a number of instruments, I first got really passionate about taking music further when I discovered contemporary music and the unique thrill of composition. During my undergrad years at the University of Sydney (while studying a number of other things including Mathematics and Philosophy), my energies became increasingly focussed on performance, playing the works of composers of today (and particularly those I knew as fellow students). Although a lot has changed, this remains the focus of my work, and it’s inspiring to work at the cutting edge of the art form.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I had a series of great teachers from my late teens onwards: my teacher in Australia, Ransford Elsley, had some eccentric ideas about technique, including that all the tools for playing Messiaen or Xenakis could be found in Chopin’s Etudes. Rolf Hind, my teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London, taught me a lot about the art of interpretation, but also about being an artist – he has a holistic approach to his work and life (including yoga, meditation and veganism) which I’ve found inspirational. And he remains a great friend and mentor.
I’d also need to mention some of the greatest teachers of all have been my chamber music colleagues, especially the members of Ensemble Offspring, who I’ve not played with for 14 years, as well as duo partners like Thomas Adés, Brett Dean, Neil Heyde and Rolf Hind.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
As my career has grown, the biggest challenge has been juggling a busy schedule – not just learning the repertoire, but pitching to promoters, negotiating contracts, marketing, getting composers organised, fundraising, my research/lecturing position at Royal Holloway.… and also trying to eat, sleep and exercise and have a life outside of work.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The big piano and multimedia tours I’ve done in the last few years: Dark Twin, Cyborg Pianist and now currently, Piano Ex Machina, are my proudest achievements – they’ve been major creative projects, often featuring 6-8 new works by leading composers (including most recently, Alexander Schubert) all innovating new ways of combining the piano with new technologies, and they’ll all really connected with audiences internationally and played to festivals and series like Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Klang Festival (Copenhagen), Transistor Festival (Mälmo), Podium Festival (Esslingen) Melbourne Festival and Unerhörte Musik Berlin.
And I remain very proud of the double concerto I performed, alongside Rolf Hind, by Beat Furrer (under his baton) with the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a career highlight.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
The works I think work best for me are often tailored to me by composers – a lot of recent works by Alexander Schubert, Adam de la Cour, Neil Luck, Claudia Molitor, Christopher Fox, Scott McLaughlin and others have all worked with my love of extended techniques, of integrating theatre into performance, interaction with film and interactive media, wild changes in tone (from incredibly intense to light and comic) as well as referencing my abilities to play a lot of key works from the canon.
I still enjoy playing a lot of those major canonical works, particularly 20th century works like Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Bartok’s 2nd piano concerto, John Adams’ Phrygian Gates, John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and lots of Messiaen. And I also feel an affinity for Baroque and pre-Baroque repertoire, which I’ve started including in mixed programmes – a recent one combining British contemporary works, with 17th-18th century composers like John Bull, William Byrd, Orland Gibbons and Henry Purcell worked particularly well.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’ll be talking to dozens of composers at any point, with each collaboration often taking years of gestation – at the moment the general theme has been screen cultures including film, TV, video games and the internet, and it often becomes clear as I talk to them how these programmes will emerge (and how they might be combined with existing works with similar concerns).
Other programmes (like my Ancient/Modern British keyboard music project) start with a clear vision and quite a few works already arranged, and then it’s about commissioning to complete the missing pieces of the project. And as someone who performs a lot of chamber and ensemble repertoire, a lot of programming choices are made collaboratively, and there’s often a lot of different factors to juggle.
One thing that’s important in all these decisions is to consider how diverse the composers represented on these programmes are. I don’t like quotas, but if you’re only programming music written by cis white men, you need to consider whether you’re exacerbating structural inequalities in the industry, and also missing out on a lot of great music.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Melbourne Recital Centre has the wonderful Salon space. Excellent acoustic (that can be adjusted to a very fine degree), excellent choice of pianos, excellent tech (including the best projector I’ve ever used), and excellent staff. And of course, the audience is a big part of it, and I’ve had a great reception from sell-out crowds there over many years.
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are so many inspirational performers I know in new music: pianists Rolf Hind, Vicky Chow, Adam Tendler, Philip Thomas, Sebastian Berweck, Siwan Rhys, Eliza McCarthy; vocalists Lore Lixenberg, Jane Sheldon, Jessica Azsodi; string players Mira Benjamin, Brett Dean, Anton Lukoszevieze; wind players Peter Knight, Heather Roche, Carla Rees; and percussionists Claire Edwardes, Eugene Ughetti, Joby Burgess and Colin Currie.
In terms of pianists specifically, there are so many great ones who are a constant source of inspiration, like Glenn Gould, Alfred Cortot, Ignaz Friedman, Leon Fleisher, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladamir Sofronitsky, Samson François as well as iconic new music pianists like
David Tudor, Roger Woodward and Yuji Takahashi, and improvisers like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
And when it comes to composers it’s a long list of favourites, and if they’re on my list I try to meet them and find a way to collaborate.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Playing John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes at Melbourne Festival, and becoming completely hypnotised by the prepared piano sounds – you only really hear this piece when you’ve got all the preparations exactly right, and in a really great acoustic space, so it was a disembodied experience, like I was playing the work and enjoying listening as a member of the audience at the same time.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Success, in any of the arts, is a really problematic concept. Is it about living from your work? Or about reaching a wide range of audiences? Or about being respected by your peers? Or the impact you have on other musicians (including the next generations)? Or about the quality and originality of the work itself? It’s all these things to some degree, and these are all questions that I keep in mind when planning projects.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
1. Find your métier – find something new and unique to bring to the art form, and make that your focus.
2. Don’t be afraid of failure – it’s more important to take risks than always stay in your comfort zone.
3. Go to concerts – it’s how you learn about music, and how you meet musicians and develop your networks.
4. Always act professionally – learn your part, turn up on time, answer emails promptly, meet deadlines, contribute your share to collaborative work, be honest when there’s a problem, pay anyone working for you on time, and behave with respect and decency to your colleagues.
5. Have a life outside of music – study other subjects (or like me, other degrees). Take an interest in visual art, cinema, theatre, literature, science, anything else! Be politically aware and active. And have some friends who aren’t musicians.
What is your most treasured possession?
My cameras. I love cinema and photography in all its forms, and love taking photos of friends and colleagues, and of the behind the scenes work of musicians. There’s something quite magical about capturing a specific and fleeting moment in time, and distilling its essence, which could be considered the flipside to a musical performance: existing across time, and yet ephemeral.
Pianist, Zubin Kanga has performed at many international festivals including the BBC Proms, Cheltenham Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (UK), ISCM World New Music Days, Metropolis New Music Festival, Melbourne Festival, Sydney Festival, Four Winds Festival, BIFEM (Australia), IRCAM Manifeste Festival, Mars aux Musées Festival (France) and Borealis Festival (Norway) as well as appearing as soloist with the London Sinfonietta and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He will be Artistic Associate at the 2018 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music.
Zubin’s international touring projects focus around the extension of the pianist through interactive multimedia, including live and fixed electronics, film, live video, motion sensors, and AI. He has collaborated with many of the world’s leading composers including Thomas Adès, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin, Steve Reich, Beat Furrer, Liza Lim, Michel van der Aa and Stefan Prins and premiered more than 80 new works. He is a member of Ensemble Offspring, one of Australia’s leading contemporary music ensembles, as well as the Marysas Trio, which performs across Europe. He has also performed with Ensemble Plus-Minus, Endymion Ensemble, Halcyon, Synergy Percussion, and the Kreutzer Quartet, as well as performing piano duos with Rolf Hind and Thomas Adès.
Zubin has won many prizes including the 2012 Art Music Award for ‘Performance of the Year (NSW)’, the Michael Kieran Harvey Scholarship, the ABC Limelight Award for Best Newcomer and the Greta Parkinson Prize from the Royal Academy of Music. His recent recordings include Not Music Yet for Hospital Recordings, Orfordness for Metier (UK) and Piano Inside Out for Move Records, which was nominated for Best Classical Album at the Australian Independent Music Awards.
A Masters and PhD graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, Zubin recently finished a post as post-doctoral researcher at the University of Nice and IRCAM, Paris and is currently the Leverhulme Research Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, as well as a Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, London and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He was the convenor of the Inventing Gestures symposium in the 2015 Manifeste Festival at IRCAM and was the guest editor for a special issue on new interactive technologies in music for Contemporary Music Review.
Artist photo by Richard Hedger