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Photo of Rachel Iwaasa.

Festival Artist Spotlight: RACHEL KIYO IWAASA

Pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa has been hailed by audiences and press alike for her dynamic and nuanced performances, but is particularly revered for her interpretations of the music of our time. She’ll perform one of her trademark programmes, Cosmophony, for the Powell Street Festival, in partnership with the Queer Arts Festival. Cosmophony takes place today, at 2:00pm at the Firehall Arts Centre. She speaks about this unique project more with Powell Street Festival board member Carly Yoshida-Butryn.

Q: What inspired Cosmophony?

A: It was inspired by a program run by the Canadian Music Centre called Music in Places. It was a program that was designed to put contemporary music in non-conventional concert venues. And there was a work by George Crumb that was inspired by the signs of the zodiac that I always liked to play that I thought would be perfect for the planetarium. So I approached Mark McGregor, the current artistic director of the Powell Street Festival, but who was then working for Redshift Records.  And he said, you know what would be really great to go with the Crumb?  If you commissioned new pieces from composers about each of the planets. And that’s the section I’m going to be playing on Saturday. So it’s an interesting full circle.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the collaboration that took place to create Cosmophony?

A: It was a collaboration with Mark in terms of the overall conception. And then of course it was a collaboration with each of the composers. Mark and I thought about the composers that would be really good for this project. And then we thought, which planets are we going to give them? And I thought, I don’t really want to pre-judge. We’re going to get better pieces if people are able to choose the planets they feel the strongest connection with. So I said, choose your planets, first come, first serve. If someone else has chosen it already, I’ll let you know. Almost all of them got their first choices. And they chose them for different reasons.

Rodney Sharman chose Mercury because it’s ascendant in his astrological sign. But also, Mercury orbits the sun in 88 days. And the piano has 88 keys. And so he decided he wanted to write a piece that would use all 88 keys of the piano. Emily Doolittle chose Gliese 581c because she was attracted to this idea of a planet we don’t really know anything about but we were banking all our hopes on at the time. Christopher Kovarik said to me, give me whichever planet nobody else wants. And at the end of the day, the one planet left was Jupiter, which was really interesting because when I told him that, he said he was going to ask for that one but then thought he’d let it be random.

The other thing I worried about ever so slightly is asking each composer to write a piece when they know where they are in the sequence but have no idea what the other people are writing. So you end up with a little bit of an exquisite corpse kind of project. The exquisite corpse is a surrealist game where one person writes a line and then folds over the paper and the next person writes the next line in the story and then folds over the paper again so that each person writes without knowing what’s coming before or after. And so you can come up with some really interesting things, but sometimes you come up with things that don’t really work well at all. But it actually all worked miraculously well. And perhaps that has to do with the fact that each planet kind of has its own narrative. Each one has its own cultural associations. By kind of playing off each of those, each composer came up with a piece of very different character. And I’m so pleased with how they flow from one into the next.

Q: What do you love about being a pianist? What drew you to the instrument?

A: I started playing piano when I was four. So in terms of what drew me to the instrument, that’s all a little hazy because it was so long ago. It was the instrument we had in the house. I just started playing it, and my mother got me lessons. But I fell in love with it because the piano has so many possibilities. It’s like being able to be an orchestra all by yourself. There are so many possibilities for sound and colour and candour on the piano. I think the organ is really the only other acoustic instrument that comes close to matching that. No other instrument can boast the repertoire that the piano has.

As a pianist, you really also have the opportunity for collaboration more than any other instrument. For virtually any other instrument, most of their so-called “solo” works are actually accompanied by the piano, so it’s a very rich repertoire. And the piano really gives composers an opportunity to express themselves in an orchestral conception. Creating a piece as a whole without having a whole lot of people to play it.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I have had huge admiration for the Powell Street Festival for many years, and I’ve played there on a number of occasions. I think Mark is such an exciting choice for artistic director, and I can’t wait to see where he’s going to take it.

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Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa performs “Cosmophony” at the 39th Powell Street Festival on Saturday, August 1st at 2:00pm at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova). This event is FREE.

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