Within minutes of speaking with 21-year-old musician Conrad Tao, the conversation will recall the kind of esoteric intellectualism one would imagine occurred in the most intriguing expat salons of Paris. Tao is the type who can wax poetic on art, music, philosophy and the au courant with aplomb. The likes of Gertrude Stein or Josephine Baker could perhaps keep up with Tao’s quick mind, but to mere mortals, he will appear to operate on a higher level, speaking in a tone of eloquence that exudes his character as equal parts dreamer, perfectionist, encyclopedic thinker and obsessive creator.
Tao, who lives in New York and spends occasional time in Dallas as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2015/2016 artist in residence, is in town this week for a piano recital at the Dallas Contemporary (Tuesday, May 31) as part of the DSO’s Soluna International Music and Arts Festival. He will tickle the ivories surrounded by the incomparable oil paintings from Dan Colen, the monumental sculptures from Helmut Lang and those whimsical feather bears by Paola Pivi, which have garnered much attention since the trio of exhibitions debuted in April.
“I’m inspired by those fluffy bears,” says Tao. “It’s a really inspiring place to perform. There is a different energy.” The visual arts have long served as a source of interest for Tao, whose parents exposed him to multitude artistic mediums since childhood. “I grew up loving Rothko and Donald Judd,” he says. “Then as I got older I got into Ryan Trecartin, then Paul McCarthy and other video artists. That is a fairly important source of inspiration.”
Tao’s youthful yet authoritative perspective on the arts also applies to the challenge of how to reach new, and in particular younger, audiences — a growing debacle the Dallas Symphony and myriad arts organizations the world over are focusing on as current patron bases begin to age. It is the on-trend question: How do you bridge the gap and engage the so-called millennial with the arts, particularly with classical music. Tao, a member of the generation in question, has his opinions, and it may not be what you would think. His views directly oppose the blanketed notion used by organizations that all young people should be tapped as future supporters of the arts.
“I don’t know if I’m interested in reaching all young people,” says Tao. “Young people are incredibly diverse. I am interested in opening the possibility that young people can find something interesting in what I do. The important thing is to open up those avenues that may be blocked off.”
Soluna, in this case, falls in line with Tao’s idea that if you open up accessibility and present work in an unexpected environment with ease of entry, an interested, curious and new audience will follow.
“My relationship with art in general,” he says, “is about opening up possibilities; removing something from the context that is expected for it. It generates a lot of questions. I am an advocate for looking inward.”
Tao is introspective, indeed, and as he discusses his creative process this becomes ever more apparent. In addition to performing at the Dallas Contemporary this week, Tao will debut the world premiere of his original work Alice, conducted by Jaap van Zweden at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on June 3, 4 and 5.
The piece was inspired by recurring, violent nightmares Tao had during early childhood: a phenomenon he would describe as a fever dream, and upon further research learned that the term used to describe these confusing reality-dream hybrid sensations is called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. It is a state of REM sleep — either the onset of or the sudden exit from the state — where the lines between the real and the surreal are blurred to frightening extremes.
“I am excited to hear how the whole tapestry of the orchestra turns out,” says Tao of Alice. “It is a distinctly fantastical world populated with these unusual characters. I was aiming to create a world that was alluring and fantastical and inviting, but also filled with danger and lecherousness; the senses of perhaps being too big for your britches.”
It is a curiosity to wonder where this supernatural, almost metaphysical sense of place develops for Tao. It’s not as complex as you may think based on his wonderfully articulate way of defining the indescribable and his massive knowledge base. For Tao is monumentally skeptical about pinpointing one point of artistic inspiration, especially when it comes to music. “It’s important not to be boxed in by what you’re listening to,” he says. “This trend of defining yourself through what you consume is weird and odd and scary. I believe in possibility models.”
That’s not to say Tao doesn’t find muse in music. Asked what he has been listening to lately, it is admittedly a bit all over the place: “I was just listening to Bananarama,” he says with a laugh. “And recently I had a day where I was listening to Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You literally all day. It’s everything all the time. I don’t separate the classical stuff from the non-classical stuff.”
It doesn’t stop there as Tao begins to talk quicker, jumping from pop to the recent death of Prince. “Oh ya! And Beyoncé. “Lemonade” is promiscuous musically. It is more precise and also more diverse. I have been listening to all the Prince stuff, too. I’ve been listening to Sign of the Times a lot. 2016 has sucked, right? With Prince and David Bowie dying?”
The stream of consciousness progresses into Tao’s recent obsession with the British glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine and then onto the common occurrence, during which he will become fixated on a certain piece of music, which will eventually lead him to spending hours on end listening to the same song, or piece of a song, on repeat.
“I don’t get inspired very often,” he says. “But when I do it’s a very notable jolt of feeling.”