S7 E8 | CLIP

A Vision of Music

Pianist Amy Yang plays and absorbs music in an unusual way. Touch, listening, and her own visualizations give her a unique perspective on the sound she is producing.

AIRED: June 18, 2021 | 0:11:39

(classical music)

(Yang playing piano)

The Washington Post has called Amy Yang

a jaw-dropping pianist who steals the show

with effortless finesse.

But Yang has a secret: when she plays the piano,

she is also singing and painting.

- You know, there are so many inscriptions

in my scores that just say, "Sing, sing."

It's basically opening your heart and sing.

It's such an amazingly powerful yet simple,

liberating and empowering idea.

Yeah, it's the permission to let your voice be heard.

- [Cotter] And for Yang, performance gives access to complex

ideas and feelings from within and beyond herself.

- That's the ultimate goal is how can I play a sound

that really can be transported

through space in an emotional way.

- [Cotter] And Yang has spent her life

finding deeply human connections through music.

(Yang playing piano)

As a soloist and chamber musician,

she's performed on some auspicious stages,

including the Kennedy Center,

Carnegie Hall and the White House.

She has premiered dozens of new work,

she released her debut album in 2019.

Hers is the story of a musical life

born not from wealth or privilege,

but from soldiering on through hardship

with hope that spans across time and cultures.

Born in China in 1984, Yang remembers first poking

the piano keys from a stepstool.

Her father was a composer, her mother a soprano,

and her grandfather conducted her in a children's choir.

But Yang's music life would not begin

for many years and thousands of miles away.

When yang was eight, her father moved to the US

to secure a more hopeful future for his family.

She and her mother, alone in Beijing,

survived with little means.

But for Yang, soldiering was in her blood.

Even at such a young age, she was aware of the hardships

her family survived before she was born

- Especially on my father's side,

they went through the Cultural Revolution,

and through famine, through poverty.

Everything was a disaster there, it was.

- [Cotter] The Cultural Revolution was a campaign

to ban art, literature, and music that was tied

to the West and traditional bourgeois values.

Under Mao Zedong rule, instruments were destroyed

and musicians and professors of classical music

were actively persecuted.

Yang's family came through it with wisdom

born of extreme difficulties.

- But I think that's always on the back of my mind,

just first of all, how lucky I am to be their child,

but also that the lessons that they learned are

actually ones of optimism and hope for life rather than,

you know, I've been tortured so much,

and saying life is not worth living.

- [Cotter] After three years,

Amy Yang and her mother joined her father in Houston.

It was a happy reunion, but as a shy 11-year-old,

navigating a foreign culture was confusing.

Her father began taking her to concerts

and the excursions became her favorite escape.

One evening, she attended a piano recital

by one of her father's friends, Timothy Hester.

It was a life-changing event.

- My dad said after the concert, I asked him

if I can take lessons from him

and they happened to be good friends.

So my dad brought me over

and I was so lucky that he accepted me.

- [Cotter] Like a dam breaking,

music began to flow through Amy Yang.

And she became diligent in her practice.

Her dedication would eventually lead to a full scholarship

at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia,

then onto the Juilliard School

and then the Yale School of Music.

Mastering difficult compositions was fun,

but there was something much deeper that captivated her.

Through the composer's notes,

she could explore their internal lives.

- It is so extraordinary because you're doing it

in notes, in sound.

How does that translate?

How do we get to be a part of someone's emotional world

through sound waves and through their collection

of notes and how they structure things?

It is extraordinary to me.

(Yang playing piano)

- [Cotter] When Amy Yang plays, she is free

Free to express the emotions of the music.

Free to transcend her past.

And with that freedom, her voice emerges

and she honors the calling of the music

by engaging all of her senses,

and her imagination allows her

to criss-cross sensory experiences.

The lines of a drawing can dance and music can have color.

Sometimes she paints music as she imagines it.

- I could see it changing color depending on the context.

And yeah, for me, it'd be more harmony related

rather than single notes.

But certain harmonies and even in their inversions

had different colors.

(Yang plays piano)

I think there is a polarity in this piece,

that harmonic relationship between, you know,

G flat and F sharp.

Yeah, again, same notes, but in different contexts.

It has a different coloring, different meaning.

(Yang playing piano)

I try to really tune into the lifespan of the notes.

The note can't exist right before it's played.

And I think your imagination,

as you're going to bring it to life,

it has that lifespan.

I mean, once it sounds, how does the sound decay?

How does it kind of carry it's way to the next note?

When I do feel like the chemistry is right,

when I've put in enough work,

when I've grown to understand what I'm doing

in performance, it is, it is like,

yeah, channeling, traveling.

Yeah, at that moments, I do feel like,

yeah, I'm doing something worthy.

I'm making this music sing,

that I'm, I'm perhaps helping to give,

give its voice its due.

- But is there any sense of it being,

you're almost above it?

Like, you're not...

- Mmhmm yeah.

- Do you allow yourself that?

- Yeah, above it as in like it's not,

actually not quite made by me.

It's like it's,

yeah, I had a recent experience

performing for Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

where I did feel like, well towards the end of the program,

I was entering another realm.

Like it was, yeah, I was playing the music,

but it was deeper in space.

- Did the people who were listening to you,

do you think they understood that?

- I certainly hope some of that freedom

could be felt by them and therefore they could help

them to feel a certain level of joy

and freedom in their lives, even if it's just for

the duration of the concert.

(Yang playing piano)

- [Cotter] There's no doubt that Amy Yang's performances

can feel otherworldly, but there are people who rely

on her to attend to more temporal matters.

Her husband John, also pianist and their son Saron,

who is asserting his independence, just as toddlers do.

- I hope that as he gets older,

that so many of these wonderful

ways of looking at life and persevering through difficulty

that I've learned from, you know, my family

and certainly from mentors over the years,

I'm able to somehow model that for him.

- [Cotter] And her parents are never far from our thoughts

- [Yang] For them to rise above the ashes

and hold such a light in their minds,

in their psyche and in their heart

and such hope for the future generation for me,

for me, my son is such a beautiful gift

that I try to remember

- [Cotter] And to honor this gift,

Amy Yang loving gives voice to and insight into

the deepest human emotions: hers, her listeners, ours.

(Yang plays piano)

- [Announcer] "Articulate with Jim Cotter" is made possible

- [Announcer] "Articulate with Jim Cotter" is made possible


- [Announcer] "Articulate with Jim Cotter" is made possible

(musical stinger)

- [Announcer] "Articulate with Jim Cotter" is made possible


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