Hilda Huang

Big Think Interview With Hilda Huang

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A conversation with the pianist.

Hilda Huang

Hilda Huang is a American pianist who has achieved international acclaim for her performances of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 14, she is also the youngest expert to appear on Big Think. Huang made her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 11, participating in the PBS series "From the Top at Carnegie Hall." She also won the International Bach Competition in March, 2010, becoming the youngest person and the first American to win. Huang, who started playing the piano at the age of three, is also one of the musicians featured in Michael Lawrence's documentary "Bach & Friends." She lives in Palo Alto, California.

Hilda Huang: I'm Hilda Huang and I play the piano.

Question: What do you love about Bach?

Hilda Huang: I love how complex it is on the inside, but when you look at it from a distance, it's so simple and pure and elegant that you would never suspect that it's such an architectural masterpiece. Like it follows all of the forms of a fugue, say a prelude, any type of a dance, but when you just listen to it, it's just a charming piece by itself. And you don't have to hear like, oh this is an allemande, oh this is a sarabonde. But of course, it helps to know.

Question: What is a fugue?

Hilda Huang:
So a fugue is when there's two, three, four, five voices—or more if you'd like.  And each voice is basically just a line and each line has a subject, but the subjects are all the same in each line. So, say the first voice will enter with the subject and when the subject is finished, then the second voice enters and does the subject, but usually in a different key. Then the third voice enters when the second voice is finished with its subject, then the fourth voice enters when the third is done and so on and so forth.

Question: Why is Bach's music so complex?

Hilda Huang:
In Bach's music, there's always a lot of lines going and if you have, say, a two-voice fugue, each line is completely independent of each other, which is really confusing to play of course, because you have to pay attention to one, like, one character, then the other one has to be a completely different character. But when you move on to the bigger fugues with three, four, five voices, that's a really, really hard task to do because you only have two hands but you have to take care of basically five different people playing five different lines.

And then on top of that, these five different people are interacting with each other in ways that are sometimes a bit surprising. Like sometimes they like to say argue with each other, the voices interrupt each other and other times they kind of play with each other and it's a very friendly piece. But there's an outline in which they all work. So, say there's a friendly part and they all work together, but then after that, they suddenly turn against each other, so now they're angry at each other. So you have to create the distinction between those two characters as well as the five different characters as well as the interaction between those five characters. And the list goes on and on, of course.

Question: What is your favorite Bach piece?

Hilda Huang: I'd have to say my favorite is "The Art of Fugue" because this really showcases Bach's magnificent fugue writing. I mean, it's the entire 16 fugues are based on just one simple subject in the first fugue that comes in four different voices. But then, it's kind of like a set of variations. You have 15 more fugues, with each subject as a variation of the first subject. And that works really well because each one has a different subject and each subject is unique in its own way in the fugue itself. And often times, in each different fugue he takes subjects from different fugues and puts them in. So I think there's some fugues that you have three different subjects at the same time and others you have two different subjects at the same time. So now you're not dealing with just a fugue, you're dealing with a double fugue or a triple fugue.

Question: What do you mean by “subject?"

Hilda Huang: So a subject is basically like a very specific motif in a piece. You have say a line like da de da de da. And that is mirrored by da da da da da in the second voice, but then the third voice comes in doing da da da da da and then the fourth voice comes in and doing da da da da da da, so it's always the same. The fugue is, the subject is always set and the sequence of the notes is always the same, but often Bach will take little bits of that subject, cut it up and place it at random places in the fugue, or he'll take the subject and transform it to completely different keys, or take it from major to minor and put it all over again.

Question: You once said that playing Bach is like playing Nintendo. How so?

Hilda Huang: Well, okay so, when I was really young, I loved playing video games and I kind of noticed that when you play video games, you have to be really, really focused. So if you're playing maybe "Mario Cart" on the Nintendo 64, so you're driving along and of course there's a koopa waiting to hit you. But if you blink or you say, "Oh I need to get something to eat or I need some chips," so you put your controller down, and, wham, the koopa smashes in to you, so you die and lose a life. And of course, in video games, you have plenty of lives, so it's okay. But in Bach, when you're performing, you don't have that kind of a privilege. So you have to stay really focused through the whole thing and you can't stop.

Question: When was your first public performance?

Hilda Huang: I think that was when I was five or six. I think six. I went to this piano competition in Oakland and I was playing a piano concerto with my older piano teacher, and I think that was the first time I ever played in public, which is kind of interesting because it wasn't actually a performance, it was a competition.

Do you get nervous before a performance?

Hilda Huang: I mean of course I get nervous, so I just try to focus on the music itself. I try not to think about anything besides the music. So usually before I walk on stage, I'm just kind of playing the piece over to myself again and again and walking through some of the spots where I know I need to be focused on what kind of sound or character I'm producing.

Question: What happens if you make a mistake during a performance?

Hilda Huang: Often in Bach, if you make a big mistake, it's really difficult to find your way back, so it's almost necessary to just stop and start over again, which I've done that a few times. But if just little mistakes, like if you miss a couple of notes, I try to forget about that section and maybe skip to a few bars forward so that a few bars forward, I know that I can keep playing and it'll be fine.

Question: What is your style of playing Bach?

Hilda Huang: I mean, when I play Bach, I try to make the dances a dance and make them all really lively and light and think about how they would have been played in the Baroque era. Of course now that we have the piano, compared to the harpsichord or the clavichord, there's a completely different sound, so I wouldn't try to imitate the harpsichord. But we still want to keep some of the essence of the harpsichord in it, so I like to play with some of the timings in it because on harpsichord there's no dynamics. So all you can do is with timing and with touch and articulation. So I like to bring some of those aspects onto the piano and but keep it in the Baroque style while having a piano sound.

Question: How is playing Bach different from other composers?

Hilda Huang: I think one, I have a lot of friends who also play instruments and mainly their reason for not liking Bach is because it's so hard, but I like to encourage them to explore more of it because it's hard, so that they can discover something new within each piece and hopefully they can use that and take it and apply it to other composers. So that's also helpful.

I think it's a good way for people to learn how to multitask, because you have to deal with so many different voices at once and they all have to be really clean. It's also just really fun to play and it helps you improve your technique. There's so many running lines, I mean you have to practice them at first, of course, but after a while when you get the hang of it, it's really fun to just see your hands moving all the way over the keyboard.

Question: How long does it take to prepare a new piece?

Hilda Huang:
I usually work on pieces for at least a year. I listen to them when I first start playing them and I listen for which ones I like. So, I'll pick them up, find the music and just start working on them by myself. And usually it takes me about a year or so to get some good practicing in to get some good understanding about the piece. And then after that—of course, during that time, I work with my teacher—but after that, we'll start preparing it to use maybe for performances or other things like that.

Question: What is the iBach app that you want to develop for the iPhone?

Hilda Huang: So, this is of course, very unlikely because I can't program, but I'd like to create an iBach app where for every day of the year, the user can just click on the app and it'll show your Bach piece of the day. So, maybe that's an independent piece or maybe it's a movement of a suite. But every day there's a new piece, because there's so many pieces, not just keyboard works, but there's chorales, there's violin pieces, cello pieces, orchestra suites. And every day I'm going to attempt to put a new one and I think there's enough for I think three years, if every day is different. And with each piece, I'd like to provide a short summary of what the piece is about, of what kind of a dance it is. Of course, that's a lot of research, so that's going to take a while to get together. But, that's what I'd like to do in the future and just get people to find out what the Bach piece of the day is and then if I can't fit the whole piece of music on the app, then maybe provide a link for them to go to YouTube and listen to it and see what kind of music that they're actually interested in. And I'm sure they'll find something within this massive amount of works. So, in essence, it's going to help people explore more of Bach's music.

Question: Why aren’t more young people into classical music?

Hilda Huang: I think classical music now has become less successful than it was maybe 50, 100 years ago. I mean, now when we have pop albums coming out, they're $10 an album at every store, at every store you can imagine, Wal-Mart, Target, wherever you want. Everybody can just get access to them easily. And also the music itself is very accessible. It's not as complex as what Bach and what other classical musicians wrote. Certainly, there's a lot of instruments, but when you look at say symphonies or the chorales or masses, there's much more instruments. There's maybe 100 singers and an orchestra. So I think people haven't discovered their own interest for digging deeper into these kinds of music. They are just kind of interested in having something nice to hear.

Question: What influence has Glenn Gould had on you?

Hilda Huang: So with my second teacher, when I was learning all the inventions, after I finished and I made just a recording for myself, she gave me this CD of Glenn Gould and said, "This is Glenn Gould, do not copy him." So I went home and listened to it and at first, it was really striking because it was so odd and we'd never heard anything like it. I mean the first invention, when the first couple of notes come in, it's pretty normal for everybody. But when the second voice comes in, it was so clear and so, it had such a fire underneath it that it kept making you listen and usually I listen to one piece and not the whole set. But after this, I listen to all 15 of them at a time instead of just one of them. And after you listen to all 15 of them, you realize what a genius he is because each one is so unique and they're all so special, but they're all unified and the ideas in each one are so peculiar and sometimes you're kind of wondering, "Wait, why does he even do that. It sounds not quite right."

And after listening to that, I gave the CD back to my teacher. And she's like; you didn't copy him, right? I said, no I didn't copy him and she's like okay, good.

Question: What was the music on that first CD?

Hilda Huang: The first CD was the two part inventions that my piano teacher gave to me. She loaned it to me. Then I went home and I bought it. And my mom bought it off of Amazon I think. We listened to it, loved listening to it, so we found more of his recordings and the most famous one is the Goldberg Variations. So we bought both the 1955 and the 1981. We also bought the suites, the Partitas, the English suites, the French suites. And I think just a couple of years ago, just two years ago I think, there was a LP boxed Glenn Gould memorial set or something like that, I think celebrating his 25th anniversary of his death and so we bought the whole thing. It was $200, but now I have a big box in my bedroom with 80 Glenn Gould CDs in it and a nice thick booklet with his own writing on each one of those CDs.

Question: What did your teacher mean, don’t copy him?

Hilda Huang: I think she was kind of intrigued by his unique interpretations. Of course, if I tried to copy him, it would not be very good. But I think she just didn't want me to play that out of the box, because his interpretations at that time, to her I think, were really crazy and I think some of them were a bit unacceptable. But she just wanted me to listen to them so I could see how other people played it.

Recorded on June 7, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman