Updated: Jul 6, 2021
By Zane Bhansali
“I’m very much a Gemini,” Conrad Tao, CC ’15 says with a laugh when I ask him about his hobbies. “I get bored quickly and move on – I have a lot of ephemeral and mercurial interests.”
Based on his schedule, you wouldn’t think Conrad would have time for anything on the side. He’s a concert pianist, hailed as “a promising star” by The New York Times and a “master of the keyboard” by Classical Review (when he was seventeen). Conrad spends most of his time jet-setting to different performances; when we meet at Joe’s, he’s just returned from Missouri for a rare three week lull before heading to Mexico.
Conrad’s been submerged in the world of classical music since he was born – he started playing at 18 months, made his concert debut at the age of 8, and began studying with the Juilliard Pre-College Division when he was 9. He’s been awarded the Avery Fisher Career grant in 2012 and won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer awards. He’s also a Presidential Scholar of the Arts, a Davidson Fellow Laureate, and was named one of Forbes’s “30 Under 30” in 2011. But despite his seemingly orthodox accolades, Conrad is concerned with actively acting against what he describes as the “aggressively traditional concert context.”
When I ask him about his issues with the concert scene, Conrad suddenly grows serious. “I feel like it can represent a type of view of culture I disagree with,” he explains. “It’s this kind of rectilinear masterpiece culture that I want to get away from. You either become a tool or you’re stuck.”
In an attempt to express his discontent with the staid and conservative classical sensibility, Conrad opened the UNPLAY music festival in 2013. UNPLAY was an attempt to challenge the myopia of the current classical scene, with tripartite concerts that examined topics such as the ephemerality of the internet, a new 21st century canon for classical music, and social activism.
“I used to like the personal and professional as separate,” Conrad admits. “But now I’ve tried to make them less dichotomous. Creating the way I do, presenting the way I do, is deliberate.” He has an active blog on Tumblr, under his own name, and makes no attempt to distance it from his professional persona. Much of what Tao posts are curated statements about various forms of injustice: commentary on Michael Brown’s murder, the disposability of the Black Body, refutations of the “intentionalist” approach to discrimination.
“I think gaining terms and learning language related to social justice has been one of the most positive parts of being at Columbia,” Conrad remarks. “It’s great that more people are coming in with the vocabulary to talk about that stuff.”
In addition, his musical polymathy is on full display in his online presence. He frequently posts his musical experiments in genres that are a far cry from the usual perception of the classical, such as drone, synthpop, rap, and otherworldly mashups that draw on the Sailor Moon theme song and Chance the Rapper.
When I question whether his interest in such different areas of music is a conscious reaction to his classical upbringing, he pauses before answering. “I still love classical music,” he insists. “I don’t think my liking of those things is a conscious rejection of classical music. But continuing to produce like that is rather trying to destabilize and reject the responsibility politics of the classical musician.”