Some of the greatest icons of the 20th century are considered pop music artists – John Lennon and the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Madonna and Michael Jackson. But in certain circles of the classical music world, pop music is often seen as second class because of its more basic harmonic progressions and repetitive form.
Enter I-Lin Tsai – Classical Pianist, Designer and Educator. She’s brought a certain classiness to her arrangements of Chinese Pop Music and it’s making waves in the classical music world.
What she discovered during the planning process of her 2022 West Coast Concert Tour was that by fusing Chinese Pop (or C-pop) along with classical music, she’d be able to juxtapose unique harmonies in each genre. Where Chinese pop music differs from American pop music is in its melodic patterns, instrumentation and language. Where C-Pop music aligns with all other pop music is in its harmonic structure, song form and song topics (love, social settings, etc). “Shifting this music to the piano and more specifically – classical music – produces an interesting effect rich harmonies, expressive melodies and interlocking rhythmic patterns.” These are the reasons that I-Lin Tsai states for why she’s bringing Chinese pop music to the classical music scene. “It just makes sense to blend this music with greats like Debussy who were so passionate about harmony”. The result is a unique concert program that I-Lin Tsai was able to take on her 2022 West Coast Concert tour.
In a recent interview about how she sees her music, she said, “…I see myself as a designer of music and visuals. And you can take that literally – as a composer, as a pianist crafting phrases, dynamics, balance and more – or – you can take it as someone who is looking at music like a graphic designer would. Creativity is my guiding light when I’m working and making the personality or character come out of the music, graphic or composition is what I’m focusing on. How that creativity is delivered is the music or graphics, but really it’s just expression and communication in a creative form.”
“This is a new type of pianist that we haven’t seen so often in the classical music world”, said the event planner at another post concert interview she did on tour at the Berkeley Piano Club. She went on to further highlight that, “She’s bringing the technical depth of a trained classical pianist to the catchy melodies and hypnotic harmonies of pop music.” And this is exactly what classical music audiences are looking for – a renaissance. It’s clearly working for I-Lin Tsai because she’s grown in her performances this year for the short time she’s put in since completing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Pennsylvania State University in 2021. On this tour, she teamed up with veteran concert pianist Julian Toha for a couple duets.
Here is a video from one of their performances where they are playing this new arrangement.
The music by the World Famous Singaporean Singer, Songwriter and Record Producer is distilled to its main themes and then wrapped into a ternary form with elements of fantasy. The result is a suite for piano duet that is both pop and classical – or as I-Lin calls it, “Popsical”. For audiences, they get the easy listening experience of predictable progressions from pop music and they get the complexity of layering, counterpoint and phrasing of classical music. Even though her audiences may not be overly familiar with JJ Lin, she’s making them more aware of the singer through her classical treatment and arrangement.
Other notable concert artists who are doing or have done this type of theme-based music date back to Bach himself who used to borrow themes from popular music. This continued throughout the classical period with composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with his Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Variations that he composed from a famous french folk song. Franz Liszt would do this during his concert touring years with everything from famous opera tunes to popular music motifs. In contemporary music, Pianist Christopher O’Riley is famous for his piano arrangement work in bringing Radiohead to the classical music scene. This tradition of these great artists re-engineering pop music into classical forms is now being carried forward by I-Lin Tsai and her work on themes by JJ LIn in her latest tour.
For more information on I-Lin Tsai and her tour dates, videos or to hear her on Apple Music and Spotify, visit her website at www.ilintsai.com