After several hours of finger-rapping, thumb-twiddling and head-scratching, in a fruitless attempt to compose a witty introduction to this interview with Hyung-ki Joo, renowned pianist, composer, and British funnyman -- also known as the "Jooish" half of the dynamic comedy duo, Igudesman & Joo -- we concluded that it would be a better use of (y)our time if we stepped aside and relinquished center stage to the comedian himself.
Reprinted from Joo's (auto)biography:
Hyung-ki Joo was born. He is British, but looks Korean, or the other way around, or both...Hyung-ki is the only Korean Jew, (spelt J-O-O) in the world. He has performed at the White House, in a red house, and sadly not with Bernhard Greenhouse. However, Yankee Jew, has performed with luminaries as diverse as Larry Adler, Gidon Kremer, Yehudi Menuhin, Yoko Ono, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Gershwin (after Gershwin's death), Arturo Toscanini (with a Music Minus One CD), and Nicolo Paganini (during a dream which then changed into a scene from an Indiana Jones Movie, as dreams do).
Hyung-ki has small hands, ("But Only Hands Small!", Joo exclaims),and therefore finds some piano repertoire quite difficult to play, such as the music of Rachmaninov, who had Big Hands. Anyway, even with this small hindrance, he loves to perform chamber music with fellow artists such as Renaud Capuçon, Thomas Carroll, Michael Collins, Janine Jansen, Mischa Maisky, and Julian Rachlin, and happily performs recitals and also concertos with orchestras that include the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, Warsaw Sinfonia, and the "Con-fessional" Orchestra. He also has a passion for teaching and has taught at institutions that include the Yehudi Menuhin School and Guildhall School of Music, although his passion does sometimes lead to screaming in an unintelligible language.
From our interview with Hyung-Ki:
Notes: Obviously you and your partner-in-crime, Aleksey Igudesman, are kindred creative spirits. How has that dynamic evolved through working together?
We met at the age of twelve, while we were both studying at the Menuhin School, and it was just...hate at first sight. Aleksey used to bully me, abuse me, hit me - and I mean, it's a miracle that I can actually...father a child...He was a lot stronger than me - and probably still is. I was definitely the David in the Goliath relationship...but I sensed that there was a kindred spirit there, musically and creatively. I offered one day to share my portion of Fish ‘N' Chips, and I think he said yes because of the free food, but once he sat down and we started talking, we were pretty inseparable after that. This is all true, by the way, I'm not making it up!
There was one moment, literally, when we both could have ended up in the hospital. I think I had a chair ready to smash over his head, and he had a music stand about to poke into my eye. And just like in a movie, at exactly the critical moment - the door opened and some teachers came in and said "STOP!!!!" - and we were literally frozen with this chair and music stand, ready to knock into each other. It's a good thing, otherwise we would have been blind and injured, physically and mentally. Now, of course, the way things turned out, we are only injured mentally ...
Notes: You are both highly-trained classical musicians, and studied on the very highest level before striking out and rising to become a comedic sensation. What inspired your departure from, say, a more conventional career path?
I am and have always been madly in love with classical music, and from an early age, I just felt as if...this thing that I am so deeply in love with, is in danger of becoming either a dinosaur or becoming something that is not what it was really meant to be. I somehow felt that the world of classical music had very little to do with the spirit in which it was created. I might not have phrased it in that way at that time, when I was 12 or 13, but this was something I was extremely sensitive to...As much as I loved hearing some of the great pieces performed by some of the great performers of our time, I just felt the whole ceremony surrounding classical music was conceited and elitist. It made even me, who was in love with classical music - turned off.
I also knew, and still know, that classical music does appeal to kids and to younger people - it appeals to everyone! - but if it continues to be presented only in this so-called traditional setting - it is inevitable that audiences will be lost eventually. For me, this was something very meaningful and I was sensitive to it. Luckily for me, I went to the Menuhin School, where because of Yehudi being such an open-minded man and musician, I think his influence sprinkled over a lot of us.
Notes: Can you elaborate a bit on your experiences at the Menuhin School?
Well, I think it's not a surprise that the Menuhin School produces different musicians such as Nigel Kennedy or Melvyn Tan -- and I started at the Menuhin School when I was 10. I had the chance to work with Yehudi Menuhin and later, performed as soloist with him, and we had some other fantastic teachers as well. NOT just music teachers. One of Aleksey and my greatest inspirations was our drama and English teacher. His name was Kevin Jones. He was just fantastic. We also had a great director of music, Peter Norris, who breathed and sweated music the entire day, but he also was passionate about literature, theater, movies, anything really. We also had a fantastic composition teacher, Malcolm Singer.
I wrote a piece once when I was about 15, "The Dream of Gregor Samsa," where at the climax of the work, I would pick up a chair and hurl it across the classroom - quite a violent act! And my teacher was just so CALM about it, he analyzed the work and we discussed it. Aleksey wrote a piece called "The Bastard Sonata," but...nothing was ever said about it in terms of it being unusual. The teacher said: "Well, you know, that's an interesting title." "The Bastard Sonata" is actually a piece which Aleksey and I are going to play again this year.
Notes: Who would you cite as great influences or inspirations in exploring theater and comedy?
I was born in England and so of course I grew up on this great tradition of British comedy - Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson - and the thing about the British is that they don't stop being funny or stop reinventing themselves. Now there is Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Sascha Baron Cohen (Ali G and Borat) so although I am Korean and Aleksey is Russian, and we live now in Vienna, we still in many ways feel that our roots are very British. My family, my father and sister's family still lives in England. I feel very much that what we do in a way stems from the British tradition.
Of course we also have other great influences such as Victor Borge, Peter Shickele (P.D.Q. Bach), Spike Jones, and also some of the great American comedians. Victor Borge and Dudley Moore are two of the very few people that I can count that I would have loved to have met...and unfortunately for whatever reason, that is not going to happen in this lifetime. But they...I mean, there's no question that thanks to them, A Little Nightmare Music was possible in the first place.
Notes: What affects us so greatly about your work was not only that YOU guys seemed to be having such a great time on stage, but your audiences seemed to be with you every step of the way. You engaged and reached them on such a friendly and informal level while still bringing great music to them. That must be so rewarding.
I have to admit, Aleksey and I are extremely happy and proud of the fact that at our concerts and shows, we have kids - we have the elderly, there's even a picture of us somewhere with three generations - we have people who are classical music connoisseurs, and we also have people who have never been to a classical music concert in their entire lives. We also have people come who have perhaps never even cared about classical music. Very often, after our shows, kids or parents will come to us - or write to us - and say they would like to learn instrument...or that they looked up different composers. That's the greatest compliment for us in the world.
Notes: What kinds of exciting things do you have coming up?
Many, many things! There are many things in the pipeline. On the 5th of June, on German television, we will have the airing of our mockumentary, and it's called "Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Classical Music...But Were Afraid To Ask." It features a lot of the well-known stars of classical music, from Lang Lang to Mischa Maisky to Hilary Hahn, but in ways you may never have seen them before. Roger Moore is also starring in it, nice Bond theme in there...that's very exciting.
Hopefully, it will be aired in many other territories. We are also going to be part of a project with John Malkovich at Julian Rachlin's Festival, 'Julian Rachlin and Friends' this September - the project is about a music critic basically. We're going to look at some of the famous reviews on some of the greatest pieces in the repertoire. Expose the music critic, so to speak. We are also working on shows with different orchestras and our new show for just the two of us. We are also working on our own TV series, which I can't tell you much about...otherwise I'd have to shoot you. [laughs]
Notes: Oh...no, then that's okay...we don't need to know that badly...
Oh and also, we are working with many greats of the classical world, and it's wonderful to have the support of some musicians we have admired all our lives...we just finished working and touring on a project for three years now with Gidon Kremer and his orchestra, the Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, and of course that was a total treat. I mean, it's beyond a dream come true. And more recently, we have been working with Emanuel Ax, who is absolutely hilarious - and not just a great pianist but a born natural comedian. And we've been working with other musicians such as Victoria Mullova, Janine Jansen, and a fantastic clarinetist, Martin Frost. He just did an act where he is playing the clarinet and singing at the same time! And it's not novelty, it's really beautiful - it's just amazing. I was just stupified. I also LOVE doing workshops.
Notes: What kinds of workshops?
I haven't found the perfect title for it, but I do workshops where I deal with the inner and outer games. It's working with musicians, particularly young, getting them to think outside the box and get outside of themselves - dealing with their fears and just try to see things from different perspectives. Incredible things happen. Recently at a workshop there was one guy whom I asked to play - I don't pick on people but I do ask if anyone would like to play - and one guy got up and ended up playing quite a lot. After he played just a bit, he was going to leave...and I said "Why don't you stay, and play with some of these other people?" - and he ended up staying for several sessions...and I didn't know him, but afterwards he came up to me and said "You know, I never do this..." -- it turned out he was a composer and said he was usually very shy. It was so exhilarating to see someone who felt awkward about being on stage, suddenly play in front of fifty strangers - he came alive and felt inspired and was being open to experimentation. The workshop is very experimental, and I try to make it as risky as possible. Often people are feeling too safe with what they already know, so I like to find ways to get people to go outside of their comfort zones.
Notes: What advice would you give to young musicians, from all your experiences?
Well...I mean, who am I to give advice, really? I'm still young and I'm still learning everyday...but there is definitely one thing which I was always a little surprised by, and for me, I think this is because I was very spoiled being around very open-minded teachers. What shocks me and disheartens me a lot is that young musicians - I understand there is a lot to do, a lot to practice, a lot of them are ambitious, but they sometimes limit their lives to a practice room. Yes, one has to work on one's art and perfect one's craft, but if you're not open to experiencing life? - Life as in everything, from going to a sports match, reading a play, playing games, whatever! Sometimes I find that musicians don't make time to do things outside of their practising... I know a lot of pianists who don't listen to violin or symphonic music, for example. And sometimes the reverse is true as well. I mean, what is that??
If you're a musician, you should be STARVING to want to know, hear and feel everything about your craft. And then some! These composers who wrote this music - yes, they were very serious about what they were doing, but they were also interested in drama, Oriental art, painting, Buddhism - whatever! They were absolute nutters for knowledge, and they were taking everything possible out of the marrow of life. So my one piece of advice would be to soak up anything and everything, from BAD TV to the greatest works of art. Take up something new -- learn to ride a horse, draw, shoot hoops -- because all of it, together, will give you, in the end, the experience, feelings and imagination to go out there and do what you are ultimately meant to be doing.