Collective Listening Project

Pianist Conrad Tao Selects

Playlist No. 5

About the Playlist

April 7, 2020
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Pianist Conrad Tao was set to make his PUC debut on the Performances Up Close series with tap dancer Caleb Teicher on Tuesday, April 7 but the concert was canceled due to Covid-19.  About the playlist he curated for us, Conrad says, “These tracks share a centering of the human and all of their vivid traces. And what I hope these tracks provide are multiple angles from which we might learn to listen for those traces.” The pianist/composer helps view this moment in time through centuries of music and interrelated influences.


I made this playlist late at night. (The 2am hour is really tough these days.)

It opens with Bach’s Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (“When we are in Dire Need”) is a choral prelude originally written for organ but here presented by a consort of viols, all the better to hear the counterpoint, the interwoven sociality of voices. That same sociality can be heard in a transposition of poet Florence Reece’s enduring labor hymn, “Which Side Are You On?”—here performed by The Freedom Voices in a rewrite for the Civil Rights Movement: “Come all you bourgeois black men with all your excess fat / a few days in the county jail will sure get rid of that.” My riff on Frederic Rzewski’s extended, prismatic riff on “Which Side” quotes the riff that opens Pete Seeger’s beloved performance of the tune, a jangly banjo line, descending into the chorus.

I am at my happiest when one of many. As a musician who often plays music written centuries ago, I am inspired by the ever-unfolding constellations of voices packed in a piece across history: fellow performers, scholars, amateurs, listeners. So a Bach organ prelude is played by a quartet of strings; later, the prelude of his second cello suite is repurposed for saxophones. Fred Ho and Cindy Zuoxin Wang interpret an old song from Northern China about a young woman fighting for freedom in feudal times, trading phrases and then playing in ecstatic duet. In a 1964 concert at Carnegie Hall, Nina Simone takes Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” and renders it even more searing and explicit, Jenny no longer in Victorian London but in “this crummy southern town, this crummy old hotel.” And in a beguiling transformation, Swedish DJ Axel Willner (aka The Field) slices, dices, and builds an ethereal tapestry out of The Flamingos’ doo-wop classic, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” gently looping fragments of the song into an impossibly expansive space.

Alongside these dense clusters of voices and re-interpretations, I’ve made some more elemental selections. Cenk Ergun’s “Celare” is a series of mathematically precise harmonies that pulsate with mysterious life. Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone” is practically a thesis statement for his body of work. And as I read worse and worse news about Rikers Island becoming an epicenter of COVID-19 in New York, Alan Lomax’s haunting recordings of Bama, a prisoner at Parchman Farm, carry new weight.

What I hope these tracks share is a centering of the human and all of their vivid traces, even in or perhaps especially in the face of grave injustice. And what I hope these tracks provide are multiple angles from which we might learn to listen for those traces.

-Conrad Tao

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