Classical Music with an Electronic Twist: Nana Shi’s Sound Sweeps Through Studley

Nana Shi, pianist and SUNY New Paltz professor, performed a solo piano recital at Studley Theatre on Oct. 23. 

SUNY New Paltz is a home for experimental music and musicians. Students, faculty members and visiting artists regularly perform their genre-defying art in front of a live and captivated audience at Studley theatre.

Nana Shi, pianist and SUNY New Paltz professor, did just that at her solo recital by blending her piano with electronic elements. 

Shi has played the piano ever since she was 5-years-old and has been performing solo recitals since her undergraduate years at the University of Cincinnati. Shi has performed at high-profile venues across New York City as a soloist, as well as a duo with her husband and violinist Alex Shiozaki, and as part of a larger group.

Shi has expressed interest in incorporating electronic music into her live performances ever since she studied at SUNY Stony Brook. 

Shi played Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronism No. 6.” It involved her syncing up her piano to a sparse and off-kilter electronic backing track.

“That was my first piece to learn for piano and electronics, and I just fell in love with it,” Shi said. 

Shi enjoyed learning that piece because of the challenge it presented and it made her want to play more pieces that incorporated electronics in their composition. Shi’s love for this type of music resulted in the creation of this recital. 

Alongside “Synchonism No. 6,” “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” by Missy Mazzoli, “Incarnation II” by Somei Satoh and “Stainless Staining” by Donnacha Dennehy all incorporated electronic elements; Claude Debussy’s “Images Book I” was the only piece that didn’t. 

Shi had a number of reasons for choosing these pieces. “Those pieces speak to me personally; I find them accessible [and] I wanted to find music students here would enjoy and I would enjoy playing them as well,” Shi said. The selection of Shi’s pieces was meant to reflect variety.

Equipment had to be set up on the stage in a very particular way. Shi’s piano was positioned in the center of the stage with two microphones positioned inside it. 

Shi had a set of headphones and a small speaker next to the piano that played backing tracks that she could easily synchronize with. Two large speakers were set up on both ends of the stage, as well. She had a dedicated team of technicians to help her make all this possible.

“To perform something like this, you really need someone who’s very knowledgeable in production, and I was really thankful [for] Connor Milton and Josh Stark… without them, I wouldn’t be able to pull this off,” Shi said. Milton is an audio engineer and a New Paltz alumnus. Stark is the head of the New Paltz IT department.

Shi proved herself to be a versatile performer while showing her proficiency with electronics. 

Her style is characterized by both a sense of serene beauty and striking intensity. The piece “Isabelle Eberhardt” demonstrated this mastery; 

Shi played calmer, more mellow notes against domineering bass chords, all while a light drone played under the both of them. 

The next piece, “Images, Book I,” was a jazz composition that consisted of three parts and had the distinction of being the only piece that had no electronics accompanying it. 

Nevertheless, it was an engaging piece to listen to. Shi’s aforementioned rendition of “Synchronism No. 6.” also impressed the audience. 

The piece gave the impression that Shi improvised everything, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Shi carefully kept her pace with the fleeting electronic track.

The fourth piece, “Incarnation II,” used tape delay to give the impression that each note was connected with one another, providing a lush bed of sound. 

“[This piece] is totally in a different world,” Shi said. “It’s got its own language.” Indeed, out of all the pieces played that night, “Incarnation” was the most alien, with the constant current of sound making it seem ethereal.”

The fifth and final track, “Stainless Staining,” composed by Donnacha Dennehy, exhilarated the audience. 

“I think this piece speaks for itself,” Shi said before performing. “It’s just a restless machine, a rhythmic machine, that just goes on and on until I reach my limit and you reach your limit too.”

An intense, focused, rhythmic piano track played while Shi was playing a more melodic tune laced with polyrhythms, allowing the two to sync up perfectly together. The piece dripped with tension, never letting up for a moment, but never providing a release either.

“[I wanted] to kind of give them a sampler of different sounds, different techniques,” Shi said. “Then they can see what they like and hopefully go explore.”

Shi’s ideas for future projects include a whole music series that incorporates electronics. She described Tuesday’s performance as a “tryout.”

“I would love to start, maybe, a whole series at some point,” Shi said. “Not just having me play, but also inviting other instrumentalists to join me on stage.”