HANNIS BROWN: When did you start playing music?
SUGAR VENDIL: I started playing piano when I was three and a half. It wasn’t a serious thing. My parents never really pushed me. I got really serious about it when I was 12 years old and I heard a friend play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody in music class and I thought, I want to do that. So I got really serious about it and I just spend every waking hour at the piano and just fell in love with it from there.
There wasn’t a real eureka moment from when I decided to be a pianist, a lot of people have a very romantic story about it and I honestly was very naïve – I thought I was going to be both a lawyer and a pianist. In college when I started getting better, I realized how many hours you really need to put into it and how dedicated you have to be. I knew there is no way in hell you could do this and have some other career. I think that the other reason I chose to pursue music is this big idea of regret that I fear; I don’t want to wake up and look back and wish I had done something else. I really do think you only have one shot at it.
HANNIS BROWN: Do your parents have backgrounds in art?
SUGAR VENDIL: My dad and mom are not artists. My dad loves the arts and he especially loves rock music, so I grew up with some classic rock. My mom does not have an artistic bone in her body, but she is an entrepreneur, so I think there is an art to that in a way, but they’re not really artsy people.
HANNIS BROWN: Can you tell me about your ensemble and your Noveau Classical Project?
SUGAR VENDIL: Yeah, the Noveau Classical Project was just an idea right before grad school, and I actually launched it in 2008. It wasn’t actually always a music ensemble, it was just a concert series. I thought, what if I take these components, fashion, music, and visual art and put it together. I kept thinking, how do I push this? How do more with this?
HANNIS BROWN: Have you always been into fashion and visual art?
SUGAR VENDIL: I’d always really loved fashion and visual art, mostly fashion. I always viewed it as a form of self-expression that you just can do every single day. It’s the first thing everyone sees, it’s a first line of defense before you open your mouth. It’s a way to just tell someone about yourself without even saying anything.
I think that there’s a stigma around thinking about what you look like versus the music. That can happen in regular life too, regardless of being a musician, but especially in classical music. If you like fashion, you are therefore superficial. What we do with music is so holy and is supposed to transcend everything; if you care about fashion, you don’t care that much about music. You spend all your time “dressing up” and that’s just simply not true. You have to wear something anyway for performance, why not add a layer of thought to it where it relates somehow to the music, so you are serving the music with your being – you’re being present. Without you, that piece of music is just a piece of paper, so why can’t you be a part of it? I think that a performance is something you really experience beyond just sound.
HANNIS BROWN: What are the elements that go into a performance?
SUGAR VENDIL: The fashion as always meant to relate to the music somehow, that’s how I wanted to create a cohesive concert. We started coming up with specific things for each concert, and then seeing which designers fit with those things, or whose collections fit at a time. We used to work with a lot of Parsons students, which were great. We try to just do things a little beyond that to create multiple things that relate to each other, but music is always at the core of it. Collaborations were really an effective way of getting more people interested in what you do.
HANNIS BROWN: What have been seem your favorite collaborations to date?
SUGAR VENDIL: Let see. Oh, one of my favorite collaborations was our Sweet Lost Pierrot concert in 2012. My friend and collaborator Zon Chu is just this amazing creative guy. He helped me with the fashion element, and then Caroline Pham created all the visuals. We have projections on the wall and we called on the fashion designer Gemma Kahng. Her costumes look like what I was looking for, cracked out she-clowns, which ended up working out really well. The make-up was insane, and people had five buns on their heads. I think that was the jumping off where I thought, we can do more than just you know. Here is a look and we’re going to play this concert. We thought, we can really create something that’s more engaging than what we’ve done so far.
HANNIS BROWN: And then fast forward to BAM. You guys recently presented a show at one of the most important venues in New York City. How did that come about?
SUGAR VENDIL: We rented BAM Fisher. Potential Energies was a really big deal for us. I’d thought of it in 2012 and it finally happened in 2014, and the way we got BAM was we just decided to rent it. There are a lot of small blackbox theaters in the city, but there’s this weight that BAM has and we had this feeling when we walked in. We were like okay, this is going to be expensive, but we have to do this. I know we’re going to do this and it’s going to make all the difference. We didn’t win any grants to make this happen—it was a lot of grassroots fundraising and some personal investment. I’m hoping that people experience a kind of catharsis. I want them to be moved, maybe see a bit of themselves in the piece. To make something that could really reach people on a personal level is why I picked this timely content—not Greek tragedy, not Shakespeare.
HANNIS BROWN: So what is the concept behind Potential Energies?
SUGAR VENDIL: So in Potential Energies, musicians and dancers represent two side of the single identity, so they’re paired off. Five musicians and the five dancers, and throughout the ballet there are always interactions between the two so you see musicians moving, you see things like pas de deux choreography between musicians and dancers. It was inspired by the struggle of the millennial generation in this economy, that was just some source material, but what we really wanted to do was to create something that had a more universal reach…something about the reality between wanting to do something specific with your life, dreaming about it over and over and trying to push to the point of actualizing that thing, or not being able to do so, despite the struggle. Potential Energy as unspent energy, frustrated energy. I think that people of our generation are making really beautiful and provocative work, but it’s not being supported yet. I would love for classical ballet audiences to see Potential Energies. I think those people would really appreciate seeing something recognizable in this new context.
HANNIS BROWN: Yeah, that’s the ultimate dilemma that we face as artists.. taking that risk to follow your vision despite the odds.
SUGAR VENDIL: My parents didn’t really want me to be musician. They were really upset when I told them that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer. For me, it was not necessarily a bad thing that I had to prove how badly I wanted it. I grew up in a very privileged scenario, and when you are a musician, you are not very privileged. Now they’re really proud of me. I’m not world famous but they see the progression and the accomplishments and they are very supportive.
I think that what’s kept me going is seeing the potential of all the hard work I’m doing. I have this tendency to look into the future. I ask myself, how am I going to feel when I’m 60 and I look back on my life? I know that if I didn’t do this, I would regret my life. But also, I know this is a long game. It takes not just hard work but some patience. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may not be successful at a young age.
HANNIS BROWN: Support is crucial to success in the arts. How are your colleagues are supporting you now?
SUGAR VENDIL: My musicians are amazing. I love them. We’re just this family, we’ve been through a lot together. I mean its a lot of fights, and a lot of work, and then I really do feel the support of my colleagues. Right now we’re trying to build as an organization with our fundraising. When we step away from the romance of it all..money is a big part of us. We need money to care for our musicians. We needed to fund production costs so that we can grow and maintain and build quality. Our new thing right now is quality over quantity, valuable concerts experiences that we could take on tour, like Potential Energies. Its too special not to share with a wider audience.
Why do I, and many of my colleagues, choose to do this? It’s not because we’re so concerned with saving the art form. It’s because we love it. I feel like I have something valuable to say through art. You need to be level-headed about what you’re doing as an artist, and in classical music, the idea that what we’re doing is heroic and holy has created a narrow-mindedness that is stifling to creativity. I definitely don’t like lots of things, but it’s really hard for me to hate anything now because I know how much work it takes, and I know that we’re all just trying to do our best. For someone to hate what I do, just because they revere classical music in a religious way, is a complete misunderstanding of what I feel is creative and honest.