If Franz Liszt were alive today, he may find a certain kinship with Chilly Gonzales. The German-based Canadian pianist and composer is the current holder of the world record for longest solo concert, at 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. He has crowd-surfed at a BBC Symphony concert in London, challenged the rocker Andrew W.K. to a piano battle (and won), and has pioneered his own brand of “orchestral rap.”
A self-proclaimed "musical genius," Gonzales has made a two-decade career out of straddling musical styles and genres. His ridiculously prolific resume includes producing albums by big-name pop artists like Feist, Drake and Daft Punk; getting his music on the first iPad commercial; and writing solo piano pieces that evoke the melancholic grace of Satie or Franck.
Gonzales’s Café Concert stressed the classical side of his creative output, featuring his original songs (watch a mash-up of his "Otello" and "Minor Fantasy" below). And while many pianists would shutter at playing on a (slightly creaky) upright, Gonzales embraced the task. “I luckily have a lot of experience playing pianos,” he told Jeff Spurgeon. “Once in a while you can’t figure certain women out; you can’t figure certain pianos out either. You do your best. In this case, I managed to flirt a little bit and make a few jokes and had her laughing pretty quickly.”
Gonzales was in New York to perform his Piano Concerto No. 1, backed by an 11-piece chamber orchestra at Lincoln Center’s David Rubinstein Atrium. Despite the concerto's formal title, he insists that his compositions are “songs,” not “pieces,” even as he acknowledges the influence of French and Russian romantic composers.
“We’re not in the 19th century anymore. We’re in the 21st," said Gonzales, who was born Jason Charles Beck. “For me, for example, the obsession with structure was a huge thing for classical composers, but that’s not really an issue for me. I grew up watching MTV. There’s nothing wrong with verse-chorus-verse-chorus. That’s the currency of our generation these days.”
Gonzales studied classical music at McGill University in his hometown of Montreal, graduating in the same class as the songwriter Rufus Wainwright. He says he never quite fit the formal conservatory mold. “I was traumatized by the institutions but fell in love with the meaning of the music,” he said, noting his love of Liszt and Tchaikovsky. “My favorite composers tend to be ones who were conscious of the audience. And for better or for worse, they had personalities that meant that they needed some sort of approval of the audience, but on their own terms.”
He continued: “I’ve always focused on the noble profession of being a showman. To me, being an entertainer – which is what I prefer to call myself rather than artist – is a way of saying entertainment doesn’t have to mean pandering to the lowest common denominator.”
Gonzales admits that his Guinness World Record performance, set in Paris in 2009, was an attempt at “selling the idea of me as a musical genius and what I’m capable of doing.” He said that the hardest part of the event was not staying awake but maintaining the quality of his performance. He got through it by “letting the adrenaline flow to not only keep me awake but communicating with the audience at all times.”
With his many creative channels (he's also a filmmaker), is Chilly Gonzales a bit desperate for attention? And what do his audiences think? "I have an oppositional personality that likes to surprise people," he said. "I find I generally need to have an approval of an audience – but on my own terms. It's not enough for me to play into traditional expectations for how to please people. So I always need to be shaping and redefining that relationship."
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Chase Culpon; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text & Production: Brian Wise