Thursday, March 31, 2011

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong: Magic

A few Fridays ago M, Joel, Christina and I went to the charmingly sketchy concert venue Bootleg Theater to see Vienna Teng and Alex Wong perform.

Before I can tell you about the concert, I need to tell you a very important truth:  M has very discriminating taste with music.  He also enthuses so vigorously about whatever music he's passionate about at the moment that most people can't avoid becoming enthused about it too.  That's exactly what happened with me and Vienna Teng's music.  M loved it, so I love it.  But really, it's wonderful. 

It's very difficult to tell you what genre her music fits into- a dilemma she herself mentioned between songs- and announcing that she had recently hit on "NPR pop" as the best description.  "NPR pop"!  I love it

Their music IS hard to describe: she plays the piano and she sings, and Alex Wong, her percussionist and occasional producer, works magic utilizing all kinds of less-than-conventional instruments.  Pop, Classical, Jazz, A Capella and Folk are all genres that can be said to influence their music, but the result is entirely original.  And it's wonderful.  Can I stress that enough?

Just listen to this, and you'll get the idea.  It's called "The Last Snowfall" from the album Inland Territory.
And this is the first song of her's I fell in love with, it's called "Whatever You Want" from Dreaming Through The Noise:
It's about (I gather from the lyrics) a corrupt and manipulative businessman being turned in for fraud by his overlooked wife and his second in command.  I love plot-based songs, don't you?  This is one of the things that first drew me to her music, you believe there's a story there, and you can get sucked in.  The whole crowd stood swaying through so many of her songs for that reason, they're beautiful, and they're also fully-developed settings.  They take you away. 

As if all this artistry wasn't enough, Vienna Teng is also incredibly intelligent. She graduated from Stanford with a degree in Computer Science, and is pursuing her MBA/MS degree in sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan as we speak.  Talk about multi-tasking, geez! This intellectualism really shows through in her lyrics.  The songs are ABOUT things more complicated than love or breakups.  Take for example the last verse from "No Gringo", Inland Territory- a song about what it would be like if the American economy crashed and Americans were flooding into Mexico for jobs. 

"No gringo
No gringo aqui
Words as levies against the flood
Hoy cerrado
There's too many to feed
room for only our own
kind, our own blood
No gringo, no gringo aqui
you have stayed in this
land for too long!
Tan amargo
But there's no time to grieve
You just pack up your
things and move on
and move on."

Just listen, it's clever, heartbreaking and original:

Now that you have the background, let me tell you: I was SO excited to go see a "real" concert.  No, this one didn't include laser shows or anything like that, and yes, the venue was small.  However, this was- no joke- my first time to go to a concert that wasn't symphonic, played by someone I didn't already have a personal connection to, or conducted in the courtyard of my residential hall (Wiess Jamfest, whutwhut!).

I was expecting Vienna to be awesome; but, what I wasn't expecting was the artistry that Alex Wong brought to the table.  He's a full-time musician, balancing several bands and producing multiple albums- and he works percussion wonders.  He has a large wooden box that he sits on during performances which, when smacked- that's a technical term right?- resonates beautifully.  It's a warm, organic sound that does wonders for the folky mixture this pair produces.  He also has a waterphone- which, in what he told as a slightly madcap adventure, was held by the TSA (to make sure it couldn't be exploded or smoked) and then rushed to the concert venue, arriving an hour before show time.  And how lucky the audience was that it made it.  This instrument produces sounds reminiscent of a violinist using harmonics. Really- you play it with a bow- it's ethereal, wavering, haunting, elegant.  Plus, the man is a master with the loop pedal.  It really was impressive to watch- that's the element you really miss out on in recorded tracks; the physicality of percussion is fascinating and when you are in the same space, your bones resonate in the most exciting of ways. 

Moreover, and here was the truly special thing, it's clear that these two artists are well matched for each other, they collaborate, they challenge, they appreciate what the other does.  They were brilliant to watch on stage because of the camaraderie and challenges they brought to each other.

Plus, the two of them seem totally comfortable co-opting things as instruments that aren't really instruments:  Take for example this brand new song: "Breaking Light" which features two wineglasses tuned to different pitches, recorded on the spot and played on a loop, a Jameson bottle, the waterphone, the piano, and vocal harmony.  Watching them do this live was quite the experience.  It's magical to watch something so unusual come together in a way in which quality singing or piano playing isn't.  A person can be a master of those instruments and not awe because they are manipulating the familiar.  But this is different, special.  Also, if you choose to buy this track, the proceeds go to Japanese earthquake/tsunami relief.  So that's awesome. 

I loved it.

In case you want more, listen to "Grandmother's Song", Inland Territory...
...or "Stray Italian Greyhound", The Moment Always Vanishing, both favorites:


  1. The wooden box is probably a cajon, an originally Latin percussion instrument. They usually have a pickup on the inside and a resonating hole in the back. I love those things.