Concerts | Vienna Teng
FFM Performance: Sat, Apr 9; 8:00, Covenant Fine Arts Center
When asked to classify her music, Vienna Teng will throw out some standard labels, such as chamber folk, singer-songwriter, pop, jazz and classical, but she also has her own description of what she hopes her music sounds like, saying, “I’d like the experience of listening to it to be like a good dinner party, the kind where conversation stretches ’til two in the morning and years later you still remember every flavor and color and sound and gesture, or at least you wish you could. Something like that.”
To extend this metaphor a bit: Teng would be sitting at the piano after everyone had eaten, playing some tunes and probably chatting with her guests. They would ask her how long she has been playing the piano, and she would answer since she was five. Then she would explain how she graduated from Stanford and worked as a computer programmer for two years but quit that job to focus on her songwriting and performing. Her guests would inquire more about her background and she would tell them that she grew up in California, raised by Taiwanese parents, and then how she has recently enrolled in the University of Michigan business school to study sustainable enterprise. And then everyone would be quiet and she would play a song.
Teng does have an eclectic and impressive resume, but when you listen to her music, it is warm and inviting and you really do get the sense that you could sit down to dinner with her and talk for hours. Her songs are centered around her piano, rounded out with brushed drums and double bass for a more jazz-leaning sound, or strings and guitar for more of a pop flavor. It's her clear and level-headed voice though, that meets you right in the center of the music and makes you feel as if she's talking to just you. And when she's talking, Teng likes to tell stories.
She likes to tell narratives that are contained yet far-reaching, concerned with the world but focused on the personal. Take for instance “No Gringo,” a song that tells the story of an immigrant family just looking for a place to sleep amidst the larger story of America's border hypocrisies and schizophrenic immigration laws. Or there is “Augustine,” which Teng has said came out of her experience reading Confessions, Augustine's memoir about finding God, which she had to read for a humanities class and has stuck with her ever since. Teng said that she came up with a piano part that she thought sounded like church bells, and so she ended up writing a song about the mystery of faith. Over her chiming piano she sings, “Lead me now / I understand / Faith is both the prison and the open hand / Bells on low on high / Will you ring for Augustine tonight.”
At the dinner party of Teng's music, I think the many subjects of her songs would be in attendance, sitting at the table. So there would be Saint Augustine, there would be the family from “No Gringo,” but probably the most outspoken of the dinner guests would be the grandmother from “Grandmother Song.” You get the feeling that this is in fact Teng's grandmother, whom Teng channels in the song and who confronts her granddaughter, singing, “Turning thirty and still trying to sing you songs / Come on who do you think you are... Take it from your grandmother I've been round / This music career isn't real life / It won't see you through to when you're sixty-five.”
Since “Grandmother Song” is a one sided song, grandmother doling out opinions to her granddaughter, Teng doesn't have a chance to answer her grandmother's criticisms. But maybe the mere fact that the grandmother's criticisms are rendered in song form makes the piece Teng's answer to her grandmother's doubts about the connection between popular songs and real life. Yes, the world is broken and bombs fall and to live is to suffer, but the power of a song lies in its ability to reveal the basic goodness that resides in human beings who are living real life in a broken world. So maybe a song can actually make us more human, and maybe writing songs will see you through, beyond sixty-five, because a song can remind us what real life is actually like.
- Ben Dixon
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