A 2010 winner of the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, Ria Carlo was educated at Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge Universities, and has worked for the Hubble Space Telescope team as well as NASA. Having studied piano while in high school with lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music, she has also been the piano accompanist for the Princeton University Glee Club. Married to Mark Christopher Carlo, a chemical engineer and technology officer, she and her husband are active volunteers in non-profit scholastic causes. The couple recently returned from the Alexander & Buono Festival of Music in Abano Terme, Italy, which Mrs. Carlo describes as “a landmark event in my musical growth.”
Music is replete with scientific and mathematical principles, for example, pitch and vibration. Harmony, according to Plato, had its basis in the study of physics. Given the fact that you have distinguished yourself in both science and music, what do you think often makes people of science great musicians?
In addition to the aesthetic, creative, and spiritual dimensions of music, there are strong components of order, structure, and logic which a composer employs to formulate a beautiful piece of music. Rhythm, tonal patterns, harmony, and polyphony are inherently mathematical. The way that musical transcription has evolved over the centuries, a musical score is a kind of blueprint of instructions within a framework of rules. Although we might not explicitly think that we are reasoning out math problems as we are reading music, the mind is busily at work fitting together the logic of a piece.
Conversely, the creative faculties evoked in music making are vital to the scientist or engineer who must find novel solutions to real-world problems. I once had a science teacher in the 8th grade who made me promise that I would never give up playing the piano, because he felt that the development of both left- and right-brain capacities was essential to the creative process that makes for great scientists and mathematicians.
Analytical ability without imagination leaves one unable to dream of possibilities; imagination without logic leaves one lacking the structure to compose his or her intentions. The two are inextricably linked in the process of innovation – a fresh delivery of ideas and possibilities that is at the heart of great science and great music alike.
Watching you onstage one has a sense of your being extremely thoughtful, as though you are studying and analyzing every measure of a work. What do you focus on when you perform, and why?
The first thing that I focus upon is what I want to convey to my audience. I may play a piece wanting to evoke certain feelings, paint an image, or communicate a story. Life is a kaleidoscope of emotion and experience, and it is this depth and richness which I want to convey in the microcosm of musical expression. My practice time is very focused upon every nuance of the score until much of the mechanical execution becomes autonomic. Then on stage, I am wholly focused upon sound and emotion.
I try to go into my performances in a very clear and calm state of mind so that the audience has no disturbance coming from me that then dilutes their perception of the music. A performer has a remarkable opportunity of uplifting the hearts of an audience through wonderful music that is beautifully executed, and this is what I continually strive towards. My richest reward is when a listener exits my performance emotionally moved and mentally refreshed.
Most artists have composers whose works they favor, and looking at your choices for programs one gets a clear sense of your own preferences, most notably a love of Chopin. Let’s therefore approach this next question somewhat differently. If Chopin were alive today and he told you he wanted to write a work especially for you, what elements and emotions would you want it to include, and why?
I do love the music of Chopin because it takes me back to a different time and place. Some musicologists have found that younger generations of pianists tend to play Chopin with the impatience and impetuousness of the times, whereas life in the days of Chopin and Liszt was not as hurried nor as fast-paced as the times tend to be today. I resonate with this viewpoint and tend to play Chopin’s works just “taking my time”, perhaps with more rubato, allowing it to flow with an unhurried, uninhibited feeling. I believe that this helps the listener become absorbed into the music and hopefully brings them into the emotional genre of a bygone era.
I enjoy more bucolic settings and bringing a “breath of fresh air” to an audience when they hear a piece of music. So many of Chopin’s pieces already typify the colorful landscapes of nature and the romance of life. I would only ask of Chopin that he do for me what he normally does in composing music—painting soulful frescoes of human experience that stir the heart.
One of your fellow Princetonians, Manjul Bhargava, who is also the 1998 winner of the Clay Research Prize, says that music and math are both art forms that use different languages for expression. If called upon to clarify this statement, give us some idea of “words” associated with the language of the piano, and how you personally use that language to “speak” to an audience.
I am always amazed by how composers—Debussy, for example—use chord progressions and phrasing that paint visual pictures. Somehow, this concoction of certain combinations of notes, articulation, and dynamics merge with a performer’s artistry to produce an entire sequence of imagery and atmosphere. Though there are scientific explanations that describe music by way of the mechanics of sound waves, frequencies, and patterns, the effect of music upon an individual is at times metaphysical. There is so much that I do not know and that I cannot explain when it comes to music: we can analyze the nuts and bolts of musical notes on a page, yet it speaks nothing to the pathos and healing that can occur when music touches a human soul.
When I perform, my heart is as engaged as my mind; I share in a mutual love and respect for my audience and do my best to deliver the perceived intent of the composer with every faculty I have, including historical knowledge, technique, phrasing, and intuition. I choose repertoire that moves me personally and then do my best to convey what I feel to the audience. What then happens in the soul of the listener is a matter of providence.
After one of your performances in Italy I heard an audience member remark: “I’m not sure which is greater—her talent or her beauty.” To the point, you are always exquisitely dressed for each of your performances. What suggestions can you offer other pianists in terms of making wardrobe selections for recitals?
I thank you for such a generous compliment. The music that we represent carries with it a great dignity as we interpret some of the most profound repertoire to have been conceived by Western civilization. It is a unique honor and a privilege to be able to go before an audience and convey the beauty and depth of classical music. In this cause, I try to be my personal best both mentally and physically so that the audience receives a congruent impression all around.
We can each have our own distinctive “style” as we aim to represent what classical music means to us within the context of our unique personalities. I think it requires more time than money to figure out what wardrobe selections are comfortable and appropriate. I watch what accomplished concert pianists wear and adapt it to my own style. I shop for bargains and keep an eye out for wardrobe selections throughout the year. I ask others to give me honest feedback on my selections, because, quite frankly, I am no fashion expert, and what I see in the mirror can be quite different from what others see. What I wear affects how I feel and can influence my composure in a performance, so I aim to select clothing that is comfortable and demonstrates the highest degree of respect for the repertoire, the audience, the venue, and the occasion for which I am called upon to perform.