Sugar Vendil’s work is a recent revelation, but once her latest album, May We Know Our Own Strength, crossed my path, it’s become a bit of a fixture. There’s a captivating power in her work, as though the way she plays piano, and the entrancing movement threaded in the bones of her work, adheres to a forgotten part of ourselves. It’s potent and grounded yet permeated by a whimsical air that sends the music into surprising elevations.
I always like to start at the beginning, so what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?
My earliest memories are dancing with my friend in preschool to Michael Jackson’s “Bad”; the Care Bears soundtrack and Beatles albums on vinyl; my older brother teaching me the hook of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” on the piano; and dancing to Debbie Gibson in front of a camcorder with big, crimped hair on my 6th birthday.
Some things that have shaped me are actually related to athleticism rather than music: my brother encouraging me to jump across a creek when I was 4 or 5 and playing volleyball for 8 years. Those things just made me feel so powerful, and confidence is so important as a performer. Volleyball has undoubtedly shaped the way I move as a dancer and the kinds of movements I lean towards. Playing a sport also embedded the idea in my mind that practice pays off.
And in terms of deciding to be a pianist: a friend in my sixth-grade class played an intermediate but dazzling version of Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” I was struck by the speed, the physicality of it and how not-boring I thought it was. That day I knew I wanted to commit to playing the piano!
Did you always want to be a musician or a composer?
Nah, at first, I let my mom tell me what I should be, and that choice always revolved around a job that made a lot of money. I think I always had an itch to be an artist, though. And as I mentioned above, in sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be a pianist. Composing didn’t cross my mind until I was an adult when at some point during grad school, I thought, music is a language we’ve learned our whole lives as classical musicians…why aren’t we encouraged to form our own thoughts with it?
What was the first impetus to start playing music and creating your own sounds? Was piano your first instrument?
I had started trying to write a song on guitar in high school but didn’t stick with it. I think it was hard to imagine doing something I wasn’t immediately good at, and when you’re a teen versus a small child, you’ve already started forming that self-conscious, judgmental mind. I finally decided to just do it in my mid-thirties, when I felt absolutely compelled to make my first piece, Islander. What had happened was that it just wasn’t coming together with another artist, then a couple of friends from high school died a few months later. And it woke something up in me. I just had this feeling, like I HAVE to do this, and I don’t care if it’s good or bad because life’s simply too short.
Piano was my first instrument. We had an on-and-off relationship throughout childhood! Until…HUNGARIAN RHAPSODIE NO. 2!
And what about your voice – have you always loved to sing? Have you had any specific voice training through the years?
I have always loved to sing. I didn’t incorporate singing into my practice until I started composing. If you count being forced to sing at church as training, then yes! I haven’t really had any voice training, but I usually listen to a recording of myself and try to adjust. Recently I’ve received the most helpful information from my good friend, composer, and singer Alicia Waller.
At what point did you expand your practice to include movement and choreography? What was the spark for that?
I started digging into movement more in 2016 when I co-created a piece with choreographer Coco Karol. I’d also started researching other interdisciplinary music and movement work, and I discovered Meredith Monk’s work—very, very late to the party, I know! (I’d only previously heard a piano and voice piece when I was still a very classical pianist, and I didn’t like it or really get it at the time.) “Turtle Dreams” was the first thing I stumbled upon, and I think what struck me was not only the beautiful way Monk connects music and movement but the simplicity of the movement. It made me feel that it was possible to find movement that is compelling though simple, that works for my body and the bodies of artists I work with, even if I’m not formally trained.
Loving dance so much has made me want to acquire more skills, so I do take a class now relatively regularly. It’s funny, at first, I was fine with the simple gestural stuff, but the more I’ve done it, I’m like, “I NEED my leg to be able to kick higher!” Haha.
I have to talk about your latest album, which has been on regular rotation over here. One of the many things I love about it – and this is a common thread throughout so much of your work, both figuratively and literally – is how much movement there is in the pieces. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of movement in your work?
I’m so glad you like it, thank you! Movement is so central to my work and to my approach to the instrument, even before I was composing, when I was playing traditional classical music. Nothing is initiated without movement, and one’s movement is so particular to oneself. Finding the connection between movement and sound-making has allowed me to shape how I write for the piano, explore techniques on other instruments, and just generally free up any parts of my body that feel locked up. And figuratively speaking, stillness is also a movement, like silence is a sound. I constantly remind myself to stay in place, as my default tends to be to jump from one idea to the next. I tend to be that way in verbal conversation, too!
What were some of the biggest challenges in making May We Know Our Own Strength?
Overall it wasn’t a painful process, as the pieces were made over time. This recording was also unplanned: in typical “me” fashion, I decided to release it on 11/11/22 last minute in September. I could have released this months earlier, but I just sat on the recordings. The biggest challenge in making the final thing was getting over my fear of listening to “ooh wo aa oo wa o,” because I was worried about whether or not it would come across decently on a recording because it was really written with the live performance in mind. And right now, I know this is after the making, but a huge challenge without PR is getting more ears in front of it.
There are some seriously great artists who you play with on the album. How did this group of collaborators come together for this record?
I played regularly with everyone on the album at some point or another when the ensemble I founded, The Nouveau Classical Project, was active. They ARE seriously great. I love them!
And speaking of collaboration, how important is collaboration to your creative practice, and how does working with all these great artists help push and inspire your work?
Sometimes I like to work alone, and other times I really need collaborators. And finding the right people is so important! When it comes to pieces that involve anyone else besides myself, collaboration is central. And I’m so fortunate to know talented and intelligent artists, who I also consider friends. Even when artists aren’t directly generating material, having the opportunity to test things and receive their feedback is essential to my process. The wonderful people I get to work with I’ve known for a while now, so I can count on them to be both generous and honest. I also want to mention that though she’s not playing on the album, the fabulous violinist Maya Bennardo was part of the workshopping and premiere performance of “ooh wo aa oo wa o.”
They don’t play on the album, but filmmaker Jih-E Peng and artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya were, of course, instrumental in making two of the pieces happen. They wouldn’t exist if they didn’t ask me to make them, so I’m truly grateful! I met Jih-E at a co-working space/club we used to be members of and met Amanda through her. Jih-E was so clear about how she saw the arc of her film, “May We Know Our Own Strength.” And Amanda gave me enough confidence and trust with our collaboration for her exhibition “GATHER” at Lincoln Center following that project, which was a gift.
I also wanted to ask you about your upcoming piece, Antonym. This description really grabs me, “If nostalgia is a yearning for the past, Antonym longs for forward motion and envisions the future as an escape from pain.” Please tell me more about the piece and how, with these themes and ideas in mind, this idea of looking forward is informed by the past.
I’m obsessed with my childhood, and Antonym is a memoir of sorts. I feel like everything I do is for the child version of me, like she still exists, and I’m constantly talking to her, reassuring her that her future is going to be good. And when I was a kid, during my lowest points, I’d imagine where I’d be on a day that wasn’t today and know that today won’t be always. Maybe she heard me? Hears me? Time feels like a place, and the present is continually becoming the past, so for me, the idea of looking forward, especially when I was young, is like charting a course to a better place.
What are you working on for next year and most looking forward to in 2023?
I’m working on a solo album for piano, voice, and electronics that was supposed to be my debut album! And COMING OF RAGE, a maximalist eruption of AAPI voices. And making a concerted effort to not overwhelm myself with projects.
One of the things I’m most excited about is finally making and premiering Antonym. I started it in 2019 then the pandemic and other life things happened, but it’ll get done!