by Jingxuan Zhang, From the Top Alumni Correspondent
Talking with Nathan Chan is a jarring reminder that I can still have hope in humanity – all I hear about is love, acceptance, and community. And String Theory, a five-cello student ensemble Nathan founded in the autumn of 2011, is the fruit of that passion. An undergraduate studying in the prestigious joint program between Columbia University and The Juilliard School, 19-year-old Nathan Chan made his appearance on From the Top on Show 207 in Stanford, California in 2009. There are very few classical musicians willing to venture into the world of popular music, but in an age which has witnessed classical music’s losing steam to the mainstream, Nathan decided to reach a wider audience with String Theory’s innovative arrangements of hits such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Viva la Vida.”
Because String Theory performs works newly arranged by members of the group, the pieces do not find their final form from the start. Thus, all rehearsals demand creativity, flexibility, and teamwork, or as Nathan puts it, “verbal rearrangement.” To ensure the quality of music, they carefully engage with it by polishing the texture and refining musical layers during the run through, working and editing along the way. And the group’s commitment to the caliber of output is just a microcosm of its mission to engage more people and share their passion for music. Nathan says, “Playing [in String Theory] has taught me to be an open thinker in terms of being a musician. I’m beginning to understand what modern audiences are looking for and enhance classical music with that knowledge.”
Nathan embraces what are now perceived as different categories of music, transcending the boundaries between classical and popular: “We make it so that all kinds of music are accessible to as many people as possible, so that music becomes less exclusive, and more community-oriented.” And isn’t the exclusivity of classical music why popular music is, well, popular? Behind the formidable fence of concert halls and suited attires, the younger generation has been estranged from centuries of tradition. Nathan is actively trying to break down barriers and invite the modern audience into his world of music without losing musical integrity. On his YouTube page, one can see Bach cello suites juxtaposed to Coldplay or The Swan neighboring Libertango. This diversity allows the audiences who enjoy mainstream to expose themselves to classical and vice versa. For Nathan, his YouTube channel’s contents are not merely video recordings, but continuations of live performances, for they continue to give music and spread joy to those who want it, anytime. As he phrases it, “Social media is a key way to reaching out to as many people as possible.”
He has learned a lot in this journey, which in a way started with his appearance on From the Top: “What impressed me most is how From the Top emphasized that music is really a community, and one has to foster it.” And foster he has. Quickly becoming one of the most popular student ensembles at Columbia University, String Theory established itself as one of the best and most popular ensembles on campus, being invited to collaborate with various campus organizations and student composers. Nathan Chan and String Theory surely have earned their name as “Columbia University’s Premiere Cello Ensemble.”
Update: Nathan recently performed on behalf of From the Top at two events in Aspen: an event hosted by From the Top radio sponsor U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management at the Aspen Ideas Festival; and a From the Top soiree in conjunction with a radio taping at the Aspen Music Festival and School.