An Interview with Jason Kouchak

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Table of Contents

Your weekend reading is here as we proudly present an interview with the multi-talented Jason Kouchak.

Jason is an accomplished pianist, composer and singer-songwriter who is enjoying a long and highly successful career. Jason’s love of chess goes back almost as far as his love of music and in our interview we discuss both subjects and plenty more…

Jason Kouchak
All photographs © Julian Paix

The Early Moves of Jason Kouchak

How did your chess journey begin?

One of my earliest recollections, was watching my Mum and Dad playing chess together. I was intrigued by the shapes of the chess pieces, particularly the knight, on our inherited French Lyon Antiquarian chess set. I saw the game as a dance, especially when my Mother would gracefully chess pieces into a winning position. My chess journey truly began with the realisation that I was capable of defeating both my parents and then I started to read the chess books they bought me as a further encouragement.

Did you have any particular chess heroes or role models to inspire you in the early days?

Philidor and Smyslov (for their romantic chess games and miniatures). They are my heroes because of their ability to combine chess with music.

I was lucky enough to meet Smyslov and to play piano with him at the Women vs Veteran’s Chess Tournament in 1996. We celebrated at the end of the tournament with classical music at the Hilton Rooftop, London. I had the chance to admire not only Smyslov’s brilliant chess technique, but also, his wonderful voice.

Which chess books do you find most instructive or inspirational?

In Search of Harmony by Vasily Smyslov and Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov.

Style and Success

How would you describe your style of play?

When I assess or evaluate a chess position, I see it in terms of the harmony, within a position.

The symphony of chess moves in a position, can be resolved by discord or musical chord structures. I enjoy resolving the creative tension within a chess melody. In these terms, I see my style as romantic, creative and sometimes reckless depending on the flow of play.

What is your most memorable chess success (so far!)?

I remember beating Stuart Conquest and James Plaskett in a friendly chess blitz session at my house in January 2006, the same night that James appeared on the popular television quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  They were both so euphoric and to this day, I am unsure if they deliberately allowed me to win a couple of the games as my guests (‘I need to ask the audience…?’).

Recent circumstances have forced most chess to be played online. Do you still follow the top tournaments and do you enjoy playing online chess?

Yes, Chess24.com.  I enjoyed watching the first International Banter Blitz Games online and the MCI Tournament in Spring 2020. The commentators I most enjoy listening to include Lawrence Trent and Yasser Seirawan because of their sharp insight and humour regarding the games. I also enjoy playing Blitz chess online.

Ambition and Improvement

Highlighted course

The Checkmate Patterns Manual

How much time each day do you spend working on your own game?

A couple of hours analysing opening and endgame theory and an hour online playing chess games and reviewing them afterwards.

What ambitions do you have, as a player?

I hope someday to be able to travel to new chess tournaments worldwide and possibly reach an ELO chess rating of 2020 (perfect vision?).

Club players are always interested in ways to improve their game. What advice would you offer to them?

I would advise them to review their games, whether won or lost, not only through chess engines but also to play over a chess board with stronger opponents. As in music theory, playing scales and arpeggios, it seems essential to practice chess theory as a routine and a daily discipline.

How do you cope with the pain of defeat? 

I would normally scream at the top of my voice with my piano for company, until my neighbours complain.  The other alternative is to go for a long walk in nature.

What do you make of the legendary link between chess, music and mathematics? You excel at chess and music, but do you enjoy the world of mathematics too?

I love the fact that there are many lines of thought and variables in the process of finding a solution whether in Chess, Music or Mathematics. I realise the use of linear Algebra and Vector Matrices helps with the visualisation of possible movements and patterns on the chessboard.

Jason Kouchak Pianist

The Musical World of Jason Kouchak

Your music credentials are extremely impressive: pianist, composer and singer-songwriter. How did your journey in music begin?

My mother was my first piano teacher at five years’ old. I remember listening to her playing whilst hiding under the piano, feeling the vibration of sound resonate throughout our home. When we moved from Lyon, France, I received a music scholarship to Westminster and studied composition and performance at the Royal College of Music. I was lucky enough to be sponsored by Yamaha Pianos early in my career, which allowed me to perform worldwide. I enjoy singing chanson française as part of my musical heritage.

Can you summarise your musical achievements (not those with chess content)?

Performance worldwide sponsored  by Yamaha pianos 1995-2000.

Toured globally as a classical pianist including performances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Recorded five albums at both Abbey Road and Olympic Studios.

Director of music for the 20th French Film Festival Anniversary 2010.

Founded the Tsubasa Children’s choir in 2011.

Performances at Literary Festivals in Sri Lanka  (2012) and Dubai (2015) with Tom Stoppard.

Performed for Princess Margaret’s 60th birthday celebrations at the Ritz Hotel London 1990.

Jason Kouchak Interview

Creativity

What impact has lockdown had on your creativity?

The lockdown has given me a chance to reflect, review and reassess my classical music education. I have felt the need to reconnect with myself and have also found the harmony in humanity. The silence between the time and space is almost parallel to the silence between the notes in music.

A change in tempo and in the surroundings, has forced me to realign and manage my creative energy and expectations in this new normal. Luckily, I have been able to produce musical recordings at home and also discovered a renewed interest in astronomy.

You are passionate about chess and I understand you launched a number of giant outdoor chessboards, in London and Edinburgh. What was the motivation behind this venture?

I remember as a teenager, travelling around Europe and particularly loved Switzerland not only for the mountains and lakes, but also the giant chess sets in almost every Swiss city. I saw chess players of all generations and gender, playing together and met many new friends through Chess. These memories motivated me to buy giant chess sets in London, Edinburgh and Paris. My hope is that these chess sets provide people with a new inspiration and interest in this beautiful game that brings us together.

Music and Chess in Harmony

Could you tell me more about the following music and chess pieces and events:

 1) Victory Moves

I composed Victory Moves as a homage to Carlsen and Caruana at the World Chess Championship in November 2018.

I was fortunately asked by FIDE to create a musical composition to connect the classical with the modern in both chess and music. The idea was to visualise two 21st century Grandmaster chess generals in a classical 19th century chess setting.

2) Queen of the Knight

Queen of the Knight is inspired by Philidor’s Princesse de Norvege opera and Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria.

The composition was performed at the closing ceremony of the Norway Chess Tournament. The musical concept was to reflect the fusion of classical chess with blitz Armageddon that characterised the tournament. The idea of adding a James Bond orchestration to the classical theme was also inspired by the fact that the latest Bond movie was filmed a few months earlier in Norway 2019.

3) Moving Forward

This musical composition was especially composed for my giant chess set launch in Holland Park in 2010 to encourage the process of visualisation.

It has also been used by the Chess in Schools and Communities charity to educate and entertain the future chess champions and enthusiasts.It was performed as part of the ‘Queens Journey’ ballet performance at the British Museum in 2016.

Jason Kouchak Musician

Chess, Music and Ballet

You added a third genre to the blend when you combined ballet with chess and music. What was the genesis of this project and what are your goals?

The Queen’s Journey project evolved through the concept of visualisation, especially in the Queen’s lines of movement, as a chess piece. It was established to encourage more girls and women, to play chess and discover the challenges of learning this game as an addition to their future life skills. The aim of the  initiative is to use music, ballet and chess to educate, entertain and enlighten through power and grace. The concept alludes to the power of chess and chess pieces, not only as a mental chess battle, but also as a musical ballet movement. It is a combination that inspires children to be creative in both chess and music.

Can you tell me a little about your recent achievements to in the combined worlds of chess and music?

Chess and ballet musical work “Queen’s Journey’ performed at the British Museum, London and New York, celebrating the role of women as queens in chess (2016).

3D Royal Queen chess piece, especially designed in honour of HM Queen Elizabeth II (2016).

Queen’s Journey ballet production staged at Judit Polgar’s chess festival (2017).

Chess themed ballet pieces ‘Power and Grace’ performed on Holland Park giant chess set to celebrate the 100th year anniversary or women’s rights and empowerment in the UK (2018).

Goodwill Ambassador of Artistic Values presented by Judit Polgar, chess and music. (2018).

Norway chess closing ceremony (Altibox) piano performance (2019).

Heart of Finland International Chess Tournament opening piano performance (2019).

The 2021 Overture

What plans do you have for 2021?

A new ‘Queen’s Journey’ performance programme of chess, music and dance with empowerment themes (Spring 2021).

Concert performance in celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s  60th Year space flight anniversary at the Russian Embassy (online Spring 2021).

Alice Through the Looking Glass,  ‘Curioser’ Chess Ballet performance in the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Summer 2021).

Holland Park London’s giant chess set 10th year anniversary celebration with music, ballet and chess (Summer 2021).

Rachmaninov concert for Varsity Match and Annual dinner at the RAC Club, London (Autumn 2021).

Royal Astronomic Society 200th year anniversary celebration concert (delayed 2021).

Three Genres

The blend of the three genres is intriguing for many reasons, but the one which springs immediately to mind is the potential gender conflict. The current perception is that chess remains essentially dominated by men and that ballet is dominated by women. Pre-conceived ideas are no doubt partly to blame. Music, of course, conquers the gender divide. Do you see music as the lynchpin for the project, helping to attract men and women alike to the concept of the chess ballet?

Currently there are maybe limitations and boundaries within the current framework of values, identities and beliefs within the chess world.

The definition of progress is now open to one’s own interpretation of gender conflict and with it comes possibilities, potential and new set of problems.

Maybe now is the time to try harder to resolve this conflict by realigning our expectations in a new normal’ and creating a new learning paradigm at an earlier educational entry level. The merging of the masculine vs feminine stereotype in our ever-changing world is dependant on our comparative mentality and also the international or inter-temporal context.

Breaking the Boundaries

On a related theme, you were heavily involved in various sessions and debates during the 2019 London Chess Conference, which had the theme of ‘Chess and Female Empowerment.’ How important is the subject to you and what do you think needs to happen to bring some of the conference’s ideas and plans to fruition?

I perceive the concept of female empowerment in chess as a positive and powerful mission statement and an opportunity for mutual advancement and achievement in the world of chess. The various sessions and debates at the 2019 London Chess Conference were interesting and informative, but also made me aware of the challenges ahead. I think there could be more joint tournaments of boys and girls and yet there needs to be more encouragement for girls 11+ to maintain their interest in the game.  Fundamentally, there could to be a more centralised and organised framework of chess teaching earlier in the school curriculum at both a local and national level.

Jason Kouchak and Judit Polgar

Future Plans

What are you working on at the moment? (All genres!)

Some of these are mentioned above.

Concert performance in celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s 60th Year space flight anniversary at the Russian Embassy (online Spring 2021).

Alice Through the Looking Glass,  ‘inter-temporal’ Chess Ballet performance in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Summer 2021).

Rachmaninov concert for Varsity Match and Annual dinner at the RAC Club, London (Autumn 2021).

Royal Astronomic Society 200th year anniversary celebration concert (delayed 2021).

Favourite Games

And finally…

Do you have a favourite chess game…

Of your own?

Still looking for a perfect (favourite) game.  Will let you know if that ever happens!?

From history?

My favourite is game 11 of the 1958 Smyslov – Botvinnik World Championship match.

Thank you very much, Jason Kouchak!

Highlighted course

The Woodpecker Method

Jason Kouchak Chess Ballet

Follow Jason’s news via his official website and explore his work on his YouTube channel.

The Queen's Journey

Click here to follow The Queen’s Journey.

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