Courtesy of Karin Nagano

The top corner of a tilted, textured stone cube peeks out of the ground in Blaibach, a small village in the German state of Bavaria. It’s hard to notice — its rough granite exterior mirrors the surrounding houses. And most of the cube is underground.

“I love cubes,” said Karin Nagano ‘20. “I love working with cubes.”

On the underside of the tilted block, a concrete staircase leads to a 200-seat concert hall. It’s designed to reflect the sound of classical musicians who perform in the underground venue and has turned a dying village into an unlikely cultural hub. Flecks of light project downward out of little slits in the marbled concrete walls and slanted ceiling. The Konzerthaus Breibach is a sculpture — an architectural masterpiece.

Karin performed in that Bavarian cube-shaped concert hall last summer.

“It was supposed to be my last concert, kind of like a retirement concert,” Karin said. “It was poetic, because it was a concert hall designed by an architect.”

Karin ran down the stairs underground into Bass Café, on her way from a meeting with a professor. She and the professor are writing a paper together on the links between ornament in architecture and in music.

“I’m always running,” she said. “I never calculate enough time for one thing.”

She and I sat across from each other at a round table in Bass Cafe. She’s from Paris but has been touring the world as a concert pianist since she was born, both literally and figuratively, so she’s seen hundreds of famous performance spaces. Now, she is an aspiring architect who loves to work with cubes.

She tells me that the unassuming Konzerthaus is her favorite performance venue. It represents the way that Karin’s music dovetails into her architecture. And the texture of the cube’s interior walls is not unlike that of the Beinecke, Karin’s favorite building.

Karin began to play the piano when she was three years old and had her debut solo appearance with an orchestra, a Mozart concerto in California, when she was 9.

“After that, it just kicked off. When it starts, it really starts,” Karin said. She laughed, as if to dismiss the incredible solo performance engagements she was offered as trivial. She continued to play, perform and compete, winning first prize at major competitions like the Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 2009. These are accomplishments attributed to one in a million — maybe not even that.

Karin has performed with major orchestras around the world including the Bayerische Staatsorchester, l’Orchestre symphonique de Montreál, Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra and Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. She has professional management, and she’s recorded two albums of music by Bach and Mozart. Her third, featuring music of Franz Schubert and Olivier Messaien, will be released soon. She’s a professional musician in all aspects of the term. Sometimes, Karin would practice for eight or nine hours in a day.

I’ll stop listing these things that you can find after a quick Google search, or by reading her Wikipedia page. Or her Analekta Artists management page.

When we spoke, I decided to avoid asking her about music for as long as productively possible. She’d include phrases like “my background in music” or mention a concert experience, and I’d change the subject.

I learned Karin is enjoying her last semester at Yale. She hates to fold her laundry, but she does it anyway. She speaks four languages and dreams in French. Karin lives off-campus but is in Ezra Stiles College, coordinates social activities for the Japanese American Students Union and designs sets for the Yale Dramatic Association. No wonder she’s always running.

Here’s what struck me most: Karin exhibits a bottomless interest in everything creative. She showed me a lunch box that she designed that’s made entirely of wooden cubes that slide back and forth.

I stared at it in awe for a few seconds, then asked her about her classes. And she told me about acting.

“I’ve tried to take a Theatre Studies class every semester,” Karin said. “I’ve always loved acting, since primary school.”

This semester, her acting class of choice is Erica Fae’s “Grotowski in Practice.” The course description reads: “Students investigate the body as a vehicle for deep transformation, a container of emotional experience, and an elegant tool in articulation.”

Karin described the class as a type of acting yoga.

Karin loves acting because she’s able to “deconstruct interactions between people. Then, [I’m] trying to embody those interactions, to evoke empathy or a certain response from a character. It’s…”

She hesitates.

“…cathartic.”

Most pianists of Karin’s level are homeschooled or attend special arts-oriented schools. But throughout high school, Karin balanced attending — and excelling in — an academically-focused school with an international touring schedule.

“My mom attended the Paris Conservatory at age 14, so she had to quit [pursuing her academic studies],” Karin said. She explained that her mother’s enrollment at the conservatory was equivalent to entering a master’s degree program as a young teenager. “She regretted it a lot and wanted me to have the opportunity to go to either conservatory or to college.”

I didn’t mention that Karin’s parents are also renowned professional musicians: her mom is a concert pianist and her dad is an orchestral conductor.

Karin tells me the biggest change she’s seen at Yale is her practice time. As a first-year, Karin continued to practice the piano at least three hours per day. She split her time between studying in New Haven and concertizing around the world.

When she was younger, she would have to miss school trips if the location didn’t have a piano or sit out on activities in order to practice for an upcoming concert.

“If I didn’t play for two days, I would feel the change,” Karin said. “For every day I would miss, it would be even harder to recover.”

Now, she doesn’t practice as much as she used to, because her technique has developed such that she can produce a high-quality, artistic performance after being away from the piano for several days. It’s because she has matured as a musician, but also because piano isn’t her main focus anymore.

Karin fell in love with architecture after taking a seminar in the spring of her first year at Yale. Now, she spends most of her time in the School of Architecture. She jokes that it’s “unfortunate.” But architecture is something Karin has discovered on her own. It takes no influence from her highly musical family.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, really,” Karin said. I could see her eyes light up. Karin loves to work with cubes, remember? Her architectural style emphasizes the craft in its “purest form.” She especially enjoys working with wood because it’s light and natural and versatile.

“Wood smells nice and is much less invasive than concrete,” Karin said.

She’s interned at several architectural firms and wants to work as a professional architect after graduation.

Although she ended up taking another performance offer for the coming summer and will finish recording a few pieces for her third album, she will “retire” officially afterward — the piano that sits in the cube-shaped concert hall in Bavaria will be completely underground.

Onlookers can appreciate what’s reflected above, in the sunlight: a beautiful sculpture and an architectural masterpiece.

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu