Taiji and Pop Culture
Tony Visconti: Taiji Practitioner & Rock/Pop Producer
by Stephan Berwick
Taijiquan now appears everywhere. The art can be seen on TV commercials, programs, movies, and books. Taijiquan is now a part of mainstream America and may be on the cusp of becoming something more. While Chinese martial arts have contributed to pop culture, such as the Hip Hop community's love of kung fu, Taiji has never been viewed as a part of pop culture. But the growth of Chen style Taijiquan appears to be changing that.
Chen Taiji is on the verge of impacting pop culture in the same way traditional "external" Chinese boxing styles already have. This is evident with the emergence of Master Ren Guang Yi, a youthful, dynamic Chen master in NY who attracts a loyal following of young martial artists and entertainment figures whom find something about this teacher and this art that speaks to a wider embrace by America's eclectic pop culture.
This is evident with the emergence of Master Ren Guang Yi, a youthful, dynamic Chen master based in NY. Not only are young martial artists embracing him and his art, so too are entertainment figures from America's eclectic pop culture.
A Music Producer's Journey to Chen Taiji
Well known to Kung Fu Tai Chi readers, the legendary rock musician and poet, Lou Reed (who graciously served as photographer for some the shots for this profile), is a devoted student of Master Ren. But other famous entertainment personalities are also flocking to Master Ren's classes. One such individual is the legendary rock and pop producer Tony Visconti, who has contributed to the success of many of the world's most respected musicians, including David Bowie. What is not widely known - before being featured in the current global advertising campaign for the management consulting firm Cap Gemini - is that running parallel to his musical career is a long dedication to Taijiquan.
Visconti has been a Taiji practitioner for over two decades. He first began his Taiji training from 1980-1985 in the traditional Yang style while living in London. His instructor was the esteemed pioneer British master John Kells. Kells was an early student of Chi Chiang Tao and T.T. Liang (early students of Cheng Man Cheng). To this day, Visconti remains deeply impressed by Kells' internal skills, citing him with great respect. He moved to NY in 1989, but found himself practicing solo, unable to find a teacher who met his standards. In 2003, he finally found what he was searching for.
David Bowie, a close friend of Lou Reed, mentioned to Visconti that Reed, a diabetic like Visconti, was currently exhibiting greatly improved health, looking youthful and more muscular, all due to his training in Chen Taiji under Master Ren. Visconti had never met Reed, but knew that "Lou Reed is very discerning." Bowie passed Visconti a letter from Reed, which praised Master Ren. Reed's endorsement of Master Ren, delivered personally by Bowie, compelled Visconti to visit one of Master Ren's classes in NYC.
Visconti's first encounter with Master Ren was, for him, dramatic. When he first saw Master Ren just standing on the street, Visconti was struck by his "glowing martial artist charisma." He recalls that from just one look at Master Ren, "he looked more alive than anyone on the street." From that first sight, Visconti knew he had found what he longed for in a Taiji teacher.
Alexander Technique and Taiji Qualities
An adherent of the popular Alexander Technique, Visconti qualified as an instructor in 1996 under Thomas Lemens. As Visconti explains, "F.M. Alexander independently discovered that a lengthening of the spine, widening and emptying the chest, relaxing the sacrum, and economical use of energy wards off stress. He started his work over 100 years ago. In the 1950s, one of his students returned from a trip to China and exclaimed, "You won't believe this, but over in China they have people teaching what you do!" His student had observed Taiji! Alexander died in 1953, never having witnessed Taiji."
When Visconti first observed Master Ren's classes, he noticed Ren's students exhibiting the same qualities espoused by the Alexander Technique. He saw this was an indication of the high quality exhibited in authentic Chen Taiji. He also saw this as evidence that "Chen style appears to have a high level of quality control."
A Discourse on Taiji and Pop Culture
With its high quality and unique power, Chen Taiji may soon draw the audiences of the entertainers it has already attracted. As a producer of popular entertainment, Visconti holds a unique perspective on Taiji and pop culture and what the future might bring. The author Stephan Berwick, a long-time practitioner of Chen Taiji and a martial arts researcher, discussed these topics with Visconti in late September 2004:
Stephan Berwick (SB): Some of us in the martial arts media believe that Taiji has the potential to "impact pop culture." With Master Ren's fans and current students like you, Taiji may be on the cusp of something widespread. From your perspective, do you also see this?
Tony Visconti (TV): Well, that billboard poster of me doing Taiji at sunrise has been up in major airports all over the US and Europe. I have gotten great feedback and interest because of that. Cap Gemini used me as a member of Bowie's team to illustrate how teams work. I was paid well for that and they suggested riding a bicycle, or photographing a hot blond model. I insisted that I do Taiji for it.
SB: With your long martial arts exposure, why do you prefer Taiji?
TV: Long ago I knew that most self-defense techniques of the external styles need a bit of a warm up to actually be effective. As I grew older I could see that kicking to a head and flying side kicks was not going to work for me. I studied Wing Chun for two and half years and I would say that it's the best external style that is ready for instant self-defense, since it relies on "sticking" and "entrapment" to be really effective. You don't have to work up a sweat for those techniques.
But I also see Taiji as being a way to explore my inner self more deeply, to find internal strength not only in my body but in my mind. And I also realized that because it is a fairly low-impact martial art, I could continue to study it well into old age, keeping my body and mind pliable and vital. In my study of the Yang style I was already learning fighting techniques, but I could see that it would take a very long time to get any good. When I saw Master Ren showing the Chen style, I noticed that most of his senior students looked as though they'd do very well in defending themselves. I think this aspect is taught earlier in the Chen style, at least the way Master Ren teaches.
SB: As a music professional, is there something about Taiji that appeals to you the way music does?
TV: Taiji is very rhythmical. The two lao jia's that I know have beats and measures, crescendos and diminuendos just like music. They are dances. I am a rock and pop record producer, but I have a strong foundation in classical music. Taiji is more akin to classical music.
SB: Hip hop fans have long taken to Chinese martial arts, but not necessarily Taiji. Do you see fans of certain types of music being potential Taiji fans? If so, can you identify those particular groups by music genre?
TV: The Hip Hop culture loves kung fu films and they make no secret of that, and so do most rock musicians. But kung fu films are very, very unrealistic regardless of how wonderful they look. Hey man, they use wires! I love kung fu films because they are exciting and many of the actors are the "real deal." But an interest in kung fu films cam ultimately lead to the desire to learn martial arts. Some people start out by imitating Bruce Lee in a mirror, I saw that in a men's room in a film theater when I saw Enter The Dragon. This young teenager was flashing his nunchucks around and around while looking in the mirror. I got out of there quickly.
Any style of Taiji other than Chen might not appeal to young hip hop and rock musicians because they are characteristically portrayed by visions of old people doing Taiji very slowly in parks. But those who get to see real Chen Taiji, especially the Cannon Fist form, will want to learn Chen because it looks strong and effective. Of course they'll have to go through a couple of years of silk reeling and standing pole before they'll get to do that.
SB: If any of those groups include fans of "pop" music, who would they be? If not, who would those groups be?
TV: Well, if fans see their idols doing Taiji, lots of them would want to at least investigate what it's all about. Rock and Hip Hop idols have a great influence over their fans.
SB: Chen Taiji appears to hold great appeal to entertainment professionals. Master Ren's students from music, film, and theater - and even Keanu Reeves, who stated in Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine that during his training for The Matrix, he was most attracted to Chen style. What is it about Chen style that might be especially appealing to the creative artist?
TV: Chen style is dramatic. I can see both actors and musicians who have a wide range of expression being attracted to Chen Taiji. Silk reeling is gentle and almost passive looking, then you have Pao Chui, Cannon Fist, which looks as aggressive as any external style of kung fu.
Master Ren's saber form is outright scary and beautiful at the same time. I don't believe I've ever seen another human being move that fast or generate that much energy in such a short space of time.
SB: Does Taiji have the potential to be part of "pop culture?" Should it be? If so, how? If not, why?
TV: Chen Taiji could, because it looks like kung fu. I'm afraid that the other styles will always look like an older generation's "thing."
SB: From your perspective as a music professional and long-time Taiji fan, are there any Taiji trends you see?
TV: I see more of it. Master Ren's classes are crowded on most days, and half the students are below 35 years old; some are in their teens.
I don't think there is a soul in the big cities who don't know what Taiji is. Walk through any NYC park and you will see someone or some group doing Taiji. 30 years ago Taiji had only mythical status in NYC and London (where I've lived) and it was rarely seen. When I started in London, in 1980, there were only a handful of Taiji schools and only two of them had Chinese teachers.
SB: Where do you see the growth of Taiji going? As exercise, martial art, sport, or something more?
TV: Definitely more of the same, although if Chen Taiji is more readily available, you will see more martial arts interest in the system. At the moment there are so many teachers of Taiji, in other styles, who've been teaching for over 20 years, but never learned the applications, so consequently they can't teach them. In a Chen school you learn applications very early on.
SB: Where would you like to see Taiji go or impact?
TV: Honestly, I'd love to push hands with my mailman and people on the long boring subway rides. I would love for everyone to study Taiji, if only for the health benefits. Taiji people tend to be nice people and easy to be with.
Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2005.
About Stephan Berwick:
For more information on Tony Visconti's music and martial arts visit tonyvisconti.com. Stephan Berwick, a long-time contributor to Kung Fu Tai Chi, is a senior disciple of Ren Guang Yi and is also mentored by Chen Xiaowang. For more information on Master Ren visit renguangyi.com. Stephan Berwick can also be reached at his own website truetaichi.com