When classically trained pianist Cynthia Yih Shih decided to pursue a career in music, she needed a snappier stage name. So she rechristened herself as Vienna Teng, conceived her folk-fluttery sound while studying computer science at Stanford, and self-produced her “Waking Hour” debut while working as a software engineer at Cisco Systems. Backing her new “Inland Territory” album, the recent New York transplant returns to town Sunday for two shows with her percussionist partner Alex Wong.
Why did you ever leave the Bay Area? Well, I’d lived there all my life, and I knew if I didn’t make a conscious decision to try living somewhere else, I was never going to leave. And in a way, I left to get a better sense of appreciation for it, because while I was in San Francisco, I thought, ‘Oh, I live here, that’s fine, that’s cool.’ But I didn’t really have a perspective on it. Now I’m like, ‘S.F. — cool!’ I remember all the stuff I took for granted — the weather, the skyline, the history of it.
You’ve come a long way from Stanford, no? When I went to Stanford, I actually had this whole plan. I was going to be a surgeon who wrote piano concertos at night. I would have a clinic in Southeast Asia and be volunteering all over the world, but I’d also be a
composer. But college really shook me up and made me question a lot of things I’d made assumptions about in my life.
So you joined an a cappella group, The Stanford Harmonics? Yep. That was my freshman year, and it was really the perfect thing for me, because I really needed to have music in my life. And I loved singing, but I’d never really gotten that much training. We even recorded an album that year called “Escalator Music” — that’s how I got hooked on this whole idea of really working on music and bringing a piece of music into fruition.
Your quirky new song “In Another Life” sounds like you have an affinity for other eras. Have you ever had a past-life regression? I haven’t personally. But there are people who claim that they can see these things who tell me that my past lives are very clear. And the woman who went into the most detail told me that I was a Southern belle who was born into a proper family, but I was also very anti-segregationist and more of a progressive at heart. And I do have a real weakness for fried chicken and collard