When Drazen Grubišić broke up with his girlfriend, he and Olinka Vištica brainstormed a way on how to reach out to those who weathered through their own broken relationships.   Grubišić explained that events like birthdays, funerals, and reunions bring people together, but for a momentous event such as breaking up, one often has to suffer through that alone.  In hopes of providing catharsis for that event, he and Vištica set up The Museum of Broken Relationships, an interactive gallery composed of items contributed from the locals.

The items, ranging from wire bras to toys to postcards, need not tell the story of a romantic relationship gone wrong — there are also exhibitions featuring broken platonic relationships, broken families, divorces from one’s home country, religious beliefs, and so on.  Founded in Croatia, the Museum of Broken Relationships has travelled through much of Central and Eastern Europe, South Africa, San Francisco, Singapore, and Ireland.  At each location, people donate their items along with its accompanying story.  Grubišić told of some awkward situations where someone would visit the museum to see a relic their ex-lover had donated.  In one memorable episode, however, one broken couple actually got back together because of this scenario.

The most powerful items were the ones with stories succinct enough that they inspired audience imagination.  A broken cell phone was accompanied by a plaque that read, “My boyfriend sent me his phone through the mail after we broke up because he didn’t want me calling him anymore.”  A silver-plated watch told the story of one woman’s boyfriend who, on the first time he told her, “I love you,” pulled out the pin to stop the time.  She wrote that although twenty years had passed since the break up of that relationship, she didn’t have the heart to push the pin back in. 

Perhaps the question that remains is: is this art?  Or is it a communal need to share with each other the things we have lost and can never regain?

You can visit their website here: http://www.brokenships.com/

(pic pilfered from the NY Times)

Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine (OTR) at glance tells a unique story even amid its degradation and slums.  Much of the architecture that remains was crafted in the Italianate style, looking back on a prosperous era long before these buildings were abandoned.  Through economic degradation, race riots, shifting demographics, and zoning projects, OTR is now classified as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States with many of its occupants involved in drug trade, prostitution, street and domestic violence.

German immigrants, as a result of the German 19th-century revolutions which pushed for pan-Germanism and greater political freedom inside a largely autocratic government, poured into the OTR area.  The Rhine, naturally, refers to one of the principal German rivers and the name “Over the Rhine” alluded to the area north of the Erie canal where the Germans largely settled.   There they set up a beer brewing industry, the profits of which earned OTR the nickname the “Beer Capital of the World.”  In this era, OTR was considered a pleasure and holiday resort.

By the 20th century, the wealthier inhabitants moved to the suburbs.  Their numbers were not replaced since new immigrants sought jobs in more industrial cities.  As a result, OTR slowly began to deteriorate.  Anti-German sentiment during the Wars also fueled degradation as the Prohibition movement was used as a means of fighting the German beer industry. Economic demise plagued the community as the beer industry was shut down.  It also, oddly enough, aided the preservation of old historic buildings.

When the Mill Creek Expressway was constructed to accomodate vehicle usage, the black neighborhood in the West End was destroyed, with many of the denizens moving into the OTR area.  There they clashed with the Appalachians, who had settled in OTR during the war to find work amid the booming war economy.  As African Americans started to mobilize and fight for social status, particularly after the death of Martin Luther King, violence escalated in the area and many whites fled to the suburbs.  Desegregation only led to more tension, and blacks were able to take control of OTR by their strength of numbers and their passion to obliterate racial struggle.

Although the idea of slum clearance had been posed, it had been ruled out in the past because slum clearance resembled the type of “cleansing” exercised by Nazi Germany and Soviet countries.  Buddy Gray, the leader of the OTR People’s Movement emerged as the centrifugal politician interested in fighting against displacement, petitioning the city to invest in permanent low-income housing.  He defied potential zoning laws, saying that these were created only to make the best tax base possible and would displace the poor.  The city acquiesced to his demands but later found that it failed to balance the demographics of OTR and help the industry in any way.

Economic downfall increased all the more after the 2001 race riots when a white officer shot an unarmed black man, and all during post-September 11th.  During the riots, violence rapidly shot up and both officers and whites fled to other neighborhoods, and businesses shut down as visitors avoided the area.  The once-ambient nightlife of OTR went obsolete. 

 The deserting of OTR left over 1200 buildings vacant and greatly lowered property value.  The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, however, has steadily been pouring in money to renovate these vacant buildings and slowly turning them into hip apartments for yuppies to move in, as the location is very near the downtown area.  This, however, pushes the original denizens of OTR away from their old areas.

Prince of Peace historic church on Race Street

Above is a picture of the church I came to know this summer.  For two weeks, teams from Georgia, Pennsylvania, California, and New York poured in to administer to the physical and spiritual needs of the OTR community.  The program, founded by Pastors Paul and Yohann, strives to serve the people by integrating community and sharing the gospel.  P. Paul and Yohann, by using their own money accumulated from their years as medical doctors,  bought and renovated one abandoned house near the Prince of Peace Church to open to the OTR people and shelter those who come to help serve the area. 

Reflecting on how the original grassroots African American community came together to ardently fight for the rights and comparing that to the present degenerative state of OTR was sobering.  Those that have once bonded together have fallen apart, unlike in South Africa where a period of healing between the white and black communities was given after the end of apartheid.  I remember describing OTR as a town I might have read in Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi novels, a place existing without a concept of time.  With low employment rates, the streets are filled with people who bustle about without any particular destination.

Compassion for these people and a strong desire to share the message of the gospel have enabled P. Yohann and Paul to stay in the area for ten years, although the OTR people have become so familiar with their ministry that they know exactly how to pick their words so that evangelizing becomes more difficult to do.  Yet still, with the whole sincerity of their hearts, P. Yohann and Paul have slowly earned some friendships in that area, starting with one schizophrenic man who dutifully attended their church every Sunday. 

Walking through the streets of OTR, it is difficult — even amid the architectural evidence — to imagine that at one time it used to be affluent and cultured.  On the very last day, my team encountered one man named LaMont who yelled at us from the bench he was sprawled upon.  “Ya’ll know where you’re at, right?  Google it up!”  When we told him we knew we were at OTR, he yelled, “Then why are you just standing there acting like ya’ll are safe?  Know what I did?  I killed two fucking niggers last night!”

V. from my team wanted to have a moment to talk with LaMont and in a span of a few minutes, a remarkable change came over him.  After praying together, LaMont actually became friendly, soliloquizing about why God doesn’t send down ice cream directly to him when he prays for it.  As we walked away, LaMont kept shouting after us, “God’s angels!  He’s sent his angels to us!”

The problem, however, is the retaining of this faith after the program ends, leaving P. Yohann, Paul, and a small handful of members to deal with everything by themselves.  There are stories of going out to evangelize and leading a soul to Christ, only to find that the very next day, these people have already forgotten what has been taught to them.  There have been doubts as to whether the ministry actually helps.  There have been questions posed regarding the renovations of the area, and what this means for the ministry as the people get pushed further down the block.  P. Paul remains optimistic, saying that the pushing might actually encourage integration between the white and black neighborhoods, but skeptics cite the harm it might potentially have.

P. Paul is currently suffering from MSA, a rare disease that shares many similar symptoms with Parkinson’s disease.  Yet he has not this physical burden come in the way of his ministry, nor has he fallen into despair.  At the core he is filled with an unshakable spirit and peace.  The last view I had of him, one member from the Kairos team in California was wheeling him through the streets of OTR, the city he came to love, his patch of Jerusalem where, like Jesus, he wept over the plight of the lost.

History is inevitably condensed into the bigger names that feed and shape our world.  In the context of the dissolution of the Soviet state, the names Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin come closest to mind.  Behind the scenes, of course, is a breadth of names that shaped their actions and policies, and powerfully guided the course of history.

Matthias Rust is just one example.  A West German pilot, he gained notoriety when, in 1987, he illegally landed his plane a stone’s throw from the Kremlin building in the Red Square.  Gorbachev, who had been elected to power after a quick succession of deaths struck down a line of former Soviet leaders, is creditted for the radical change of the Soviet system from pure authoritarian to that of perestroika and glasnost.  Although his original intent was to change the country’s economic status, Gorbachev ended up decentralizing political power and liberalizing old policies.  As a result, the Soviet systen was dismantled, and the Cold War came to an end.

Matthias Rust’s illegal landing sped up many of Gorbachev’s policies; in fact, Gorbachev took advantage of the incident to fire several officials in the Soviet military, which inevitably reduced the power of the military in Russia.  This greatly aided the end of the Cold War.  

Although Rust’s actions were described as a “humorous prank,” Rust himself described it as an attempt to create a bridge between the East and West, and reduce tension between the two halves of Europe divided by the Iron Curtain.  In any case, without his landing in Moscow, it might have been difficult for Gorbachev to dismiss those officials from power, and the breaking up of the Soviet state may have taken a longer period of time.

In addition to Matthias Rust, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station incident likewise sped up the road to glasnost.  The leaking of radioactive materials was reported only to a minimal degree within Russia.  This led the public to push for greater freedom and dissemination of information.

The interlocking events of history often act in mysterious ways.  In Rust’s case, his goal of creating a bridge between democracy and communism was met, even if he did have to serve a prison sentence for it. 

A week ago, someone asked me why I find history to be so fascinating.  If you take someone like Matthias Rust and trace his story, and in turn trace the stories of all who shaped Matthias Rust down the line, you have a kaleidoscopic array of names and faces who have given in some shape or form to that momentous event.  History is literally the story of Our People, all of us bound together by the sequence of events that move our world and define where we are today.  I ask you: How can I not find it interesting?

In the midst of the Gdansk shipyards in Poland stands the monument that commemorates the lives of the shipyard workers crushed by Communist leader Gomulka in 1970.  The late 60s and early 70s were a tumultuous time for the Polish economy, and rising inflation saw both workers and intellectuals bond together to demand free trade unions and resist the authorities through a series of strikes.

The introduction and fall of Communism in Poland were nothing short of hard-won efforts.  After Russia failed to aid Poland during the Warsaw Uprising, Polish-Russian relationships soured all the more; however, since Poland was always of strategic interest to Russia, Russia supported the growth of communism in Poland from its tiny seedling origins until it grew into an all-encompassing force.  Two things, however, set Poland as a unique Communist country — agriculture, for one, was not collectivized, and Catholicism was not outlawed.

When Pope Paul John II became the first non-Italian Pope in over four and a half centuries, the fact that he was a Pole caused the Polish people to rejoice and a surge of nationalism to sweep the country.  When he visited his homeland in 1979, he instilled within the Poles a hope that political change was soon in coming.  After Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech where he publicly, for the first time in history, denounced Stalin’s criminality and brutality, even the Polish Communist party started to question the system and release old political prisoners.  The demographics of Poland was changing, and the mass unity of the people rallying against the Communist regime set it apart from other uprisings.

Gomulka’s successor, Gierek, further mired the country in economic turmoil as more strikes accrued.  Workers at the Gdansk shipyards downed their tools, demanding wage increases and the release of worker Lech Walesa, future leader of the Solidarity movement.  In an attempt to appease Lech Walesa and his group, the Gdansk shipyard memorial was constructed on the tenth anniversity of the 1970 strike.   The gesture, however, was not enough to settle anything by itself, and martial law was imposed upon the members of Solidarity in the early 80s.  In less than a decade’s time, however, with the aid of Gorbachev breaking the bonds of communism, the Solidarity party was again legalized and won most of the government seats in the free elections, with Walesa elected President in 1991.

The Pope, although cautious about supporting the Solidarity movement, did so nonetheless.  The faith of the Polish greatly aided their fight and instilled within them a belief that God was on their side.  The monument of the shipmasts tied together their struggles, the symbol of the ships, and the shadow of Golgotha with the three crucifixes.  The religious undertones lurk everywhere in the fight of the Polish people, in a nation that truly believes that God liberates them from their struggles.

One of my first posts was a response pertaining to Van Biema’s The Color of Faith where he covered integration in the megachurch, and rallied for future integration in the church in general. 

What Van Biema does not talk about is why certain races may need their own church.  One of my future professors gave me a talk about the history of the black church and the impact it has on him and his family.  For the African American, the black church is the only institution they founded on their own in the United States, and is thus a source of pride to them.  Reverend Richard Allen, in 1816, started the AME Church after he was pushed out of a white church for sitting in the front pew.  He started preaching at the blacksmith’s shop, later founding the AME Church and stressing the importance of education and literacy, as well as opening the church to people of all races,  African Americans and all others.

My professor told me that his children attend primarily Caucasian schools, and one of his concerns is that he does not want them to lose touch with the African American community, especially in a nation that increasingly teaches his children not to act like African Americans.  When his children eventually enter the real world, his desire is that they not only to be aware of their heritage but to also feel comfortable in the African American society.

I read an article in Baltimore written by an African American poli-sci professor in Johns Hopkins.  He wrote about the exhausting work of “navigating white spaces” where he had to be doubly concious of how he acted, talked, and how his children behaved out in public.  But when he was with other African Americans, he wrote that he could “breathe” and “be himself.”   

This is not to encourage in any way for different races to stay in their respective cubicles.  I just wanted to take the time to share that for some, their church and communities are a haven where they can belong without the pressure of having to act different to be accepted. 

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James Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with graffiti from the East and West sides of the Berlin Wall tattooed on his wings

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a visual and sonic masterwork combining history, philosophy, music, and the search for identity.  Interweaving the fall of the Berlin Wall, Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symphosium, subtle hints about the Holocaust, and the trials of searching for identity as a transgender citizen can seem like a heavy mash-up of what would be a daunting story to explore, but Hedwig, thankfully, actually works.

At the core of the story is the character Hansel.  The story acts as his testimony, exploring his time in West Germany after his East German mother put him in a wheelbarrow and escaped to the Communist West.  When an American GI fell in love with him, he forced Hansel to undergo a sex change (described as “leaving a little part of him behind”) so that Hansel can pass inspection.  They emigrated to Kansas where Hansel (officially Hedwig post-surgery) struggled with the concept of finding her “other half” after the GI left her, not knowing if this other half would be a man or woman.  In her search, she came across young Tommy Speck with whom she shared her music and love. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has enjoyed success in, of all places, South Korea where, as a rock musical, it has been performed for at least four seasons with all the songs and dialogue translated into Korean.  This is very interesting because of the societal and political factors that shape South Korea today, factors which one would think would hinder the popularity of a musical such as Hedwig in such an environment.  Surprisingly, the story of Hedwig has more than thrived in South Korea, with performances in front of a full audience most nights. What has bolstered the popularity of Hedwig in a place where it is more likely such a story would be rejected and criticized?

South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced societies of our world, is still a homogeneous nation that lags in its racial/social tolerance.  Perhaps because of the strongholds of Christianity and tradition, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism are exceptionally difficult to accept and understand in Korea.  Homosexuality and bisexuality are considered perverse, social taboos with many rejecting the idea that these sexualities even exist in Korean society.  Korea’s first transgender model/singer, Harisu, is still considered by many a controversial icon, nothing short of a freak and a sufferer of “mental illness.”  In Korean society, non-heterosexual preferences could potentially turn one into a social pariah.

And yet the story of a transgender rock-‘n-roller from West Germany has captivated the Korean audience, Hedwig’s trials put at the forefront for all to observe, relate to, and attempt to understand as she reconciles her male-and-female halves.  The success of Hedwig in Korea is an immense curiosity — what makes it appeal to a society where transgenderism is condemned?  What makes the character of Hedwig loved by the Korean people and do they connect with her? (Oddly enough, there is an actual scene in the film where Hedwig jams with Korean Army wives, bringing Hedwig and Koreans together within the script).

Even more interesting is finding a comparison between the political environment constructed around Hedwig to that of the Korean people.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in part the story of a divided country, the East-West/Communist-Democratic counterparts of Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Korea, now the only divided country in the world, still retains its Communist and Democratic halves.  The division of Korea, unlike Germany’s wall and Hedwig’s inner wall, has not yet been reconciled. To what extent does the Korean audience, however, really connect to this aspect of the story? It is difficult to say — it is mainly the younger generation that populates the seats of performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and it is the same younger generation that has grown apathetic to the plight of Korea, many of them hostile to the idea of reconciling the South and North together. Still, the story of the divided country haunts Hedwig’s story, as it does the stories of the Korean people, one of the main undercurrents that shapes the search for identity for both Hedwig and her South Korean audience.

Korean Hedwigs lined up for a picture taken by Korea Times

Reportedly, the Korean production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays a series of upbeat encores at the end of the show to counter the gloomy ending, a move that rakes up audience appreciation.  And in 2007 when James Cameron Mitchell himself, in a rare move of performing outside the US, went to Korea to perform Hedwig, not only did ticket sales rocket but Mitchell also donned a Korean traditional hanbok in a gesture to further reach out to his audience.  Not that he really needed to, since, for reasons we may never fully understand, the story of Hedwig and her angry inch has been loved by a people who have difficulties coming to terms with such topics.  But if it takes a work of art to widen the views and mindsets of a group of people, Hedwig is one of the few that truly can, and do so in such a manner that lets us see the human inside the freak.

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I always rediscover Placebo when I’m feeling grey around the edges. They’ve been serenading me through the past week amid the rain outside, amid the rain inside my head, Molko voices my inner thoughts in far more eloquent ways than I can by myself. I know the hype’s out on Battle for the Sun and all, but the Without You I’m Nothing & Black Market Music era hits me hard where it hurts, where I understand.

The song “Without You I’m Nothing”  is nothing short of a masterwork, so much so that David Bowie, upon hearing it, insisted upon singing it with the Placebo trio.  Who else but Molko can pen lines like these: I’m unclean, a libertine, and every time you vent your spleen I seem to lose the power of speech, you’re slipping slowly from my reach. You grow me like an evergreen, you never see the lonely me at all.

I take the plan, spin it sideways. I fall.

Without you, I’m nothing.
Without you, I’m nothing at all.


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Since I am finally moving out of what one of my good friends calls “that weird pimp shack place” — away, away from the sex addicts on the top floor and my next door neighbor who howls like an asthmatic dog while strumming his guitar in unsynchronized fashion — this means my landlords are showing my apartment to potential buyers.

So this means I have been vacuuming, scrubbing the tub and sink, and wiping hard floors with Clorox wipes on a regular basis. Which makes my Mum happy whenever she comes to visit. And she’s coming tomorrow, I realize as I’m typing this, which reminds me to go home after my final and after work to make some sparkle.

But one thing I have not been doing is killing those spiders that live in the corners.

Because I love them.

Spiders are so helpful and wonderful (as long as they come in a reasonable size). They eat small pests that wriggle through the cracks of my old apartment, harvest the fruit flies that plague my kitchen every summer, and keep me company. I have named most of them (the one living near my front door is named Sammy after Sammy Keyes) and there is a Paulito, Paulita, and Buccha. If I have had a bad day, or if I have an existential question, I consult my spiders by kneeling next to them and talking to them while they listen. I say goodnight to Buccha before sleeping. I also assure you that there is nothing wrong with me. Much.

So I feel a little bad about the fact that my spider-friends will drop the corpses of their meals directly under their webs, making it difficult to clean (because my hands will snag on the web and ruin their homes) and that the people touring the apartment have to see all that. It’s not bad…it’s just a little noticeable. And what if the person interested in finding an apartment is afraid of spiders? And what about inspection day, where the landlords will come and evaluate how clean the place is before refunding a good portion (I hope) of my damage deposit? Should I expel my spider friends from my place — not kill, of course, but gently shoo out the front door? What if my roommate next year has a mortal fear of spiders and insists on eradicating them? And my to-be-visiting mother — what will she do? (This was the woman who sent me out into the garden with a shovel and told me to kill all the garden snakes and I wouldn’t, because I like snakes too).

Which leaves me this question: why is love so damn complicated?

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Rar, check out my plastic abs!

Last December, one of Mum’s friends dropped and presented me and my bro with clothes from Hollister’s — a gesture that pretty much made me feel guilty for existing.  However, my vest had the plastic tag locked on it (the one that goes BEEP BEEP BEEEP all hernia-like when you walk out the store) and my brother’s hoodie was a tad too small.  (Actually, it fit just right but to him, tight isn’t cool — having clothes drip off of him until he looks saggy is his definition of cool.  It makes sense to him).  Mum’s friend left the receipt so that we could go exchange the stuff if necessary — you know, if we were too tubby for it.  Apparently that happens when members of your family forcibly shovel Korean bbq down your throat while reprimanding you about the dangers of going vegan.

So Mum and I went into our happy red mini-van that just recently, according to family news, died (RIP forever, faithful Nissan Quest) and has been replaced by a swanky Kia which I will get to steal will get to see when they drive to my graduation.  Unfortunately, it does not have a VCR, which means no more dubbing over Frodo’s voice in LoTR during long unbearable road trips (I get carsick so I need the distraction) and making sounds of flatulence to pretend that the hobbits are farting whenever they run, causing us to laugh until we bleed, and making Mum turn around to ask us exactly how old we are.

Anyways, Mum and I nipped into the Harrisburg Mall and into Hollister’s.  The entrance was like walking into a dark grimy mouth because apparently Harrisburg is in standard Eastern time zone, and Hollister’s is in…I don’t know, Tokyo time.  It was so dark I was running into mannequins and stalls, and squinting at the price tags and rubbing my eyes to make sure I was just imagining that one t-shirt on sale cost $30 (I wasn’t imagining it).  The inside of the store was tremendously loud, the air poisoned with emo music — the kind where  the lead guy and guitarist and bassist wear eye liner and leather and touch themselves a lot as they sing and seem to exhibit some sort of sexual frustration and dash off the tips of their black-polished fingernails power chord after power chord after power chord whilst wailing “I love you but do you love me oh woe life trash sad facepaint penguins roses resurrection and death and stuff.”  Repeat chorus 15x.  Crassly put, that shit was loud-ass. Mum and I had to yell when we needed to say stuff.  We yelled at each other, we yelled at people (“PLEASE EXCUSE US, COMING THROUGH!!!!!“), we yelled at the cashier for an exchange.  We were very polite about it though, with the formal jargon in place.  Maybe that is how I will talk when I’m 70 years old and slightly deaf from listening to too much Drunken Tiger.  Because it was nighttime in Hollister’s, the cashier helping us had to hold the receipt to his nose to read it.  The result of all this?  I got a killer migraine.  Which, inevitably, made me cranky as hell.

It was my first time in Hollister’s and I noted how nice and classy all the clothes were, an observation that served to make me feel like a grungy piece of trash.  I was wearing sweatpants with fugly boots and a bigass coat that could double as a maternity coat (it seriously looked as though some uncreative designer took a big sheet of felt and added buttons to it.  That and being up all night watching a Witch Hunter Robin marathon made me look like some kind of creature from the lost lagoon).  My head was topped with a hat I had rescued from the Lost and Found bin at work.  I was not, shall we say, feeling too gorgeous.  As I stood waiting for Mum to finish talking with the cashier, a grandpa cut right in front of me all whisk-like in a manner that made me feel slightly offended.

 His wife came behind me, which left me trapped between a wall of old people at Hollister’s (old people @ Hollister’s?!).  I asked the wife if I could get out since I wasn’t standing in line.  She took my shoulder and said, “You were standing so still my husband thought you were a mannequin.”  I think I sort of stared off into space, because that would make me one helluva junky, trashy mannequin reserved for the preppy, glitzy Hollister’s incinerator.

I kind of looked like this at that time.

I was very, very glad to get out of that store, and Mum remarked that she could not imagine working there herself for 30 minutes without going insane.  It did take some time for the ringing in our ears to subside and, mission accomplished, we treated ourselves to amazing Vietnamese noodles.

The restaurant we visited was one of the highlights of the day.  Every Thursday, the owner of the restaurant accepted a penny from those who have lost their jobs in exchange for a bowl of noodles.  That way, the jobless still had some dignity in that they could pay something for their meal, and the owner could generously provide for them amidst this recession.

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Today I met briefly with Hangyul Kim, the writer of the text to Sang Mi Ahn’s “fragile beings.” Just recently finished and played semi-publicly in front of Ahn’s fellow composers, “fragile beings” explores the wide berth of emotions during crises and death through the medium of electronic music. This is not Ahn’s first electronic piece, but the prowess of her work shows that she is getting more and more comfortable with the genre. Her willingness to experiment with many different types of compositions (song, chamber works, choral works, solo works, sonatas, electronic pieces, jazz, etc) gives her a versatility — one often has a feeling that Ahn can compose anything.

The text to the piece is as follows:

fragile beings (2010)

         My cosmic Judas Isacariot, colder than ice.
                                               It preys upon me as I pray.

           No one is watching this time.
                                              No one is watching.
           The decay of my flesh,
                                              eat it and remember.
           Flight 109 will be departing shortly from gate b49.

             God is nowhere
                   God is now here
                            God is no
                                  where God is now.
                                        here God is nowhere.
                                             God is now.

Votapek: Thank you for taking your time to do this. I know you have a big final coming soon, which you’ve been studying for in-between work shifts, and get very sidetracked listening to works by Ahn and Lady Gaga instead of diligently listening to Bruckner symphonies…

Kim: I think there are only a few times you get to say the names Sang Mi Ahn and Lady Gaga in the same sentence.

Votapek: Can you tell us a little bit about what Ahn was trying to evoke?

Kim: Sang Mi told me she was envisioning being at the deathbed of someone dear to her and going through this metaphysical journey of feeling. She wanted the pain to be raw, as in something someone is experiencing now. She was inspired in part by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ book Death and Dying where it lists five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Kim: (continuing) I believe at first she wanted to manipulate Jir Shin Boey’s violin sounds. Around that time, however, she received an email from Diana Syrse, a singer interested in collaborating with her. Jir Shin encouraged her to do so, since it might be interesting to fuse human voice and electronic music — the most antithetical forces. What comes naturally from man, and what is generated by man.

Votapek: I notice your text has many references to religion. How is the audience supposed to hear it? Is it a religious piece–pain in reference to religion?

Kim: You know, it’s funny because when Sang Mi asked me to write the text, I wasn’t specifically thinking of using religious-themed terms.  That’s just the way it came out. But I don’t intend — and neither does Sang Mi — that the audience take it as a religious piece, that only people of practicing faith can relate with it. We want everybody to relate with it. It could even be an existential piece, in a way. That was actually my own personal intent — this ambivalence between two or more possible meanings — and I devised the last lines to indicate this.

The “God is nowhere/God is now here” line was conceived before all the other lines. I wanted it to be ambiguous if the person on the journey would accept what has happened to him/her as a trial from a higher being, or if she/he would look inside themselves to create meaning from the events. The flight attendant line creates this feeling of middle ground, where one is standing still amid everybody else coming in and leaving to various destinations. You realize how small you are in this world in the midst of that bustle and the hundreds of people around you moving on with their own lives. You realize your feelings, personal and life-changing as they may be, are a small part of this spectrum. That you also have to choose soon whether to move on with your life, or depart from everyone around you and shrink inside yourself.

To portray “recognition,” Sang Mi also used two clashing pitches that resolve into a single pitch, conflict slowly tapering off. She also interpreted this single pitch as the unchanging presence of god — and whether that is God-god or something else…like Nietzsche’s Superhuman, for one…is all up to the listener. It’s like that Robert Frost poem.


Votapek: So has there been times where Ahn wanted to interpret the text differently from what you envisioned?

Kim: Yes, and she has been apologetic about it although she had no need to. I know her work and that she creates very powerful, moving sentiments. Also, in the end “fragile beings” is her piece, not my piece. Diana also made some alterations, although these were to the phrases, not the meanings. I initially envisioned “God is nowhere” and “God is now here” as a string of sentences where the pronounciation would alter bit by bit to transition between each other. But she fragmented the sentences, which I — to be honest — was dubious towards at first, but it ended up working out even better than my original idea.

“The decay of my flesh” part was meant to portray cynicism towards religion. I wanted the anger to be sardonic, as if wondering how, if there was a god, how this god could make these things happen. The “eat it and remember” is a way of letting that anger spill out to everyone around you and shoving it in their faces so that they too can feel your anger. But Sang Mi changed this into the grieving person only seeing the decay of the dead body and forgetting that the “take and eat” part signifies a later resurrection.

Which works out just as well. And I like that, that you can see this piece on many different levels and relate to it in many different ways. Sang Mi is conscientious about making meaning in her music — her other electronic work, “Chasm,” is all about the Korean war and the devestation wrecked by it. She also composed a piece for this silent movie about humans demolishing the moon people — everyone in her class had to compose to it and many made a slapstick-like melody. But she remembered how the founding of America was done in the same manner — you know, Europeans sailing in and wrecking war with the Native Americans. She made her music dark, which gave the whole movie this eerie feel that just made you think and think. So whatever meaning she wants to fashion out of my words, I completely trust her.


Votapek: And where do things like Judas Iscariot come in…? Where do all the lines fit in in general?

Kim: Well, Judas Iscariot is the universal symbol of betrayal. And fear rattles your foundation, in essence making you betray yourself and making you do or feel things you don’t understand. Then there is the wordplay between pray and prey.

“No one is watching” is that feeling of being completely alone while you are grieving. I guess on the religious level, since we got all into that, the person could be questioning “where is the one who watches even the sparrows fall? I don’t feel that force watching over me now.”

Votapek: You really liked Diana’s voice, I hear.

Kim: The way she narrated it…she had everything down. It was expressive and her voice is so beautiful. I liked how you couldn’t tell if it was a child or a woman speaking. And she used so many colors. After Sang Mi played it for her studio, people asked her if she used more than one narrator because at times her voice sounded completely different, depending on what she was portraying. Sang Mi told them that Diana was her only narrator and that she did not electronically alter Diana’s voice — Diana was able to create so many different affects by herself. Her flight attendant voice was very captivating. It was a great moment–you have these lions growling around you in the section between sorrow and anger (they were using four big speakers and Sang Mi made it so that the growls would go around in a circle), and then you have this big storm representing anger. It gets louder and louder, and almost unbearable then suddenly — Sang Mi cuts off all the noise instantaneously, leaving only a thin trail of sound. Diana’s voice then enters, all cool in her flight attendant voice. I’m sure if they hired her at an airport, there would be less passenger stress because she just sounds that soothing.

Votapek: Where is Ms. Ahn now?

Kim: (gently) You can call her Sang Mi, I don’t think she would mind. Ms Ahn sounds too formal.

Votapek: What about Lady Ahn?

Kim: Haha. She would kill you! I’m the Gaga enthusiast, not Sang Mi …Anyways, she’s probably sleeping now. She had only two hours of sleep last night, due to working on a final project. And now she’s done for the semester.

Votapek: But composing is not just a semester job now, is it?

Kim: No, of course not. But hopefully she’ll get a little breather.

[A review of Ahn’s Metro Graffiti, the work she composed prior to “fragile beings,” can be read here]

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