Here is a picture of Sang Mi Ahn and performers from last night’s “Metro Graffiti” performance:

From left to right: pianist Chappell Kingsland, trumpetist George Brahler, choreographer Courtney Ramm, composer Sang Mi Ahn, bassist Celeste Schulman, conductor William White, saxophonist Corey Dundee, percussionist Brian McNulty


The premiere of Sang Mi Ahn’s “Metro Graffiti” is not a true bona fide premiere in that the piece was already performed two nights ago during a composition recital in Auer Hall; however, this is the first time the public gets to witness what Ms Ahn and her musicians have been witnessing in private — a visual manifestation of the piece with the help of 25 dancers who bring the ideas behind “Metro Graffiti” to life. After her piece was performed during the compositional recital, Ahn received enthusiastic accolades from her audience for her first jazz-inspired piece. Although she claims being somewhat unfamiliar with the genres of jazz and blues, she felt moved to compose a piece in that style and in a span of a few months, “Metro Graffiti” was brought into being.

It is difficult to believe that Ahn has never composed in the jazz style prior to “Metro Graffiti.” Her work possesses a finesse and kinetic energy that is difficult to find in even more experienced jazz composers and arrangers. Rhythmic vitality and a sonorous tenor saxophone solo — played by the wonderfully talented Corey Dundee — against the backdrop of piano, percussion, trumpet, and double bass lend an atmophere of constant movement and flux. Elements of jazz are sprinkled everywhere from the improvisatory-like soloistic sections to the colorful open sonorities, exhibiting the overall aura of freedom. Still, Ahn was hesitant to describe the piece as “jazz” because of her insecurity that she did not know enough about the genre to label it as such. “This piece is for jazz instruments,” she told her performers during rehearsal, “but it is not a jazz piece.” Her musicians, knowing better, laughed.

The image used on the cover of Ahn's "Metro Graffiti" by the talented Jir Shin Boey

The 25 dance member cast from IU’s Contemporary Dance Program composes the largest dance ensemble in the Hammer and Nail compositional gala where compositions from the Jacobs School of Music are brought to life through the collaborative efforts of dance and music. Ahn originally did not bargain for such a large group, but through the efforts of the dancer who was initally assigned to her, Ahn now possesses the largest dance troupe. Choreographer Courtney Ramm had them act out the bustle of everyday city life in accordance to Ahn’s vision. Ahn imagined, during her compositional process, a scene in the metro subway where businessmen and women, street musicians, students, teenagers set a pantheon where, despite being in the same crowded space, each are in their own worlds. Businessmen in trenchcoats talk into cell phones, a lone girl idolizes the street musician, students listen to their mp3 players, commuters grab their coffees. The atmosphere is busy and depicts their rush, their stress-laden routine doomed to contine the next day and the day after that in a hectic, neverending cycle.

Because of this, “Metro Graffiti” is not, say, a piece you would find on Miles Davis’ smooth-serene Kind of Blue, but that it precisely the point. Fast rhythmic passages propel motion and the bustle of repeated notes in the sax and trumpet in the outer sections represents routine. Everything is continually charged and driven, depicting a scene the imagination can readily conjure. Even though the dancers add spectacular imagery to the piece, Ahn’s “Metro Graffiti” does not need them to evoke the vision of hectic city life.

As for the image of graffiti itself, Ahn decribes that very eloquently:

At certain subway stations, one can see graffiti that had been created by anonymous artists. While graffiti had in the past been associated with vandalism, it is increasingly appreciated as a form of art that enlivens the city through its vivid color and dynamic shapes.

The performance of “Metro Graffiti” at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre with the 25 dancers is nothing short of dynamic. The lead dancers possess a unique way of moving that simultaneously exhibits electricity and grace. Mechanical movements of the businessmen glancing at their watches, turning their heads, contrast with the fluid movements of tourists and one love-struck girl listening to the saxophone street musician. Although I tried my best to capture a few photos, I was sitting far up in the balcony so the guards wouldn’t kick me out for sneaking out the Canon Powershot I pilfered from the library, resulting in the compromised quality of the shots.

Stoic lines contrast with fluid movements, a stage where the rigid and the expressive mesh.

Straight lines of businessmen and women to the right contrast with the free movements of the tourists.


Saxophonist Corey Dundee walks onstage

Final bow of the 25 dancers

The one thing that was lacking was in the acoustics. The Buskirk-Chumley venue did not aid the sound as freely as Auer Hall did, resulting in a drier tone. In Auer Hall, Dundee’s tone absolutely soared but in the Buskirk, the balance of sound was muffled. Ahn’s “Metro Graffiti,” when given the proper stage, has a free open quality that was regrettably amiss in the Buskirk venue.

What sets Ahn apart from her peers is not only her ability to listen for unique sounds and ideas, but her humility that makes her accessible and easy to converse with. Despite having legions of bragging rights — and she has them — she is modest about her gifts and goes out her way to help her performers and musicians. She helps percussionist Brian McNulty move his equipment, to which he expresses his gratitude, saying she is the first composer to do such a thing. Despite having a modest income, she buys dinner for her performers — gourmet pizza one day, subs the next, and Turkish food for the final rehearsal, keeping in the mind the vegetarians of the group. And despite already being a prolific composer, she is bold to experiment with other genres with an open mind, whether it be her classical-based ensembles, choral works, her jazz piece, or her more recent delvings in electronic music. The diversity of her compositions is a testament not only to her talent but also her willingness to learn and build. With each piece she is intimate, and reaches out to her audience to pull them in and offer a glimpse of the worlds she imagines, and the sentiments she feels.

From onstage, I can count the number of standing ovations after the final strains of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) have faded into the ether. About half of the audience in Auer Hall are on their feet, applauding and smiling. I want them to sit back down.

Today’s concert consisted of two orchestra-chorus numbers, Szymanowski’s Stabat Matar and Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. The Jacobs Music School at Indiana University, despite having a smattering of contemporary ensembles, usually does not extend many opportunities to perform works such as these, especially to students unable to enroll in contemporary music groups. We started rehearsing the two pieces on Monday, and because of the rarity of rehearsing such works, the events of Saturday were an especial shock. There we were, rehearsing the work of one of Poland’s most prominent composers who, despite all credentials, does not get performed very often in the States. It seemed like such horrible, ironic timing, the coinciding of the crash and our performance.

I wrote an email to the Conductor’s Orchestra organizing the event, and told them to please consider dedicating today’s performance to the victims of the Polish airplane crash and their families, as the opportunity to use Szymanowski to express our condolences was very fitting. I received an enthusiastic response back from one of the conductors who unfortunately was not conducting anything in the program. He told me he would ask the main conductor and push him to do this.

Shortly before showtime, I met the main conductor in the elevator and asked him if he did decide to dedicate our performance to the tragedy. His response, surprisingly, was very apathetic and whimsical. The other conductor who answered my email told me that he was completely behind me, and that he would ask once more.

Unfortunately, the main conductor bestowed upon the audience two wonderful works without any acknowledgement of the situation in Poland. He had intentionally missed a golden opportunity to address and alleviate grief and confusion through our art — one of the most important aspects, I personally feel, of what we do. As it was, our performance simply became a job. Instead of feeling like what I was performing had meaning, I felt the emptiness, and the potential for the event to be so much more than what it was. I felt disappointment in the conductor’s attitude, who gave the impression of thinking that the tragedy is a Polish tragedy instead of a universal tragedy. I felt disappointment that the performance existed in its own medium, instead of being used to show our respects to the Polish amid their time of difficulty.

From grasping snippets of conversation from some singers and audience members, they too felt the same. Some even found it very odd that the crises in Poland was not addressed, especially since we were performing Szymanowski’s Stabat Matar and the Schoenberg also leaned towards that atmosphere of peace and reconciliation.

In many aspects today’s music exists in a state removed from the politics/events/culture of the present (unlike, say, the 19th century) and when given the opportunity to use it to address the uncertainties or situations of our world, it is a complete shame when it is turned down. There was so much potential for the event to actually mean something, but unfortunately, that opportunity is now forever lost.

Various posters for my favorite movie: Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the third installment of his Vengeance Trilogy (the second, Oldboy, won the most international acclaim and the heart of Quentin Tarantino, but Lady Vengeance is far more eloquent and personal).

Park Chan-Wook speaks:

“With the development of civilization and the rise in education levels, people have had to hide their rage, hate, and grudges deep within them. But this does not mean that these emotions go away. As relationships become more and more intricate, the rage only grows more and more. While modern society is burdening the individual with a growing sense of rage, the outlets through which people can release their rage are becoming narrower. This is an unhealthy situation, and it’s probably why art exists. In reality, however, the vengeances represented in my movies are not actual vengeances. They are merely the transferring of a guilty conscience. My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves. Therefore, rather than movies purporting to be of revenge, it would be more accurate to see my films as ones stressing morality, with guilty consciences as the core subject matter. The constantly recurring theme is the guilty conscience. Because they are always conscious of and obsessed with their wrongdoings, which are committed because they are inherently unavoidable in life, my characters are fundamentally good people. The fact that people have to resort to another type of violence in order to subjugate their initial guilty consciences is the most basic quality of tragedy characteristic in my movies thus far.”

-during Cannes film festival

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