Recreating Jazz: Sang Mi Ahn’s Metro Graffiti

April 17, 2010

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.


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