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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