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)

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

sorrow
           No one is watching this time.
                                              No one is watching.
anger
           The decay of my flesh,
                                              eat it and remember.
recognition
           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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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.