A Composer's Travel Journal (3)

- Variations -

This afternoon, while packing for a trip to NYC to hear a performance of my piano piece "Variations", written in 1990, I thought back to the years when this piece was taking shape in my mind. I'd come to the US as a graduate student in 1982, planning to stay for only a few years. When I made the difficult decision to remain in this country for a longer time, I was also struggling with musical issues: my relation to Korean and European music, an attempt to find my own voice as a composer. After listening to a great deal of  traditional Korean music, I realized I'd found the road that would lead me away from music of the West, but the distance between this traditional music and the western "new" music I'd been writing was too great and I had no idea how to get from one to the other.

I'd been trying all those years to follow what my teachers had taught me; now was the time to move away from their advice and way of thinking. I'd passed the qualifying exam for my doctorate and needed only to write my thesis. I'd heard that the Dean could officially exempt you from formal composition lessons at that point in the process, but it turned out that this exemption was given only to those students who couldn't go to their lessons because it was necessary for them to live out of town. I went to the Dean's office for five days in a row, making what I felt to be a logical argument so that he would excuse me from these composition lessons that I didn’t want. At the end of the week he produced a letter granting me the exemption, even though I'd still be living on campus.

So I was on my own. Instead of feeling liberated and happy, I felt lost. I found myself rejecting everything I wrote that reminded me of something my teachers would like. As a result, I couldn't write anything! It took me two years to write "Variations", and it's only 12 minutes long. I knew, of course, that a set of variations must have a theme, so I avoided writing a theme. Instead I wrote two notes - an interval. The theme was supposed to be "developed" in a set of clearly delineated variations: I decided against development, and wrote continuous variations on the interval in five big sections. Instead of including all 12 available pitches in the piece, I used 5. I stumbled across the connection between the Asian pentatonic scale (5 notes - C/D/E/G/A) and the western "circle of fifths" (a relationship of five notes or five keys - C-G-D-A-E). The texture of my piece was transparent, lacking the expected accumulation of notes that would form harmonies. Since I'd heard the almost constant ornamenting of notes in Korean music, I wrote a lot of grace notes that made the piece sound less fixed and square. I tried to make the piano sound like a melody instrument, not a harmony instrument, and because, at times, I wrote faster music only in the highest and lowest registers, omitting the middle, the piano sounded like a marimba.

At the same time I began to write my thesis. The world of classical music seemed to me so remote from everyday life, so I decided to write about the role of the composer in society. Even today, I'm not interested in writing "political" music (I tried, and only felt uncomfortable and dissatisfied). Yet I'm interested in making music that is related somehow to the people around me and that might be enjoyed and understood by them. I can't write music that ends up floating somewhere in an artist's dreamworld, appreciated only by other composers. I'm a worker, working long hours writing music. I find that I can't support war-making politicians and their goals of a commercialized, materialistic, market-driven world. It's impossible to sit at home and write a love song when the world is in turmoil, but maybe, instead of protesting with loud words and violent actions, I can write quieter, slower, subtle music. When I wrote "Variations", I first came close to doing this. I had even imagined it (in a naive sort of way) as music played in the remote and distant mountains.

When I moved from Colorado to San Francisco in 1988, I drove for 3 days across the mountains and deserts. I began to imagine and hear the piece. Two years later, in June of 1990, “Variations” was first performed. Tomorrow (April, 2002), I'm flying to hear the piece in New York City.

This afternoon, as I was preparing for my trip to New York City, the phone rang. A journalist from Sacramento had questions about a new piece I'd just finished, called "Brancusi's Studio". After a few general questions, she wanted to know about composers whose music had influenced me. Even though I responded to her question with a few names (Cage, Nancarrow, Feldman), putting emphasis on influence is not really so interesting. The German composer Arnold Schoenberg believed that the musical system he invented would make possible the German dominance of music for one hundred years. His music, I think, is very beautiful, but his influence, or a composer who imitates him doesn't interest me. The American composer Christian Wolff wrote: "Influence suggests the exercise of power and control”.

Many young Korean composers have told me that my music, because it is so "Korean", has made them realize the importance of knowing "our Korean" music. I try to tell them that it's best to learn as much of it as possible, but that they must then move away from it. When they ask where they should move to, I can't give them an answer. When I began to learn to play traditional instruments, I was changed by the music and by the playing. The music itself was my teacher. A good teacher knows that the student must walk away to a different place from where they themselves have been.

I always hope that the audience at a concert will like my music, but I can't help wondering, at the same time, what John Cage would have thought of it. The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that an artist shouldn't be concerned about pleasing his contemporaries or those who will come after, but instead must try to please his predecessors.

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