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Seung-Ah Oh’s sunny future

09/12/2011

Intuition, guts, and a sensitive ear

Seung-Ah Oh

"Strangely enough”, I said, “the way you describe it, the act of composing is preceded by an initial round of precomposing. All of the materials need to be ready and the structure has to be in place before the actual work begins. Which makes me wonder, what does real composing entail?” It is as if Zeitblom, fast friend of the composer Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, hits the Korean-born composer Seung-Ah Oh where it hurts. She regularly struggles with the interfering obstinacy of new ideas that threaten to put paid to balanced and methodical plans. Which factor will tip the scales? The gravity of a well thought-out plan or the lightness of spontaneous ideas? Zeitblom expressed his wonderment as Leverkühn explained how he composed according to a system that he had developed, the twelve-tone technique (Arnold Schoenberg was the inventor in the real world).

As a composition student, Seung-Ah Oh focused on this method for a number of years. She started in her birthplace Seoul and continued in the United States where she turned out to be a true sorcerer’s apprentice. Using the permitted inversions, retrogrades, and retrograde inversions she could swiftly and proficiently arrange a predetermined set of twelve notes into a seamless whole of some length. She used to work haphazardly, without a premeditated plan. When he heard that quite a few young composers used his system, Schoenberg himself once asked: “And, do they infuse the work with music?” In retrospect, Seung-Ah Oh says honestly: “No, I didn’t. Certainly not at first.”

It is no accident that her CV shows compositions from 2001. In that year she arrived in the Netherlands where she was to cast off the twelvetone system under the guidance of Louis Andriessen. Ever since saying goodbye to Schoenberg, Vienna, and serialism before she starts to compose Oh constructs a balanced framework, a sophisticated scheme, an ingenious street plan with itineraries across breathtaking panoramas – but this does not automatically mean that she will take the route that she herself has mapped out. Her ideas about tones and timbres, rhythms and transitions, duration and form are like the ingredients of a meal that have been prepared in advance, weighed, measured and in the correct proportions. Yet once the actual composing starts, she often finds there is room for improvement as her intuition and ears (which she trusts blindly) tell her to do things differently. At the end of the day the result can be startlingly original and of a very high standard, to her delight and sometimes, still, to her surprise.

Her intuition did not come out of the blue. She became an expert on the back of the variations, balancing-acts, and orchestrations that were required for the twelve-tone composition that she practised for years. Andriessen said so himself: “You have an excellent command of technique, you just don’t know what to do with it.” He also stated: “You need fewer notes than you think.” And: “Stop composing for a while, look around you and see what happens!”

She had already started to do the latter. Schoenberg and serialism were no longer her only points of reference and inspiration. Particularly Olivier Messiaen’s music quickened her imagination. In addition, she had begun to incorporate slivers of her Korean heritage in her work. Well before 2001 Oh had embarked on a dissertation on Messiaen’s Réveil des Oiseaux, for which she painstakingly analysed Messiaen’s birds: nightingale, blackbird, song thrush, and oriole. She admired his transition technique, the ‘continuous varying of combinations of pitches and figures’ and ‘super-imposition, juxtaposition’ of the materials by means of ‘cutting, pasting, and shuffling of the blocks of music’. At the time she concluded: ‘Réveil des Oiseaux is not just an interesting piece because of the literal transcription of the 38 bird songs but also because of Messiaen’s excellent choices regarding timing, phrasing, placing and structuring these bird songs into a tight organism.’

Permutation, the orderly and gradual rearranging of tones, sounds, or rhythms, became one of the cornerstones of her music. Oh embraced the methods and techniques that Messiaen had defined; she developed them further, and bent them to her will. For instance his non-reversible rhythms, which he regarded as palindromes in the sense that inverting them did not produce anything new. Or the technique of abbreviating one rhythmical cell then elongating another by the same factor, the concept of valeur ajoutée (added value); the stacking of natural harmonics on the tonic to build chords, résonance. Or notes played softly on top of a solid tonic, which creates a timbre instead of a chord. And, last but not least, the use of tone colour as the defining principle driving the music. Slowly but surely, Oh developed an ear for the most delicate timbres while acquiring the skills to make them.

But this does not mean to say that Seung-Ah Oh abruptly switched to cerebral coyness after sowing her serial wild oats. Nothing could be further from the truth. She writes muscular pieces for large ensembles like De Volharding as well as for symphony orchestras. Not to mention her extrovert, playful, and sometimes angular compositions for percussion. Even her less exuberant works provide space for deviations and surprises; they break with established patterns. She loves smooth transitions and circumspect permutations but is not afraid of abrupt U-turns or wild explosions. Clearly, she has moved beyond musical dogmas.

In the past years percussion – especially of the untuned variety – has increasingly taken pride of place in her work. “I found that I have a way with percussion”, she says with perfect understatement about DaDeRimGil, a composition she wrote in 2003 for Slagwerkgroep Den Haag. In her view this is connected to her Korean background, even if she didn’t exactly grow up with Korean music; as a child Seung-Ah played the piano and the violin. At first she didn’t include any aspects of Korean music in her compositions; it wasn’t possible within the confines of the twelve-tone system. However, in 2001 the Mostly Modern Chamber Music Society in Cleveland asked her to write a piece for guitar and flute that would be performed in a local Asian gallery. It gave Oh the idea to take the music of the Korean flute taegeum as a starting point while using the body of a guitar as percussion instrument.

The piece, So-Ri I, turned out well. A variation for violin, cello, and piano, So-Ri II, was even more successful. Ever since that time Korea has played a part in Seung-Ah Oh’s music. Sometimes audibly, at other times imperceptibly so. And it was always an option, not a given. In this respect Oh is in good company. Virtually all of the renowned 20th century composers, including Messiaen, have been remarkably interested in music from the Orient.

Messiaen never visited Korea but he came close. In 1962 he went to Japan where the musical scope of the imperial banquet music Gagaku and the stately musical drama Noh was a pleasant surprise. In the sixth of his Sept Haïkaï the birds he heard in the city of Karuizawa warble brightly, in high spirits. His music might have turned out differently should he have ended up in Korea. For the Koreans, beauty is often tinged with sadness and melancholy, feelings that are regarded as profound. In songs the emphasis is usually on emotional passages. The music is punctuated with silences, which means there is room for musings, repentance, and grief. They say that, in Korea, birds don’t sing. They cry.

In 2001 Seung-Ah Oh was barely aware of all this. She had hardly any knowledge of Korean music. Yet her composition teacher Andriessen provided her with food for thought through unexpected assignments. (Disassociate yourself. Observe what happens around you.) He also posed awkward questions. (Why are you writing this piece? What do you plan to do? Why use this instrument? What is it you want to say?) It challenged her, made her wonder whether the music (and aesthetics) of her native country would add something to her work. Peter Adriaansz, composer and artistic director, her friend at the time, now her husband, thought it would. In contrast with the Korean-born Oh the American-born Adriaansz engaged in eastern philosophy, the Indian way of thinking, Zen Buddhism, and the I Ching. “He made me look at my heritage in an entirely new way”, Oh says. A salient detail is that Adriaansz’ parents were ethnomusicologists. His father Willem is an authority in the field of Japanese court music and maintained bonds of friendship with the Korean kayageum player Byung-Ki Hwang; the same person who introduced Oh to Korean court music in Seoul.

Andriessen’s questions, Adriaansz’s insights, and the success of So-Ri I and II kindled Oh’s interest in the traditional folk music and ancient court music of Korea; she decided to immerse herself in the subject. Subsequently, she embarked on a project to create a musical theatre piece about the legendary 16th century writer, poetess, and musician Jin-Yi Hwang. As she researched the adventures of this remarkable woman Oh found a document written by a prominent Buddhist monk about a zither without strings. He explained that strings were completely superfluous for someone with sufficient brainpower; to hear the music one merely needed concentration and imagination.

For centuries, silence was barely important in western music. In 1893 Claude Debussy wrote about his opera Pelléas et Mélisande: “Spontaneously, I have used a resource that I believe to be fairly rare, namely Silence (don’t laugh!) as a means of expression! Perhaps it is the only way to articulate the emotional impact of a particular phrase.” The Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans discovered this many centuries ago.

Attention to serenity, silence, and emptiness is built into their philosophy of life. In Confucianism (Confucius: ‘Silence is the true friend that never betrays, Taoism (Lao Tse: ‘Silence is the biggest revelation’), and Zen Buddhism (‘Do not speak – unless it improves on silence’). Korean court music is a tranquil, ethereal music, slow and abstract. Singing or playing the zither kayageum or the taegeum is not primarily a way to break the silence but rather to be mindful of it. This is done by surrounding and interspersing it with carefully chosen sounds. “In a sense all musical preparations eventually lead to silence”, Oh says. “To me that was a revelation.”

This eye-opener is closely connected to the art of transitions between one sound and the next. First there is one thing, then another thing, but what happens in between, how does the transition take place? Oh found the answer in Korea when she took lessons in jungga, the traditional singing technique used in the chamber music repertory of the early Korean courts. Every note is allocated one of many different types of vibrato, ranging from a concise trill to a powerfully produced deep vibration (“I didn’t know this could be beautiful!”). Perhaps in combination with a glissando between two notes or with a barely audible little ornament at the very end that fades out slowly until silence sets in. The Korean art of transition became a natural part of Oh’s thinking and composing arsenal; an interesting musical option that is not always manifestly present but can be accessed if required.

Oh thinks that, so far, the Korean influences in her work have been strongest and most conspicuous in Words and Beyond, created in 2008, a musical theatre piece about Jin-Yi Hwang that she had resolved to make a few years earlier. She believes that she has expressed herself more fully and better in this impressive piece for mezzo-soprano, four percussionists, and one dancer than in any other work. Interestingly, the music moves from ancient Korea towards the modern western world and the same happens in her other Korean-influenced pieces. As if to emphasize that Seung-Ah Oh is a composer in the western tradition who operates in the field of contemporary music.

It is not that easy to identify a specific style or signature in Seung-Ah Oh’s music; from the moment she renounced the twelve-tone system her musical life has been a fascinating voyage of discovery. She relies on a well-developed intuition as she makes her choices; the end result is powerful music, thanks to her thorough education and broad experience. Oh is confident enough to boldly take on a work for electrically amplified string quartet (which premieres in November 2011 at November Music, Den Bosch) while working on a trombone concerto for symphony orchestra (which premieres in the autumn of 2011 in Quito, Ecuador). The former will focus on activities by the left hand after plucking or bowing a string, i.e. on the music between the notes. The latter contains Italian church bells that are ringing pseudo-randomly alongside extravagant and melodious trombone sounds. Do we detect two different signatures?

“I do not force myself to travel in one particular direction; I merely go where my interests take me. My music is quite lyrical and accessible, I strive for a certain simplicity and clarity that makes it easy for listeners to engage. The Danish composer Per Nørgård once said in an interview: ‘I’m standing with one foot in western rationalism and with the other in eastern mysticism. Yet I feel like a stranger on both counts.” This image has been resonating in my head for a while. Maybe I’m inclined to plant my legs firmly on the ground but they end up in different areas. My body weight moves back and forth between both sides of the boundary or stays somewhere in the middle, depending on the piece that I am creating. Well, I may have to think longer on this.’

So maybe this is another sensitive area – in addition to the thorny dilemma of the relation between precomposing and actual composing. Obviously, a deliberate and conscious attempt to develop a signature could become caricatural. Equilibrium is more interesting if it is precarious and transitory. Trading in premeditated plans for spontaneous ideas seems to make sense – as long as one is an inventor, not an accountant. Composer Seung-Ah Oh can look to the future with confidence.

This article is the first chapter in Intuition, guts, and a sensitive ear, the fourth book in a series of composers' portraits, published by November Music, Muziekcentrum Nederland en Buma Cultuur. Click here for the PDF-version of the complete publication.

Translation from Dutch by Moze Jacobs.

© Peter van Amstel - 2011