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Seung-Ah Oh - Developments, finds and prospects


Piece by piece

Seung-Ah Oh

“During my first year in the Netherlands I wrote ten pieces instead of two or maximally three per year, as before”, Oh says. Not all of these works are among the forty compositions listed on her website. Below is a selection of the most interesting pieces (according to Oh, and also because they illustrate her approach and the way she has developed) with some explanatory notes, provided for this occasion.

So-Ri I and II – 2001 – guitar, flute; violin, cello, and piano – 10’; 10’
“So-ri means sound or noise. This piece is not so much about pitch but about stacking up sounds; how to build blocks of sound using harmony, repetition, and instrumentation.

For the first time I made use of repetition on an ongoing basis. This wasn’t allowed at Brandeis; if you repeated something, even once, you were marked down immediately. So this really felt like a liberation. With So-Ri I I started to take my leave of the twelve-tone technique and all that chromatic business. The piece was written for a concert in an Asian gallery. This was the moment I started to wonder, why not make use of my Asian background? Why shouldn’t I include a Korean flute? I was pleased with the guitar; you can use the body as a sound box for percussion and I love its harmonic palette. The guitarist was nearby when I was composing, I could ask him to try out what I’d come up with. As soon as I would hear the guitar part I knew what the flute should do. I had never worked like this before. Thanks to this collaboration my music became more accurate, more detailed. My ears told me what sounded really good.

So-Ri II is a piece for violin, cello, and piano; it was written very soon afterwards. Memories of what Aenon Jia-en Loo from Hong Kong had played that summer in Aspen on his prepared piano continued to play through my head. I left the piano alone but used a lot of chords built from natural harmonics so instead of a harmony you hear timbre. And someone pounding on a single key, tadadadada. I had to try it out. In addition, I was constructing my own sounds and fully in control of form and pitch, and the way they related to each other. So-Ri II is a beautiful and delicate piece, somewhat meditative, it contains humming. All those years I had been trained to write music according to rules laid down by someone else but apparently this had been waiting in the wings all along. Maybe I had always been looking for music that was simply beautiful but I had been afraid to come out with it. Now I felt relieved; this was what composing was all about. Finally, I was pulling all the strings. This was my piece.”

Dark Blue Horizon – 2003 - trombone, trumpet, piano – 10’
“Of course Louis Andriessen hit the nail on the head when he said that I don’t need that many notes. And in any case I definitively wanted to get away from that row of twelve tones. He asked me to write a piece for a solo-instrument using just two notes. What on earth could I do with two notes? I had concentrated almost exclusively on pitch and every time I had done my best to get those twelve tones to sound surprisingly new and fresh. Yet suddenly it was all about sound, timbre, and rhythm. I tried to keep the music fluid but didn’t succeed. A friend who played trombone suggested I write a piece for three instruments instead of one: trombone, trumpet, and piano. That was an improvement but it was quite a struggle to bring this assignment to a happy conclusion.

“In Dark Blue Horizon a pentatonic and very simple melody pops up right in the middle of the piece. Here and there it turns slightly diatonic; I have used parallel octaves. Parallel octaves – something I had never dared before. Everything that I had believed to be ‘prohibited’ was prized very highly in The Hague. Just try it out, was the device. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it didn’t. It was such a relief, I was thrilled! This is the Netherlands, I thought, and I can do what I like.”

DaDeRimGil – 2003 – six percussionists – 14’
“I am really 95 percent happy with this piece. Normally I’d say my ‘contentment rating’ would not exceed 80 or maximally 85 percent. This was the first time I determined the form concept in advance from A to Z. Yet I didn’t start out that way; I was forced into it. As usual, I started from scratch. Before long I had three minutes, a hocket for two players that was a perfect whole lasting three minutes. But I needed fourteen minutes. How could I construct a large structure based on a short hocket? I focused on contrasts by combining the austere, rigid hocket with its opposite: prolonged resonating sounds. I wanted to repeat the part that I had already composed, but not too inflexibly. Instead I shortened it repeatedly while altering the instrumentation. I drew a diagram. The tight and rhythmical hocket part preceded a brief section that revolved around chimes with a lengthy aftertone and drumrolls, but without a clearly identifiable pulse. Every time the part with the chime is repeated it sounds different and takes longer; the idea is that the structure is not ‘in the face of’ the audience. Because I had laid down the structure in advance I could concentrate on the smallest details as I did the actual composing.

“Do you know what the beauty is of percussion without pitch? Whatever you write, it always sounds a hundred times better than you think. Looking at the score it is hard to imagine what it will sound like, apart from the rhythms and the form. The sound itself is largely guesswork; a feat of the imagination. However, as I wrote DaDeRimGil I discovered that I had a talent for composing percussion parts.”

Shunt – 2003 – two pianos, percussion, and two instrument groups – 11’
“This obviously is a piece by a student of Louis Andriessen. Shunt is a try-out that revolves around orchestrating a piano part. I was commissioned to write a piece for large ensemble for the Composer’s Conference at Wellesley College in Massachusetts over a period of four to five weeks; therefore I had to find a quick and easy way of writing. Louis often showed us his sketchbooks, which are filled with piano parts that he orchestrates at a later stage when he wants to use them. I was used to writing vertically, one part above the other, from top to bottom, but that takes time. So I tried out Louis’ way of working. I divided the instruments into various sections: two string quartets with double bass, woodwind and brass sections, plus two pianos – a perfect Andriessenian set-up. The result was a pleasant surprise for the musicians as well as for the audience. And for me too – the piece is not bad at all.”

2005 Concerto for Huyn and Kwan – 2005 – kayageum, piri, mixed eastern/western ensemble – 22’
“Joël Bons commissioned me to write a piece for the Atlas Ensemble with two Korean musicians on Korean instruments. He told me their names were Ji-Young Yi, a woman who played the zither kayageum and had her own ensemble; and Chi Park, who plays the double reed instruments piri and taepyongso. Suddenly, and for the first time in my life, I was in Seoul surrounded by professional performers of traditional Korean music. They explained their instruments, the endless differentiations within the music, and all the things that happen after plucking a string. I was impressed and a little bit worried. My ears were not geared to distinguishing so many minute details. How could I ever write a piece for these musicians, these instruments? But I was also enamoured of the idea that this was my big chance, my mission.

“Eventually I decided to write a concerto for kayageum and piri so I wouldn’t have to occupy my mind too much with all those other nonwestern instruments of the Atlas Ensemble. The kayageum part starts with a solo that is strongly reminiscent of traditional Korean music yet it gradually blends with the other instruments. Chromaticism colours the pentatonic Korean scale as it increasingly takes on the features of modern western music. The piri is more or less the leader of the ensemble. I have used Messiaen’s idea of résonance: the other instruments surround the oboe with a halo of harmonics. Like the kayageum, the piri part shifts from Korean to western music. Yet the piece ends with marching music, like the ceremonial music that was performed for the Korean king in the past: forceful, loud, and resembling a fanfare, together with heavy percussion.”

Unsung Equilibrium – 2005 – wind ensemble – 15’
“I wrote Unsung Equilibrium for De Volharding and used it to explore block techniques. The piece does not have an inevitable start or finish; I was playing around with the order of the blocks. However, to allow the performers to determine the sequence would have been a bridge too far; I was completely in control throughout. I experimented with contrasts within chords, with an equilibrium between extremes, for example soft and loud, soothing and exciting, rounded and sharp. The melody evolves from the intervals contained in the chords. It is a game with the psychology of time; not a matter of exposition-development-recapitulation. The listeners are bound to wonder from time to time: didn’t I hear this before? Mostly that seems to be the case but isn’t. Following each repeat I leave something out while adding something else.”

Recollection for ChoHee – 2006 – two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, bass – 15’
“Cho-Hee was the pseudonym of a 16th century poetess. I have used several of her texts for this piece. They were originally written in Chinese according to strict form rules: a fixed number of verses contained a fixed number of characters. Sometimes the music corresponds exactly with the verses but of course it is impossible to sustain such a one-toone relation when you’re dealing with a translation. You could also say that this gives me the freedom to deviate from the blueprint. Another source was the ritual of the traditional Korean veneration of the dead; a precentor recites texts in a kind of spoken singing, half recitation, half melody. The bass part in Recollection for ChoHee is based on this. The bass starts with a slow song about a woman at the grave of her two dead babies.

“When I write vocal melodies I’m always singing: if it sounds good, it is good. The melodies of the five vocalists share a communal harmonic basis, so meaningful consonants harmonies emerge when they come together. I keep them simple: I have given the vocalists fairly melodious parts. The set-up is simple, so the vocalists have more room, which allows them to sing better. Sometimes what a singer expresses is more impressive than the musical intricacies of a piece. Ever since Recollection for ChoHee I have been confident about writing simple music; it can be splendid in its own right.”

Words and Beyond: Hwang Jin-Yi – 2008 – mezzo-soprano, four percussionists, dancer – 70’
“The most important part of this musical theatre piece unfolds in complete silence so the focus is entirely on what happens on stage. By this time I had found out that I can do everything I like with percussion. Also because percussionists always have an open mind. For this piece they helped me find the most efficient and effective way to use the instruments. The mezzo-soprano is the leading lady, she plays Jin-Yi Hwang, a legendary 16th-century artist and female entertainer. Hwang painted, she practised calligraphy, played the zither komunggo, was a singer and danced. Although she was successful, she was unhappy. When she was around forty years old she joined a troupe of travelling musicians annex actors. Subsequently, she disappeared without a trace. In Words and Beyond I tell her life story using four of her poems.

“Vocalist Margriet van Reisen took lessons with my Korean singing teacher Kwon-Soon Kang. After ten days she could sing the way I had imagined: the Korean way. The music starts with a seductive song in an almost original Korean version albeit with a slight variation. Little by little the interaction and harmony between the instruments changes and the song begins to resemble an operatic aria. I wanted a dancer, a slow dance. In water. Michael Schumacher caught my eye, he can do everything. But he is used to moving rapidly and in ballet it’s all about stretching: arms, hands, legs, feet. In Korean dance the movements are unhurried and every gesture is turned inward: planting the feet, pushing off from the heel. And there is also something called ‘nonmovement’: standing still as part of a movement in progress. In the beginning, Michael found that very difficult.

Words and Beyond summarizes who and what I am: not just a composer but a theatre-maker as well. This is merely the first part of a trilogy, the second part will be about Su-Huh Hun-Nan, another unhappy woman but born in the highest aristocratic circles. I anticipated this in 2006 in Recollection for So-Hee which opens with a song based on one of Huh’s poems. I want a Korean professional singer – if possible my singing teacher – to play this role. In the third part the two women are going to meet: the Dutch singer and her Korean counterpart.”

JungGa – 2009 – oboe/musette, ensemble – 17’
“In JungGa, for which I was awarded the Toonzetters Prijs in 2010, I imitate spontaneous heterophony through written music. Korean music notation uses graphic symbols that indicate what grace notes a musician should play without dictating the details. Yet for JungGa I notated all the parts with great precision. I wrote the piece for Ernest Rombout, oboist of the Nieuw Ensemble. We thoroughly discussed which types of glissando, vibrato, harmonics, and multiphonics he could play on his instruments.

“I love the clarity of the musical concept of JungGa: the simplicity of a beautiful continual oboe line with numerous inflections and glissandi. At the beginning and in the middle section a vibrating sound starts up and the character of the music is transformed instantly. The entire composition changes gear; all of the parts have slightly different rhythms, which enhances the vibrational aspect of the music. In fact this discovery was a stroke of luck, I hadn’t planned it that way, the idea suddenly popped up. I always welcome such happy accidents. Subsequently, a wall of sound starts to build up with enormous energy, heaving and pounding, a rich tapestry with a halo of overtones.”

Fragments – 2009 – alto saxophone, electric guitar, piano, percussion – 13’
“This piece consists of 26 fragments that typically last twenty to thirty seconds. When a new fragment starts is not determined in advance: one of the players gives a cue. The musicians can also take initiatives within the segments themselves through individual interpretations and creative ideas, especially regarding timbre. In this way I am gradually trying to relinquish some control; there are so many fantastic, intelligent musicians out there. Just think of what they could contribute. At the same time, I have heard a lot of bad improvisations. The way certain jazz musicians improvise can bore me to tears; full of mannerisms, worn-out phrases, predictability. I don’t want to go down that road.”

Procession – 2011 – trombone, symphony orchestra – 14’
“The precomposition plan that I made for this concerto became unworkable. Its structure provided a serviceable springboard but once this was expanded on and refined everything changed. The intro grew into an autonomous section lasting five minutes. Sometimes I come up with something and then I destroy it completely; it often bothers me that things don’t turn out as expected. I only really know what should happen when I am developing the actual music. Unthought-of ideas can present themselves but it may mean you have to put in a lot of additional effort. There are pros and cons to trusting your intuition.

“Harmony is the point of departure in this piece, as I always intended. I wanted robust harmonic progressions but sometimes a chord stays in place for a long time, then different tones become louder or softer in turn, so the sounds shift. A Scottish lament did not make the grade but the Italian church bells that I heard this summer could stay. Simultaneously, different bells are peeling in quasi-random tempi just like in real life albeit very, very slowly. The piece starts with a simple melody; at first it is played at a snail’s pace so no one recognizes it. First the tones last eleven counts, then seven, then five – I love prime numbers, they always work a treat. The notes become shorter and shorter until the melody emerges. The piano plays arpeggios in an almost primitive manner, the brass instruments play a monumental melody. A peaceful beginning, totally different from what I planned to do but I couldn’t be more contented.”

Nong Hyun – 2011 – string quartet – 13’
“For November Music I am writing a string quartet; it’s still a work in progress. Nong hyun means: the sound between the tones. The instruments are amplified electrically so you can hear the smallest details. As to the structure, I’m thinking of four windmills rotating at different speeds, resulting in overlapping cycles of various durations and speeds.” Seung-Ah fetches her sketchbook, which does indeed contain windmills, a number of key words and phrases (timelessness, continuousness, delicate sounds) and a few quotations by John Cage, including: “I write in order to hear; never do I hear and then write what I hear.”

This interview is the third 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