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Seung-Ah Oh - Intuition, guts, and a sensitive ear


Unique form, mind of her own

Seung-Ah Oh

A sturdy piece featuring the long lines of a brilliantly deployed oboe with somersaulting glissandi and trills, captured in an ingenious web of rhythms and timbres, a piece ‘full of energy, based on a convincing concept’. Seung-Ah Oh, originally from Korea, won the Buma Toonzetters Prijs for this piece, JungGa, an award for the most exceptional Dutch composition of 2010. Nine years earlier, Oh had arrived in the Netherlands to continue her studies at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague under Louis Andriessen. Before the year was out her piece So-Ri II for violin, cello, and piano was played in the IJsbreker in Amsterdam. Subsequent years saw numerous performances at virtually all of the venues and festivals for contemporary music in the Netherlands, often featuring spanking new work. The Zephyr Quartet and Electra played her compositions as did Slagwerk Den Haag and De Volharding, Nieuw Ensemble, Hexnut, and Klang. In other words, Oh has every reason to refer to herself as a Dutch composer and that is what she feels herself to be.

Seung-Ah Oh has also made waves in other countries. She won awards and distinctions in Poland, Hungary, Spain, the US, Korea, and elsewhere; ensembles play her music all over the world. Oh teaches at universities in the United States and recently obtained a permanent appointment at the DePaul University in Chicago. Fortunately, the terms are flexible, she says, so she will have time to travel and live part of the year in the Netherlands.

We talk briefly, just before the summer holidays, as Ensemble Klang rehearses her work Fragments. She applies the finishing touches (more vibrato and swell pedal, a different piece of A4 paper between the piano strings, and the rice bowls are too much attuned) and we jot down in our diaries: MuzyQ in Amsterdam the following week, a conversation following a rehearsal with Hexnut, the ensemble that will premiere Figures in Time. Everything takes longer than planned but once the rehearsal is over Seung-Ah is as jubilant as she is accommodating. We agree to talk again at the Conservatoire in The Hague but we end up in a sunny outdoor cafe. During our third meeting I see the interior of her house in The Hague, which is comfortable and spacious – black and white, wood and stucco. Here scores and music, sketchbooks and coffee are to hand. Seung-Ah (we are on first-name terms) is passionate and a real dynamo. Indeed, she has so much to say that our discussions last a total of seven hours.

After listening to her music, looking at her scores, and musing on what she told me, I used the chapter Intuition, guts, and a sensitive ear to describe what I found remarkable about Seung-Ah’s approach, her interests, and how she developed as an artist. Round-trip to Vienna tells the story of a musical journey that started with Oh playing the piano and violin in Seoul, continued with a virtual outing to the serialism of the Second Viennese School then back, musically, to Korea around 2001. In Piece by piece Seung-Ah comments on twelve compositions that she has composed since 2001; pieces that were important to her at the time and mostly still are. She herself wrote When the wind blows from the East, a lucid exposition of what Korean music is, what it means, and how she uses it in her own music.

The latter is ‘not an amalgamate of various cultures’, as the jury of the Toonzetters Prijs said about JungGa, ‘but a unique musical form that springs from her own mind’. If I’ve learnt anything about Seung-Ah Oh it is that she’ll probably say amen to that.

This article is the introduction 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