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Kyong Mee Choi

kyong_mee_choiInterview with Notations 21 Composer,

Kyong Mee Choi:

Theresa:
Have you always wanted to be a composer?

Kyong Mee:
No, I haven’t. I have been interested in many fields. Actually, after having studied many different disciplines, I wanted to be able to combine all the learning I’d done before – a little music, science, art and literature – into one creative process.  One day I realized that composition was the way I could incorporate all of my interests; I was nearly 25 when I began to study composition formally.

Theresa:
What is your earliest musical memory?

Kyong Mee:
My father is a music lover, especially interested in classical music, and played a lot of classical music recordings at home.  I had a little melodica (miniature keyboard powered by your breath) that I taught my self to play.  Then I began to teach myself how to play a small pump organ that we had at home instead of a piano, which was unusual.  My mom knew a little piano and could read music, but neither of my parents directed me to music – they were mostly listeners and enjoyed music.  In Asia, the culture is to start studying music very early and it is very expensive and competitive. Some parents, like my own, don’t like to send their children into such a competitive environment at an early age.  I am glad they made the choice they did, but at the time, as a child, I would have wanted lessons.

Theresa:
When did you begin to study organ?

Kyong Mee:
Was it something you enjoyed? I actually taught myself organ on my parents’ little pump organ, and I gradually became interested in playing pipe organ.  I started to play as a church organist, but nobody gave me lessons.  I got a few lessons through a special program for church organists.  I had very little formal training; sometimes I would ask my mom listen to my playing, and that was mostly it.  Music was always something I loved, even though it wasn’t something I was directed toward by someone else. I sought it out myself.  When you’re a kid, you don’t even realize sometimes what you’re looking for – you just do things because you enjoy them.

Theresa:
Which composers have influenced you the most? Were they different when you were a student than today?

Kyong Mee:
This is both an interesting and a hard question.  With my background, the music I was exposed to early on was classical music, like Bach, Beethoven and Wagner.  When I decided to come to the states to study music composition, later on in life, it was the first time I was ever exposed to contemporary music.  At the time it was hard for me to get into it.  After I began to compose, all the various sonorities of music began to come to me very naturally.  I still appreciate classical music just as much as I did when I was a kid, but when I compose, I look for new timbres, new ideas, and new musical vocabulary.  I think that’s the nature of being an “artist.”  You want to create something new and different.  Come to think of it, what I learned as a kid was musicality.  Every single period in music history reflects musicality, and I think this musicality that I have learned from childhood resides in me, which is now transformed into new configurations in order to freely express my voice.

Theresa:
Many of your compositions are electro-acoustic in nature. What inspired you to start creating music with electronics?

Kyong Mee:
I was studying chemistry at college.  I was very interested in inorganic chemistry, which is the study of the structure of molecules in general.  I was very fascinated with that.  I wanted to be a programmer in order to simulate and examine these molecules in three dimensions.  In college I was extremely intrigued by the programming and computer engineering fields, while I kept my love for art and music as well.  When I started to study composing in the states, I was exposed to music programming, which I loved right away. But that’s not the reason why I do electronic music now.  I just love to create new timbres.  I like to find new sounds and instruments.  I love acoustic instruments, but at the same time I want to look for new sonorities, in order to extend into the infinite realm of sound production.  As a composer, that gives me more sound options, creating and generating.  It is a really fun area.

Theresa:
Have you ever felt that the electro-acoustic community was a boys’ club, or unwelcoming of female composers?

Kyong Mee:
I didn’t feel this way myself when I started out in electronic music.  But, I can understand how it might be seen like this.  I never felt rejected because I was female.  But, often times, females are just not exposed enough to the environment or equipment that is required for electronic music.  If anything, I might call it a mental barrier for women to transcend.  More or less, as a woman creating electronic music, I feel more appreciated by the music community because not as many women are doing what I do.  This way, more female students can be exposed to my work, and see electronic music as an option.

Theresa:
How does being a woman affect your work as a composer?

Kyong Mee:
I never think I am composing in a specific way because I am a woman; I am just a person.  I never expect that being female will produce different results in my composing.  I find, though, by working with some female peers, that there is a similarity in regards to our interests in general.  But that is a broad generalization, and men have this type of interest in music as well; just because many women are interested in a certain style, that does not mean that men don’t do it as well.

Theresa:
Your fascinating piece, Tao, from 2002, combines electronic elements with piano, and the most traditional of all instruments, the human voice.  Do you often combine electronics with traditional instruments?  What effect are you seeking?

Kyong Mee:
Yes I do, I do like both acoustic and electronic sounds.  I think my goal changes from piece to piece, but this piece is deeply affected by my interest in Taoism.  I was inspired by the Tao-Te Ching and the philosopher, Lao Tzu.  Taoism is a way to help people see the truth in life.  “If you are caught by desire, you only see manifestation.  If you are free from desire, you see the mystery of life.”  (a quote from the Tao-Te Ching)  Taosim does not judge people for having desires; it simply states the facts about how people are.  I thought it was so enlightening.  That is the basic realization I tried to capture in the piece.  I tried to create a different state of human minds.  I used different sonorities to represent this switch from being caught in desire and being free.  I am not a religious person, per say, but I really believe that people have the power to help themselves if they practice introspective behaviors.  Taoism like any religion tries to explain what is life and why we are suffering and what is the point.  Whatever field I have been in, these ideas have always interested me.  There have been times that I even thought of becoming a monk!  Artists want to reflect society in ways, but can also act as a messenger for ideas.  As a composer, I reflect and meditate on what I am trying to communicate.  That is the process I use sometimes.  On occasion, I just start with a cool sound, because the sound itself directs me into a marvelous direction.  Other times I use non-musical concepts or material in order to communicate what I want to say to the listener.

Theresa:
Has your Korean background ever inspired any of your music?

Kyong Mee:
Actually, when I was in Korea, I listened to more Western music, and traditional Korean music didn’t seem as fresh or interesting at the time.  But, when I came here to the States, I began to appreciate traditional Korean music more than ever.  I just found the beauty in it – many people see the beauty from their own country only after they have left it.  I especially like the timbres used in traditional Korean music.  Some composers try to combine western and eastern vocabulary in music, which I do not do consciously, but people might identify some turns of phrase or timbral preferences that may subconsciously reflect my love for this music.  In general, I just try to be myself and use whatever media I have available or find interesting at the moment.

Theresa:
You use many different types of alternative notation. What is your inspiration for these unique notational forms?

Kyong Mee:
I am an extremely visually oriented person.  When I was in the science field, I was very interested in geometry and all the symbols and shapes, and their structures. Also, when I make a score, sometimes I feel that traditional notation is quite limited.  It isn’t flexible enough to create the music I want, especially when using extended techniques or music with electronics.  After the performers learn it, most of them find my notation intuitive, and that it is easy to understand what I am trying to communicate.  I feel creating notation is a natural progression in my composing process.

Theresa:
Do you feel that new innovations in notation are necessary for progress in composing?

Kyong Mee:
Yes, I think so. At the same time, I think it is important to reference traditional musical language in order to facilitate musical communication. New musical symbols will always come along no matter what, but it is a good idea to have a solid background in the work of past composers. Also, it is good to be aware of what techniques other composers have used to express certain ideas in order to reduce redundancy.

Theresa:
Gestural Trajectory, from 2005, which is a piece for two pianos and percussion, has some really marvelous and innovative new notational forms, particularly for percussion instruments. How did you develop these new notations?

Kyong Mee:
I had a great time making those notations! I made more than a hundred drawings that were not particularly related to the composition. But later I collected them in a way that could create a structure or a form of the piece. Then I imagined sonic gesture coming out of those drawings. It could be a little strange for players to see those notations at first, but they thought it was very intuitive and imaginative after they had learned them. Some performers are resistant to new notations, but some found that the notations are useful and make sense in order to perform a certain style of music.

Theresa:
Would you ever advocate the adoption of your innovative notations by other composers, or do you see them as unique creations for your own music only?

Kyong Mee:
I think it is composer’s decision to come up with an appropriate notation system for their pieces. In that sense, my notation might be unique creation for my own music. However, in general, notation is something we have in order to communicate with performers, so whatever we create it is good to take it into consideration how these will work for performer’s approach.

Theresa:
I understand that you are a painter as well. Where can your paintings be seen?

Kyong Mee:
Most of my paintings have been commissioned by individuals and are hanging in people’s houses. Some are very large, 10×8 feet in size, and I hope to find a place to exhibit those big paintings. This summer I will try to make a nice balance to explore both areas (composition and painting) that I really love. Also, I would like to share with you some information about my recent multi-media exhibition, that was reviewed by Jenny Southlynn from The Pamphlet, in which she said, “The show is polished and elegant. The paintings mineral hues shimmer one beneath the other, as mesmerizing as a reflecting pool. The accompanying musical compositions play in perfect harmony with the works, completing the immersive meditative effect.”

Theresa:
One of your newest pieces for chamber ensemble is entitled Kandinsky. Is Kandinsky among your favorite painters?

Kyong Mee:
Yes, I love the Kandinsky paintings. I love Miro and some of Jackson Pollock and Rothko. I love abstract expressionist paintings and some minimalist arts, but I do have an appreciation for representational art, too. In my painting, I love creating a texture, certain shapes, and gestures, which can be linked to my love of geometry.

Theresa:
What do you think the next frontier in music will be?

Kyong Mee: I think electronic music, especially that which is interactive, will be explored further, as well as concrete-style music and programming. Video and DVD will continue to be favored by composers. I think that there are just as many acoustic composers as there have always been and always will be. Styles always come back predictably, and we see a lot of “neo” styles, but the truly original always occurs when you least expect it. I only sense a fluctuation, not so much a direction. That is how I see the evolution of art in general.

Theresa:
As a professor of music at Roosevelt University, what is it about composing that you try to impress upon your students?

Kyong Mee: I encourage my students to be imaginative, intuitive and inspired. Without this disposition, art can be simply a replica of what has been done. As much as learning skills, techniques, and disciplines is crucial, finding an individual voice is imperative. However, finding one’s own voice is never easy or cannot be “pursued.” To me, it only seems to come when an individual fundamentally accepts the core of who s/he is. As an educator, I try to share my enthusiasm with students so that they are welcomed to inspire their own strength.
Theresa Sauer Tisano, Interviewer April 2007
-To read a review of Kyong Mee Choi’s recent multimedia exhibit:http://pamphletpress.org/index.cfm?sec=2&story_id=31

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