Monday 30 April 2012

Murmurs in Korea - Augusta Read Thomas

Excerpts from Chapter Twelve:
Murmurs in Korea - Augusta Read Thomas.

It was long flight from Amsterdam to Seoul, then a four-hour drive up into the wooded mountains of PyeongChang, set in an area of pristine beauty called Daegwallyyeong (recently chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games).  Here, for nearly three weeks of the 2007 summer season, a little concert-hall and music school swarmed with world-class professors and soloists and their talented young summer-school students, gathered for master-classes.  In these mountains the sound of music was everywhere and the South-Korean hospitality delightfully and impeccably organized.  I was immediately taken by surprise at the opening Press Conference, where I joined a panel of eminent music professors.  So many of the questions and cameras were directed at me (a painter!) that I became slightly embarrassed. “What was this music-making with a brush?  How did this work?  Had I ever done this before?” Meaning, of course, are you totally crazy?  Could a westerner possess skills that seemed to be related to their calligraphic tradition? 

Through an interpreter, I must have given a dozen interviews and done numerous photo-shoots during my stay, in addition to dealing with the non-English-speaking KBS television crew that was filming all our concerts.  But however carefully I tried to phrase the explanation of my work, however appreciative the interviewers appeared to be, I was usually left with a strange frustration and suspicion of “lost in translation”. But then, I’ve had this feeling with English-speaking interviewers too, when trying to explain what I do. 

I was somewhat put out when I discovered on arrival that the New York-based Sejong Soloists, the brilliant young string players that formed the resident festival orchestra, had no idea what exactly I was doing there.  But as I sat in at their rehearsals of my programme and discussed the score from the point of view of someone who knew it intimately, they realized that this was going to be a true audio-visual harmony.  Furthermore, as soon as a few of them had viewed my rehearsal DVD, the atmosphere became warm, with tremendous mutual respect.  With my new-found friends, I performed Murmurs in the Mists of Memory by the American composer Augusta Read Thomas on the opening night, a hauntingly beautiful piece (commissioned for the Sejong Soloists) demanding high technical skill from the orchestra. The performance was described in the JoongAng Daily as “one of the most memorable moments” of the evening.  And from that evening on we were all buzzing with delight at our new audio-visual ensemble.  I had been worrying about what Augusta would think of my treatment of her work.  I had sent her a DVD beforehand of my studio rehearsal of Murmurs but had somehow missed her emailed reply. 
Kinetic image from the first movement of Murmurs in the Mists of Memory by Augusta Read Thomas.

It was only after the concert that I found her message (all the exclamation marks are hers): “Norman, I love your work so dearly!!! I was in shock.  When I got your DVD in my Chicago mail, I opened it right away and was totally thrilled.  It is truly amazing.  I was in tears too!  Your work is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done with my work, for sure”.  It’s a very special feeling to get a reaction from a living composer and it was a relief – you are so much aware that you are handling someone else’s “baby”.   Thank you, Gusty! 

Then on August 6th, the anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, we played Three Film Scores by Toru Takemitsu.  The second of these pieces was written for the film Black Rain, which features the awful after-effects of radioactive fall-out.  This is such a moving work, inspiring a short visual sequence that is perhaps one of the most expressive and profound pieces I have created so far.  Afterwards the audience was both tearful and ecstatic in their praise – there was a real appreciation of what my brush was expressing – it was a language my Korean audience recognized!   My deep satisfaction came from a sense of identification with Takemitsu’s music and the joy of achieving an absolute ensemble with these gifted young musicians.  We all swore we would play together again.

(Below) Two images from Black Rain, one of Three Film Scores by Toru Takemitsu, as performed at the South Korean Great Mountains Music Festival in 2007.  Total devastation. In the final image, the red sun has turned white.


Next Monday: The Case of the Lost Painting.


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