15–20 minute experience, or the time it takes for a midday stretch.
For over three decades, composer Jin Hi Kim has been developing her concept of Living Tones, in which each note is alive and shaped to its fullness through a gesture. In this new piece, which utilizes excerpts from an existing composition, KEE MAEK (1986), she integrates sounds from daily life — rice being poured into a bowl, a rustling plastic bag — to create new sonic possibilities and invites us to do the same. Here, Zoë Wallace, a musician and USA Development Coordinator, discusses the score and shares her own version with Jin.
SCORE BY JIN HI KIM
TWO VERSIONS OF LIVING TONES WITH LIVING SOUNDS BY JIN HI KIM AND ZOË WALLACE
I created LIVING TONES with LIVING SOUNDS utilizing some parts of my existing composition, KEE MAEK (1986), that uses sound gestures for its impetus. 기 Kee (energy) and 맥 Maek (pulse) can be defined as energy inherent in a shape. Calligraphic brush stroke-like gestures of pitch bending and subtle timbral changes of each note are part of the process of creating Living Tones that provide a richness to the piece. The compositional concept of Living Tones is derived from the characteristic of sigimse (Korean tone quality). Each note is alive, has its own shape, and the music exists largely in the transitory moment of each individual sound.
LIVING TONES with LIVING SOUNDS
BY JIN HI KIM
[Audio description: A loud pulse of music falls off suddenly, followed by the sound of rice pouring into a bowl, beginning heavier than lightening up as the flow slows down. The rice begins to settle and shift as if it is being swirled. Plucked strings descend over a long wavering chord, and the rustling of a plastic bag enters, along with small, hard pieces that clatter against one another. Loud pulses of music are interwoven with dissonant strings. A metal dish sings as it knocks against other objects, sounding as if it is floating on water. The strings drone up and down. There is high-pitched ringing, like a finger tip moving on the edge of a glass. High strings resonate, sliding and fading out.]
[IDs: a handwritten musical score for viola and violin interspersed with blank bars of space that invite the musician to add living sounds from their environment. A legend of symbols for gestures and special techniques follows the score.]
Symbols for Gestures and Special Techniques
The interweaving of tone gestures in viola and cello parts enhance the timbral texture. The gestures in this piece are central to the piece and are not to be played like ornaments. As the dynamics show, the gestures are to be expressed strongly, but freely, clearly, and without any rush. Gestures are used to provide a feeling of energy before or after indicated durations of the note. The notes are played for the number of seconds indicated except where gestures are presented. Numbers in empty spaces in the string parts show the duration of pauses in seconds. Entrances against another part are done freely, but entrances and exits must always be in the order shown. Because the duration of gestures is flexible, it is necessary for both musicians to pay close attention to the other part.
You are invited to participate in creating your own living sounds and mix them with my Living Tones as indicated in the score at sections 2, 4 (and 5), 7, and 9. The Music Minus One Track is available upon request.
Jin: I enjoyed your version of the piece — so beautiful! Did you have fun doing the recorded sounds?
Zoë: It was a lot of fun. I just happened to be visiting my parents’ house when I was doing this, and I was able to record some sounds that were nostalgic to my childhood. For anyone who wants to participate by recording something to use in the piece, using sounds that are nostalgic could be a really great touch to make it more personal to them.
Jin: True! You know there are a lot of interesting living sounds around us, but when you make a piece out of it, it becomes yours and you become much more aware of the music around you all the time in life.
Zoë: I love the idea of using sounds dependent on touch and gesture in our daily lives as the live element of the piece, and I think it’s so great to bring an audience into the creation of the music. It does put them into that position where they begin to consider typical “mundane” sounds such as coffee beans being put into a dish as musical. I’m curious what the impetus for this piece is?
Jin: When I was in Korea as a traditional musician I learned music in a very different way compared to music education in the West. We believe that each tone has a life instead of working with a perfect pitch and the mechanical time division. The time sense was different from counting beats — there’s more of a cycle to the rhythm. Within that, you have a kind of freedom or elastic space, that the concept of a beat can be stretched and you have flexibility. If you do not have that flexibility in your time or space, then you cannot make living tones because a living tone has its own life and has to have free space to move around.
The way you manipulate the sound can make it even more interesting. For instance, you might pour the rice quickly so it’s gone, but you can also pour the rice with an intentional gesture that becomes very musical, and that is good for someone who is not necessarily trained as a musician. I think everybody is a musician; it’s human nature to absorb music.
Zoë: Right, I mean even just the way we speak: we have a certain rhythm, we use inflections, we change the pitch of our tone to indicate different things. It’s all inherent in the human experience.
Music is there whatever we do. If you have the intention and attitude to listen carefully, then I think you are continuously creating music around you.
Jin: Absolutely! Music is there whatever we do. If you have the intention and attitude to listen carefully, then I think you are continuously creating music around you.
Zoë: That’s lovely! We touched on this just a little bit, but I want to clarify what the differentiating idea between Living Tones and Living Sounds is in your mind.
Jin: I think a tone means some kind of a pitch.
Zoë: And the living sound might be like the rice?
Jin: Yeah, so living sound can be a very organic process of creating that particular pitch. If you play on the piano, you cannot move or manipulate that note anymore unless you’re shaking the string inside the piano. But on strings or with the voice you can manipulate all of those. You can bend the pitch or slide it up or use pizzicato. By doing that, not only the fluctuation but also the timbre is changing.
Zoë: Actually this brings me to my next question, because you had some really gorgeous, varying textures that you were utilizing in the instruments and then, as you just said, the instruments that you picked were string instruments that were able to alter their pitches.
Jin: Exactly! Strings are wonderful for that, they are more flexible than wind instruments for making Living Tones. You have to manipulate your lips a lot when you’re making them on winds, but with strings just a finger gesture has an enormous amount of possibilities. And I suppose the possibilities with the voice are going to be endless.
Zoë: It makes for a very nice transition from the instruments to the natural sounds. When you were developing the track, was it your intention from the start to have that kind of transition through the textures and the sounds or did you have to go through some trial and error?
[Audio description: Zoe’s interpretation utilizes the same string track and incorporates Living Sounds recorded from her own environment. These include: the liquid sound of a beverage being poured, its tone growing higher as the vessel fills; a knife chopping — a hard repetitive knocking sound followed by the soft scrape of the knife being dragged against the surface; a thin plastic bag being shaken and rubbed to create a billowing effect; and a metal singing bowl being rubbed, beginning with a clattering tone and ending in a hum.]
Jin: Even though this was a three to four minute commission, I was not able to compose a new piece from nothing or find performers to record in the short time I had. So I was using an old piece composed in 1985 or 1986, I’d have to go back and check exactly. The whole piece is probably about twenty minutes and I chopped some sections and listened to it while thinking about what the goal for that section would be in terms of living sound. And then I went out and found sounds to test, like steps on the beach. You made a beautiful plastic bag sound, it was so wonderful.
Zoë: I’m glad you liked it!
Jin: Yeah, that was really awesome, it was an amazing sound you got! I also played with plastic and in the kitchen I played with the mortar in the bowl and all that, and then I’d record it just by intuition, not really making a piece yet as I tested what might work. I listened to that separately and let it speak to me naturally to know which section would go where. It formed organically, so the process was also living.
Zoë: And just a note to our audience — as you’re playing with the track at home, one of the really nice things that you can think about as you’re deciding where you want to place a certain sound is that each section is different and has its own personality. For instance, the third section gets a little bit more rhythmic so I came into it using a chopping board sound, which is more of a rhythmic sound and less of a tone, and made for a nice transition.
Each note is alive, has its own space, and the music exists largely in the transitory moment of each individual sound.
Jin: Everybody will listen to music in a very different way and they will have a new interpretation. Therefore, they will look for a different living sound and it’s just going to be growing in many directions.
Zoë: Right, it takes on the personality and the life of the person who adds their own touch to it because our home fills that space with its own sound. For instance, in my version, I used my parents’ crystal meditation bowl, which is a sound I wouldn’t be able to do unless I was there.
Jin: Yeah, beautiful!
Zoë: Well, before I let you go. I just wanted to acknowledge a particularly beautiful quote that I just loved from your performance notes and I don’t want it to get lost. You said, “Each note is alive, has its own space, and the music exists largely in the transitory moment of each individual sound.” Is that a philosophy that you hold with you whenever you’re composing?
Jin: Yes, this is the concept of Living Tones that I have developed since 1985 and I’m still developing. Until I got commissioned for this, I never thought that Living Tones could be expanded into Living Sounds. So even though I started this concept in 1985, in 2022 it is expanding into something else, into another chapter and future, and I’m very grateful for that.
[ID: Jin Hi Kim smiles gently at the camera. Her hair is tied back and she wears a braided headband.]
Jin Hi Kim
She // Her // Hers
Jin Hi Kim, innovative komungo virtuoso, Guggenheim Fellow composer, and USA Fellow, has performed as a soloist in her own compositions at venues across New York City and around the World. The New York Times wrote, “…virtuoso, Jin Hi Kim promises thoughtful, shimmering East-West amalgams in combinations that are both new and unlikely to be repeated.”
Kim received the New England Foundation for the Arts’ Rebecca Blunk Fund Award to create A Ritual for COVID-19 in memory of the deceased worldwide during the pandemic. Her recent works, including Cross-cultural Music Meditation, Sound Calendar of the Year 2018, Child of War, and One Sky, are created in the spirit of healing community pain.
Her Living Tones concept is concerned with minute tonal shadings, gradation, and an organic process for developing phrases and time structure; it is a radical departure from harmonic-based musical language.