A Joyous Cacophony: Jean Ahn on the Collective Power of Individual Voices

Dec 10, 2018

Recall your favorite Christmas carol—you’ve probably called up a strong, striking melody sung in joyful unison. What if a carol could instead captured the fragmented, unique wonder of many perspectives on one miracle? Join Composer-in-Residence Jean Ahn as she reflects on her new work, her relationship with the Choral Artists, and the multifaceted spirit of Christmas. 

2018-2019 Composer-in-Residence Jean Ahn

Later this month,  your new work “The Word Became Flesh” will premiere at Jingle! Angels! Silent! Merry!. What can we look forward to?

“The Word” is a Christmas carol, if you keep an open mind about what a carol can be. It has some elements that are typical of carols as a genre, but also quite a few that are unusual—there are aleatoric sections where each singer is deciding how to perform their line in the moment, sections where the choir imitates bells, sections that sparkle with many tiny solos in quick succession. I wanted to create the effect of many different people each voicing their joy and wonder at the Christmas miracle, with each of them using different words to share their experiences.

When we talk about Christmas, most people think of Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger. That’s the most typical of Christmas carols, those that tell the story. That verse from John— ”The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” —it’s used less often at Christmas time, but I think it’s actually the core of the holiday. It’s the moment God takes human form in Jesus. I knew right when I began “The Word Became Flesh” that it couldn’t be a narrative piece; it had to be something interspersed and fragmented.

You’ve composed for this group before—we sang “Gangwondo Arirang” from your “Folksong Revisited” collection in 2017. And as a resident of the East Bay, you’ve come to plenty of SFCA concerts over the years.

How does your familiarity with the group change how you compose for it?

Well for starters, when you’re writing for a group you know so well, you know exactly what you can write and what will work. I knew I could write a four-part chorale and it would sound nice, but one of the things I love most about the Choral Artists is their ability to transform the sound for each piece and make it truly characteristic. With “The Word,” I knew I could add aleatoric sections and other things that rely on the singers’ interpretation, because I knew this group could make that effect really sparkle.

The other thing I had in mind as I composed was the diversity of voices within the group. Although collectively there’s a unified sound, each person has a very different voice. I heard it in the solos in “Gangwondo Arirang” and I was excited to explore it again in “The Word”—I wanted to hear how this person or that person would shape a given phrase like “mighty God.” It’s part of this story about how everyone’s feeling about the Christmas birth in a different way, praising in a different way.

That independent expression is really key in this piece. Some choir rehearsals have aleatoric warmups where every singer is participating the way they want to, the way their voice wants them to. Sometimes, those moments feel like heaven to me. Human voices can create something really beautiful together if you loosen them up, and you can achieve effects that aren’t possible if you try to script them out exactly.

The first performance of a new work requires a lot of collaboration between composer and conductor. What did that partnership look like for you and Magen Solomon, the director of the Choral Artists?

I feel I owe a lot to Magen for this piece. Even though I’ve conducted, written for and sung in many choirs, it’s always different to write a contemporary piece for a contemporary ensemble. Contemporary instrumental writing tends to obscure the human aspect, so it was incredibly useful to get guidance from Magen on how to make everything more natural for voices.

This applies to so many aspects of the music. Every time I’d send a draft, we’d go through it measure by measure to go over the text underlay, the harmonies, the divisions of voices. There was a lot of back and forth and it really helped shape the piece. None of the meaning or the essence of the piece was ever distorted; Magen just helped focus that essence for the specific medium of her ensemble.

What feeling do you hope the audience is left with after they hear your work?

I hope the audience finds it musically and spiritually resonant.  One of the things I’ve loved about attending Choral Artists concerts is that there’s always a new revelation; it’s not just about “oh, that sounded nice,” or “I liked that piece.” There’s always a new dimension that you discover. I hope that “The Word” also helps people discover new ideas and thoughts for the new year.

Korean native composer Jean Ahn, this year’s SFCA Composer-in-Residence, has been recognized, awarded, and honored by many. Her compositions have been featured at Aspen New Music Festival, American Composers Orchestra’s Ear Shot (by Memphis Symphony), June in Buffalo, Oregon Bach Festival, Etchings Festival, Festival of Contemporary Music, IAWM, Berkeley Symphony Under Construction, Pacific Korean Music Festival, and College Music Society Conferences, among others. Commissions include works for the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Gayaguem Soloist JUL, Volti, Duo Camaraderie, Locrian Chamber Players, and the Pianissimo among others.

Jean’s music brings Asian traditional elements into western music. Her piano collection, “Folksong Revisit” and voice collection, “Folksong” are ongoing projects that show her vision to introduce Korean songs and techniques to professional performers in the US. She also uses electronics/computer music to extend the boundaries of traditional instruments.

Dr. Ahn holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and M.A. and B.A. from Seoul National University. She is Lecturer at UC Berkeley and the director of Ensemble Ari. She is also working for Humon.com, a music technology company.