My latest commission, Sanjo for Violin, is done. It will be premiered early this Spring (date TBA) at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY by its commissioner, violinist JongEun Lee. I was excited to compose this piece for solo violin with piano accompaniment, both because it took me further in a contemporary classical direction (this instrumentation is a first for me), and gave me another outlet for using Korean traditional forms. I was recommended because of my previous work with Korean music and my formal Jazz background. This piece, however, forced me to dig deeper than I had before into really learning about Korean music traditions — a task which I was happy to do since it’s already a life-long pursuit of mine.
Ms. Lee asked me to write something based on the famous Korean song Arirang, but done in a contemporary context, using my own style, and theoretically weighty enough to analyze for a doctoral lecture. Here’s what I came up with: three movements each feature their own traditional song (a Geomungo Sanjo, a Haegeum Sanjo, and Kangwando Arirang), with all three being set in a unique pentatonic scale (there are many variations beyond the black keys of the piano!). I derived contemporary Western/Jazz harmonies from each song’s scale. I also weaved the widely-known Arirang into each movement, often in disguise, until it appears more directly in the final section. I also used the violin to occasionally mimic the geomungo (plucked zither) and haegeum (vertical fiddle) during their respective movements. In the outer movements the piano and sometimes the violin use rhythms common to the janggu (two-sided drum). The overall structure of three movements, each increasing in tempo, plus the piece’s function as an instrumental solo feature, both serve to fit this piece into the definition of the Korean musical form called Sanjo (hence the title).
For any Long Islanders (or particularly rabid Jeff Fairbanks or JongEun Lee fans) reading this, I’ll share the date of the performance/lecture when it’s announced. Looking forward to it!