waves (2018)

for sanjo ajaeng
performed by Youngwhoon Kim
Korean Music Festival, Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

The sanjo ajaeng is said to be an instrument of sorrow and sadness. The instrument emerged in the early 20th century during the Japanese occupation of Korea. I have no experience with traditional Korean music and felt uncomfortable approaching an instrument of deep cultural significance, especially since I am Japanese writing for an instrument that arose from oppression and abuse from the Empire of Japan.

Fundamental to this work was contemplation on acts of cultural violence. I often hear grievances of new music being too abstract to understand or too difficult to execute. I argue that music composition can be, at times, an act of cultural violence. I designed this work around my observations of ajaeng performance - specifically the sound and physical practices around the instrument.

waves is built around several expressions of sorrow, such as weeping, sighing, and screaming. The physical gestures are foundational to the work in an effort to illuminate the diverse palate of color this instrument can express. A traditional music performer referred to their performance practice as “following a wave,” noting the floating alignment of musical elements in larger ensemble performances. In aspects of life, waves serve as an analogy for sadness.