Today’s Think Music guest is contributor Hyejung Kook, whose work has appeared in Denver Quarterly and Fugue. A 2009 Kundiman Fellow, she is currently working on Flight, a chamber opera libretto commissioned by composer Sarana Chou.
On Johann Sebastian Bach
When I was eleven, I was blessed with the chance to learn piano from Mrs. Allen, a rigorous, wonderful teacher. She had studied at Julliard with James Friskin, who was known for his Bach editions and performances, and she passed on her received love of the composer to me. If you learn to play Bach, she said, you can learn to play anything. So we started with the two part invention in C major. Before playing a single note, I had to study and annotate the piece—identifying subject and countersubject, marking where episodes began and ended, thinking about phrasing and how to bring out the shape of each part (also called voice).
I quickly became fascinated by the complexity of polyphonic music, particularly as I progressed to three, four, then five part fugues. Each part had to be practiced separately, then in every possible combination, one measure at a time, with a full understanding of how the piece was constructed. Otherwise, it would be near impossible to play all the voices with the necessary clarity, independence, and control. I marveled at Bach’s ability to handle multiple parts and create works of such beauty and emotional weight, and I thrilled at my improving ability to play such music.
When I was twelve, I began writing poems. My schoolteachers had required me to recite a poem monthly for two years—I once memorized Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5, unable to understand large portions but still responsive to the sound and meter in lines like “Then, were not summer’s distillation left/A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” At some point I thought, “Why not try writing and memorizing my own poem?” I only remember “snow falling like feathers” from that first attempt, but all unknowing I had started down my own compositional path. Poetry largely came to me—and through me—as sound in the mouth and ear, and in the context of studying piano. Not surprisingly, I have always been acutely aware of the musical aspects of language. Aside from employing the poetic essentials of rhythm and sound play, I can often detect that a line or section needs to be longer or shorter based purely on a sense of breath or cadence. On some occasions, I know the number of syllables and stresses I want to add before I have a grasp of what content is missing from a poem.
More recently, I have been attempting to translate my love of polyphonic music into poems which I call “inventions.” We can deal with multiple lines of music much more easily than multiple lines of overlapping poetry, so I have been composing inventions for two voices. Perhaps I’ll attempt to write for more parts later, but right now, two parts are challenging and inspiring enough. Although I do not strictly follow the musical structure of any specific Bach invention, I do strive to emulate counterpoint, to evoke a sense of subject and countersubject (thematic, aural, syntactic) weaving in and out of voices that work independently but also create something richer when read together. Some couplets are mostly intelligible; others with extensive overlap undergo a greater loss of sense, becoming more music to hear than words to understand. The pressure of the form has pushed me to explore varying tones, voices, diction, etc., as well as plumb a wider sense of myself and the world—in other words, to be more inventive.
Here is “Invention No. 1 in a minor”—which appears in issue 17 of Memorious—read by yours truly and Sophie Powell. Recorded March 7, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts :
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