For several years early in this decade, Korean native Misook Kim was the most consistently rewarding composer resident in San Antonio. Her music was fearlessly Modern — spiky, protean, often highly compressed, proudly declining to participate in the fashion for “accessibility” — but she was so sure-footed in her instincts and her craft that she earned her listeners’ trust to lead them safely and enjoyably through the strange realms she conjured.
In 2006 Kim left her teaching posts at Trinity University and the University of the Incarnate Word to join the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College, in a western suburb of Chicago. It was a great loss for San Antonio, and it was a great pleasure last Sunday to see her return for a Composers Alliance of San Antonio concert in Ruth Taylor Recital Hall.
Kim had colleagues in tow — soprano Carolyn Hart and flutist Jennie Brown, who, together with Kim on piano, perform as the Chicago New Arts Trio. The entire program on Sunday was entrusted to that excellent troupe. The composers included David Heuser of UTSA, Dimitar Ninov of Texas State University, Lily Barmor Rose and Ken Metz of UIW, and Kim herself.
Kim’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” composed in 1990 but revised last year, is a setting of an early poem by Wallace Stevens. The composer’s way of making music is ideally matched to the poet’s shifting perspectives, concision, and sensuality. These brief pieces are not so much musical settings of the texts as their expansion into additional dimensions.
For example, in Stevens’s opening stanza — “Among twenty snowy mountains/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.” — Kim isolates that restless eye and amplifies it with chirruping and fluttering on piano and flute, while the voice floats more serenely. Sometimes Kim’s music translates the text almost literally: The soprano hums in unison with the flute before she sings, “A man and a woman/ Are one./ A man and a woman and a blackbird/Are one.” For “Icicles filled the long window/With barbaric glass,” the word “long” is held for many seconds, and “barbaric” is not sung but spoken, harshly. Elsewhere, Kim calls for brief patches of Sprechstimme (midway between speech and singing), or presents the poem’s longest word, “indecipherable,” as six lapidary, strongly stressed syllables.
Sometimes the music seems to violate the feeling of the text, but the violations are astute, plumbing beneath the surface of the language or helping us to see an underlying layer of meaning. This music reminds us that, in great poetry, the text is like our skin, at once veiling the musculature and revealing it in a new way.
Metz’s Experiments for Flute and Piano, dating from 2006, comprises five compact, smart, well-made pieces with suggestive titles. “Balancing Act” is is all frantic motion. “Crash and Burn” is a cockeyed ballad. In “No Return,” a busy allegro is followed by a slow section full of foreboding, setting up an expectation that the opening material will return, which it doesn’t. “If only” is a fractured blues. “Tone Holes” is a waltz scherzo, the title punning on the whole-tone scale. In all the pieces, the piano and flute fit each other like their shadows, which may be elongated or compressed or bent by the terrain. The idiom is Modern, and the attitude often witty.
Heuser was represented by highly sympathetic settings of two poems by Olga Cabral. Both were composed originally in 2005 for voice and piano, but Heuser said they “sat in a drawer” until he revised them this year for voice, flute, and piano. “Woman Ironing” and “In Sad Hotels” are concerned with memory and age. The music for the former has a homespun American character and exploits (perhaps too directly) the repeating figures in the text; the latter, deeper and more allusive, evokes Depression-era jazz and blues. These join two previously heard settings of other Cabral poems, “O the White Towns” and “Lilian’s Chair,” to form a collection of uncommon grace.
Ninov’s wistful “All Lovely Things,” composed this year to a poem by Conrad Aiken, is in a fairly conservative American Modern idiom, but with attractively sinuous lines. The whole third stanza is spoken, for no apparent reason.
The melodic line of Rose’s “Shir Eres L’Yaakov” (“Lullaby for Jacob”), composed last year, has an aptly Hebraic cut. The music is lovely, but it sounds too much like a holdover from the 1950s.
The best of these pieces — the ones by Kim and Metz and Heuser’s “In Sad Hotels” — give more than pleasure. In their various ways, they give us new means for understanding the world, cast new light on the familiar. In troubled times, those attributes are not luxuries, but necessities. •
Mike Greenberg is a freelance art and culture critic. You can find more of his reflections on our built and creative environments online at incidentlight.com.
The Composers Alliance of San Antonio can be found online at davidheuser.com/CASA.htm, where you can keep an eye out for their fall concert date.