Thomas Schultz, Hyo-shin Na, and Shoko Hikage (with koto) (from a past event page on the InterMusic SF Web site)
It has been a while since my last encounter with the music of Korean composer Hyo-shin Na. She came to the United States for graduate studies. After receiving a doctoral degree at the University of Colorado, she moved to San Francisco in 1988, where her thoughts about music fell under influences from composers such as John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Frederic Rzewski. Exposure to her repertoire owes much to the Wooden Fish Ensemble and its pianist Thomas Schultz.
Yesterday was Na’s birthday. Old First Concerts (O1C) chose to celebrate it with a Wooden Fish program consisting entirely of her music, followed by a festive reception. Most of the program involved Schultz at the piano. The selections that did not were solo performances at the gayageum by Hyunchae Kim, one of which found her singing along with her playing. Four of the works on yesterday’s program received world premiere performances.
My last encounter with Na’s music was at an O1C recital by Schultz in April of 2014. On that occasion he played only two of her compositions, situating each performance in the context of the same two composers, Rzewski and Frédéric Chopin. This was an imaginative strategy. Na’s Korean context tends to be unfamiliar to those that are not Korean, so establishing an alternative context through Western composers turned out to be beneficial. Also, Na’s sense of time-consciousness definitely differs from a Western perspective, which tends to make for challenges when it comes to attentive listening.
Yesterday afternoon, in the absence of the context of other composers, those challenges verged on the insurmountable. There tends to be an opacity to Na’s logic and rhetoric that provides little by way of orientation for even the most attentive listener. Thus, most of Kim’s gayageum performances came across more as ritual than as any recognizable practice of music-making. However, even when Na’s sources are Western, establishing a referential connection is no easy matter.
One of yesterday’s premieres was “Great Noise,” named after Franz Kafka’s “Großer Lärm,” a text that is only one paragraph in duration. Kafka called it a “public flogging of my family;” and it amounts to a primal scream provoked by the confines of a small and crowded apartment. Yet the program notes said nothing about this source (other than its title and author), leaving those with extensive knowledge of Kafka’s less-familiar writings out in the cold. In retrospect, the music may well have been a sentence-by-sentence traversal of the source text; but I suspect that, even if the text had been available, the performance would still have felt like a tedious slog.
Ultimately, the most accessible offering was the one involving text sung in English. “To an Old Tune” was a setting of a very short Chinese poem about youth and old age translated into English by Kenneth Rexroth. Baritone John Smalley gave a clear account of both words and music, accompanied at the piano by Schultz. It amounted to a distillation of a single impression, and the performance could not have been more readily expressive. This was definitely the sweet spot in Na’s repertoire, and it is more than a little disappointing that it was not just as well represented by any other offerings on the program.