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From Our Community

Something Crunchy

Ariana Kim
Ariana Kim

By Ariana Kim

Although I had been around new music for most of my childhood, hearing my father practice Lloyd Ultan’s Violin Concerto as I went to sleep as a toddler and witnessing him champion the music of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Gunther Schuller, I didn’t play new music myself until middle school. My introduction to this world was with Ursula Mamlok and Ralph Shapey (admittedly two 20th-century composers who wrote in a relatively “accessible” way), and though I tried—nay, pretended—to understand this music, it was all too abstract. There were new techniques, complicated rhythms, and the harmonies were…crunchy. How was I supposed to know how to shape a phrase, or which beats to emphasize when the meters were changing all the time? How should I know what notes to lean on when I couldn’t feel the harmonic tension and release that Bach and Haydn had taught me so well? I wanted to understand it all and love it, but I wasn’t quite sure how to find that, and I imagine those first performances I gave left much to be desired.

Looking back on those experiences nearly two decades ago, now having commissioned and premiered dozens of new works, collaborating with countless living composers—and having spent 10 years as a member of Ne(x)tworks (a new music collective centered on the composer-performer experience and improvisation)—things are different. I “speak” new music more fluently now, and have been exposed to just about everything. This includes premiering a concerto by Piyawat Louilarpprasert in Bangkok last year (where the entire third movement is played with a New York City MetroCard instead of a bow), doing sit-ups while singing America’s National Anthem using only the words “Christina Aguilera” on stage during John Cage’s Song Books, and improvising a 45-minute concert in pitch blackness seated on the floor—the audience encircled—alongside an original score by Steve Heitzeg featuring migratory bird sounds and gliding stones on my strings. The thing is, it’s still a journey. New music is rarely easy, both to prepare and perform as an artist, and to receive as a listener. But recognizing that is the first big step in learning to appreciate it, and embrace that place in ourselves that calls up discomfort or challenges our ears. It’s all about figuring out how to listen differently, and yes, receiving the crunch.

And there begs the question: how did we get here? I often look at my varied repertoire as being symbiotic, recognizing that my Bach inspires how I play bluegrass, and how my Haydn concerto cadenzas take a nod from Alfred Schnittke. From this vantage point started my voyage into this fascinating space, tracing how two giants of 20th-century music challenged listeners to open their ears in new—and surprisingly connected—ways.

In 1908, when Arnold Schoenberg first set foot in the land of pantonality, the text in the soprano line read “I feel the air of another planet.” In this, the final chapter of his Second String Quartet (which adds voice in the last two movements), Schoenberg—for the first time in Western art music—asked us to listen without expectation, removing the key signature. Gone was the automatic gravitational pull to a “home” chord, embracing dissonance and resolution in entirely new ways. With this, the challenge was unofficially extended for every musician and listener who encountered this piece to think about things differently.

Half a century later, when Ornette Coleman stepped into the land of free jazz for the first time, he wrote: “The basis of it is this: If you put a conventional chord under my note, you limit the number of choices I have for my next note; if you do not, my melody may move freely in a far greater choice of directions.”

In the late 1950s, Coleman began to push the envelope in the world of jazz in ways that had not yet been tapped. With The Shape of Jazz to Come—his groundbreaking album from 1958–59—harmonic and stylistic expectation were given a new freedom, liberating the language to explore uncharted musical territory. Form became flex, standard eight-bar blues were no more, and extended techniques foretold something new was on the horizon.

These two works of art revolutionized their idioms by bringing the elements and sounds of the past into a natural evolution toward a greater freedom that, within a few years of each of these artists’ careers, would be known as “pantonal composition” and “free jazz,” respectively. Though these two moments in staggered parallel mark only the beginning—almost a “think-tank” for each of their respective discoveries—neither composer had yet defined or predetermined the concepts behind their innovations.

Both Schoenberg and Coleman were brought up in the world of the traditions of their predecessors: Schoenberg having studied Bach’s counterpoint and making his first income as an orchestrator of 19th-century operettas, and Coleman getting his start in rhythm-and-blues bands and emerging from Charlie Parker’s bebop era. It was with these foundations that both men charted new courses forward, tending to the language of the past and redefining it for the future. It wasn’t that the past was broken or uninspiring, it was that each of these pioneers took one more evolutionary step in their musical worlds to bring their fabulous crunch to the party. 

At the beginning, there were many critics: Coleman experienced post-concert attacks (on one occasion people waited for him in the alley behind a club and assaulted him because of how much they loathed his performance) and Schoenberg inspired post-concert riots, later being shunned by his mentor, Richard Strauss. People were not just distasteful of these two artists’ approaches, but personally offended, as if they believed it would take humanity down a dangerous path. Now, these two figures are widely heralded as trailblazers who laid the groundwork for generations of musicians and composers that took the worlds of jazz and Western classical music into uncharted territories. In 1961, Coleman released Free Jazz, now one of the most influential albums in the jazz canon, which eventually gave way to his theory of harmolodics. He—alongside John Coltrane in his brief life—gave new meaning to experimentation and improvisation. Schoenberg brought the world Pierrot Lunaire and 12-tone serialism, becoming the godfather of the Second Viennese School, which housed the careers of the legendary Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

So, this begs the question: Why does it take such pain, trial and tribulation for us to look at something that most of us, in retrospect, recognize as a logical and natural path into new possibilities? How can we learn from these giants of our musical past writ large? If we start to listen differently to this music, we start to hear the Viennese waltzes that are built into the dissonance in Schoenberg’s String Trio, alongside the skill and creativity that it takes to improvise without tonal boundaries—but as an ensemble—in Coleman’s Sound Grammar. If I had known all of this as a young tween starting to try and understand the music of Mamlok and Shapey, perhaps I would’ve had an ear that was more open, placing the similarities that I knew from the past into the new. And perhaps that would have made me a better listener, communicator and young human trying to navigate an awkward world.

If we begin in a place of curiosity, patience and knowledge that things are often more similar than not, this practice could invite us to listen to each other differently in our daily lives and political discourse. Rather than waiting for decades to pass in order to recognize the importance of small, important steps forward, maybe we make efforts to hear each other now. If we employ the simple act of engaging distinctly on the front end, recognizing that we’re not as disparate as it may seem, who can say how race and gender equity might improve? If we “feel the air of another planet” together, perhaps we would look after our earth more thoughtfully or approach religious differences with care. If we let our “melody move freely in a far greater choice of directions,” higher emotional intelligence and compassion might be possible.

I certainly don’t have all the answers (to this day, I still can be stumped by a bar in a 7/16 time signature, an extra-crunchy chord or extended technique), but with patience and presence, I do start to see the connection between embracing the challenges that new music can bring and the challenges that being a thoughtful person in today’s world can bring. Eventually, both challenges seem surmountable, and by listening to both acts differently, I grow. Perhaps there was more Bach and Haydn in the Mamlok and Shapey than I realized; I just had to listen and look at things differently. Maybe Coleman wouldn’t have had the creative language to step forward in the way he did had it not been for all the groundwork that Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis set forth. At this crucial moment for our shared humanity and our brief time as custodians of this earth, it could be that these two musical idioms—delivering something crunchy—will help us to do better.

Listen to a recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, mvt IV (Entrücking), performed by the Lasalle Quartet and Margaret Price. Listen to Ornette Coleman's 1961 album Free Jazz performed by The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet.

Violinist and educator Ariana Kim’s career has brought her around the world, but it all started right here in the Twin Cities, growing up in a musical home before leaving home to start her college career. After a few degrees conferred, a professorship at Cornell begun, and several seasons with the Aizuri Quartet with a Grammy nomination in tow, she spent a year working in Italy and another in Korea. Based in New York, Kim returns home often as co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, appearances with The Great Northern, and hosting the television broadcast and livestream series This Is Minnesota Orchestra. Learn more at her website.