IN: News & Features

Unforgotten Songs


Gamin Hyosung Kang

“this is our song; we still have to remember her songs and pray for her” From East Asia – Unforgotten Song  November 16, 2019 | 8 p.m. Brandeis

Curated by a remarkable and visionary Korean musician named gamin, the upcoming concert will be as much ritual as it is performance. This evening will invite us to remember and honor the comfort women of occupied countries in East Asia who were forced into sexual slavery between 1932 and 1945. The Lydian String Quartet and skakuhachi player Adam Robinson will join gamin, and the video art of New York-based Chang-Jin Lee will add to the soundscape. At its heart, the concert will transform archived songs sung by survivors into tales of resilience, courage and strength in the face of suffering and injustice.  In poignant irony, the music-making results in a beautiful yet heart-breaking paean not only for victims in the past, but also for all people who are suffering from injustice in the world.

I am an admirer of Korean gugak, both the elegant court music, and the deeply expressive folk genre.  Over the years I have had the honor of listening to, learning from, and collaborating with a number of performers of this tradition. One of the most virtuosic, versatile and visionary is Gamin Kang, whose stage name is simply, gamin. She is a yisuja (master) of South Korea’s Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 46 (piri and daechita), as well as one of the most celebrated contemporary performers on piri (a tiny, yet enormously powerful bamboo reed instrument), taepyeongso (another reed instrument, with a trumpet-like voice), and saengwhang (reed mouth organ).

These days gamin calls New York home, and is widely recognized as a multi-dimensional artist performing across the genres of traditional Korean music, theater, collaborative projects, and cross-cultural performances. After years of listening to her in traditional performance as well as cutting-edge, avant-garde collaborations, I asked if she would consider a week-long residency at Brandeis, as part of the program I direct at the University: MusicUnitesUS. I invited her to think about a theme for the week, and for the final concert. A week later she chose comfort women.

Many conversations followed. Gamin suggested some readings for me, as I had a very superficial knowledge of what had happened. Over the short time we have inhabited this planet, humans have acted inhumanly far too many times. 

One of my favorite quotes about gamin is that she “transforms the concert hall into a place of deep enchantment, transcending time and space.” She invited the Lydian String Quartet (I am its second violin)  to collaborate, and then started to think of other artists as well, most notably Chang-Jin Lee, a visual artist who, since 2007, has investigated the stories of World War II-era comfort women survivors. Gamin knew she also wanted to include American Theodore Wiprud’s Mudang (2014), for piri and string quartet, along with some new pieces by others to be written specifically for this project. She wanted very much to include a shakuhachi (the Japanese bamboo flute, once the province of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks). She envisioned a suite of compositions all connected by improvised melodies, like a stream that flows from one thought to the next. How profound that the improvisation intended to carry us through this rocky journey, would be created by a duo of Japanese shakuhachi and Korean piri.

Wiprud says that his “Mudang (Korean for shaman) came into being through my acquaintance with the extraordinary piri player gamin on one of her visits to New York. She kindly accepted my offer to compose something for her with string quartet, and then provided me with volumes of information on the traditional and classical repertory of the piri. The instrument’s sound fascinates me – both earthy and otherworldly, so simple yet so rich. The classical form of Korean sanjo provided me a shape for my piece. Despite the classical form, I gravitated toward the shamanistic side of the instrument’s heritage and composed music that ranges from meditation to ecstasy.”

Two new commissions will debut: Ki-Young Kim’s Quiet Revolution, for two violins and saenghwang, and Angels Broken, for piri, string quartet, and electronics, as well as Dae-Seong Kim’s Lullaby Song for Asia’s Peace, first written for the Silk Road Ensemble.

Ki-Young Kim took inspiration from the Korean Confucius ritual ceremony. This very elegant and proper music is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the folk genre from which Wiprud draws. According to Kim, “The 18th-century Korean music notion of time and process is quite different compared to western music. I wanted to compose for two violins and saenghwang with a western music structure that provides contrast and diversified rhythms. I hope the two different cultures of music bring a new sensibility of substance and spirit.”

Yoon-Ji Lee wrote her Angels Broken (2019) for taepyungso/piri and string quartet. In the composer’s words, “Angels Broken documents in musical form the history of comfort women. Through its three main sections flow contrasting musical styles of East and West, old and new. In The Dream, the taepyungso, with its powerful energy and unique timbre expresses the dream, wafting between past and present. The second section is based on the singing of one of the comfort woman survivors, Ok-Seon Park. The Virgin Diary was a popular song in Korea in 1937. Over the recording of the singing, I composed a small requiem which will be amplified by the strings, embracing the comfort woman’s voice.

In the third section I used jinyangjo, which is the slowest Korean changdan (rhythmic cycle). In gugak traditional Korean music), the changdan is the fundamental element constituting the skeleton of a composition. As the changdan is the organizing feature of a piece of music — suggesting an emotional state — so I feel there is a cycle of life that we each have to live through despite of what has happened in the past. With this piece, I tried to create a musical situation that is connected to our life.”

Framing the evening, visual artist Chang-Jin Lee’s poignant and powerful video art asks us to contemplate the experiences of comfort women survivors through a visual poetry based on words, images and expressive visual abstractions.  

It has been an honor working with gamin in the planning of this concert, and the preceding week-long residency on the Brandeis campus. I am thankful for the experience of playing with her and for the conversations we have had, particularly in regard to this concert. Her personal statement follows.

In The Last Girl, author and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad writes of her ghastly experience as a captive sex slave of the Islamic State. Currently, as a human rights activist, Nadia works tirelessly to ensure that she will be ‘the last victim of violence.’  Still today, partly aided by science and technology, widespread war and grinding poverty promote monstrous levels of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, often as weapons of war. Reminiscent of atrocities like the only partially-acknowledged comfort women of East Asia during the Japanese occupation in World War II, these horrors highlight the continuing vulnerability of women to violence in many parts of the world.

Gamin Hyosung Kang

Unforgotten Song inspired by artist Chang-Jin Lee’s recordings and exhibition, commemorates the anguish of the comfort women survivors. This tribute is intended for all women who are and have been victims of sexual violence and exploitation. These songs of our strong and resilient mothers and grandmothers animate and inspire others as well, especially the next generation of women and men.

While we specifically recall the suffering of the comfort women, we must include the injustices and sexual abuse that many women face worldwide. This includes the full range of crimes women still endure through violence and power. Women and men must all speak out until the day when all women can enjoy equal rights and opportunities. We acknowledge the brave women who voiced their pain in the hope of extinguishing it for further generations.” 

Judith Eissenberg is second violin and founding member of the Lydian String Quartet. She is Professor of the Practice at Brandeis University and Head of Chamber Music at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She teaches the Intro to World Musics course at Brandeis.

From East Asia – Unforgotten Song
Saturday, November 16, 2019 | 8 p.m.
Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University
Preconcert talk, 7 p.m. | Reception to follow

Students | $5
Seniors & Brandeis Community | $15
General Public | $20

Residency Schedule

Comments Off on Unforgotten Songs