When Bora Yoon’s “The Wind of Two Koreas” is performed at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, July 20, it will be unique among her body of works.
Yoon, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, describes herself as an interdisciplinary composer. Typically her works assimilate classical, electronic, and cross-cultural elements and employ unconventional instruments and technologies. In this instance, however, she will be taking a more traditional approach, though not to the detriment of exploring some of her usual artistic concerns.
“This is my first foray into the solely orchestral world,” the Princeton resident writes via email. “Inspired by Stravinsky’s early orchestral works and his inspiration from Russian folklore, ‘The Wind of Two Koreas’ excavates this idea of cultural blood memory and epigenetics.
“In this symphonic expression I further explore the musical connection to my heritage, as a Korean in the diaspora, whose ancestry is from Jeollado Province.”
She points to the paradoxical tensions of Korean identity — past and present, ancient and future, North-and-South political tensions, and the tension between Eastern and Western aesthetics.
The work will be heard on a concert that is the public face of this year’s New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, which takes place from July 15 through 20.
The Cone Institute, now in its sixth year, brings together representatives of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Princeton University Music Department to offer four emerging composers a unique laboratory experience. Opportunities include intensive consultations and evaluations, one-on-one coaching sessions, refinement of presentations and networking skills, and live performances of new music.
Members of the NJSO will rehearse and perform under Cristian Macelaru. Macelaru has enjoyed a close relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, first as its assistant conductor (2011), then as its associate conductor (2012-’14), and most recently as its conductor-in-residence (2014-’17). In the upcoming season he will assume the post of chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, Germany.
At the time of our conversation, Yoon was globetrotting from Croatia, where she was interviewing the architect of the Zadar Sea Organ for her dissertation; to Greece, where she was studying Byzantine chant in an Orthodox monastery; to Alberta, Canada, where she was heading to the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity for a performance with Ensemble Evolution and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).
It might be surprising to learn that she, a Korean-American born in Chicago, comes from a “nonmusical” family — her father a salesman and her mother a neonatal ICU nurse — but Yoon credits her parents’ heritage, originating as they did from Jeollado Province, “where Korean pansori and folkloric shamanistic forms of traditional music emerged,” as a kind of intuitive thread that influences how she creates, employing materials around her. She herself plays piano, violin, guitar, percussion, electronics, found objects, and what she describes as “sonic sundries.”
Yoon completed her undergraduate studies at Ithaca College’s Conservatory of Music and Writing School, Class of 2002. At Princeton she has studied with Steven Mackey, Dan Trueman, Jeff Snyder, Donnacha Dennehy, Juri Seo, and R. Luke Dubois. She is working toward her Ph.D. in interdisciplinary humanities and music composition. “I’m writing my dissertation about musical architecture, or the intersection of sound and space,” she writes, “whether that is architectural space, cultural space, memory space, evoked spaces, or otherwise.”
Clearly, she made an impression when she utilized the Princeton University Chapel space in spring, 2016, and again in fall, 2017, with her site-specific sound installation and durational performance, “Of Matter & Mass,” conceived in celebration of the opening of the Lewis Center for the Arts. The work, which drew its inspiration from a newly discovered apocryphal text of Mary Magdalene, featured a low heartbeat and ambient sounds correlating to different times of day and night within the sacred space, with the composer singing and chanting the daily offices of prayer, culminating in a duet sung with Gabriel Crouch, Princeton’s director of choral activities.
Yoon may be an “emerging composer,” but already she has attracted the interest of the Wall Street Journal, WIRE Magazine, and the Huffington Post, among others. Her works have been presented by Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, TED, and any number of international venues. She has been awarded a music/sound fellowship with the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Asian American Arts Alliance. She has been artist in residence at the Park Avenue Armory, the Hermitage, and Ringling Museum, HERE Arts, and Harvestworks.
Among her other spatial works have been the sound mural “Doppler Dreams” for seven sopranos on bicycles in the empty McCarren Pool in Brooklyn, and the aerial dance piece “Rapture,” in which her live sound score echoed off the rounded exteriors of the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.
Her current commissions and upcoming performances include new pieces conceived for the chamber ensembles Alarm Will Sound, Hotel Elefant, and Sandbox Percussion, and the percussionist Ji Hye Lee. She is also planning a multimedia song cycle, titled “Casual Miracles: The Invisibility of Female Labor,” to be performed “as a kind of radio opera.”
In addition, she is a cantor and psalmist who sings Gregorian chant with Voices of Ascension and the Church of Ascension in New York City as part of a weekly Sunday night Service for Meditation and Sacrament. This, in part, influenced her decision to travel to Greece. “I am curious to learn about other forms of chant and their notational styles and aesthetics,” she writes.
Her choice of Stravinsky as a springboard for her Cone Institute creation was calculated to push her outside of her comfort zone. “The compositional directive was to respond to a composer whose work is antithetical to one’s typical aesthetic and approach to music, in order to grow as a composer,” she writes. “Since I have spent the last decade in the experimental electroacoustic world, that’s mainly studio-based, I went the route to respond to a composer, Igor Stravinsky, whose music is angular, employs fast-changing rhythms and always lands with a fantastic sense of finale and ending (everything my ambient electroacoustic solo work is not). There was an angularity and brusqueness I wanted to learn.”
Also participating in this year’s Institute will be Dan Caputo and Patrick O’Malley of the University of Southern California, and Ivan Enrique Rodriquez of the Juilliard School. Caputo’s “Liminal” aims to reflect the psychological behaviors people experience during transitional states. O’Malley’s “Rest and Restless” draws its inspiration from the push and pull of opposing concepts. Rodriquez’s “A Metaphor for Power” attempts to address the turbulence of ideologies, dreams, and hard-hitting realities.
As always, the concert will conclude with a work by Cone Institute director Steven Mackey. Mackey, a professor of music and former chair of the Princeton University Music Department, will be represented by “Portals, Scenes, and Celebrations,” which will be heard in its East Coast premiere.
The institute looks beyond the mere honing of a score, as it falls under the scrutiny of industry professionals, who help shepherd it to public performance. The composer-participants also receive invaluable advice and instruction on the nuts and bolts of what it takes to make a living as a composer, including the less glamorous arts of networking, public speaking, and music editing.
Though the institute is in its sixth year, the relationship between the NJSO and Princeton University is a longer one. The musicians are well-seasoned in the practice of mentorship, by way of the orchestra’s regular participation in reading sessions of music by Princeton University Ph.D. composition candidates.
When asked what she likes to do when she is not composing, Yoon writes, “Bike riding — it’s God’s gift to humans, closest to flying.”
Edward T. Cone Composition Institute Concert, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, July 20, 8 p.m. $10 to $15. 1-800-355-3476 or www.njsymphony.org.
To learn more about composer Bora Yoon, visit www.borayoon.com.