Contemporary composer Kay Rhie hasn’t had many watershed musical moments.
The romantic ideal of a composer “deeply entrenched in creative epiphanies,” she admitted on a recent damp spring afternoon, is “not my story.”
Instead, the 2008-09 Radcliffe Fellow said her creative process, which draws from a range of sources, has a decidedly systematic approach. While at Harvard, Rhie is working on the commissioned, three-movement piece “Songs Without Words,” inspired by the poems of early modernist Korean poet Kim Sowol, as well as other chamber music and orchestral pieces.
“At some point in my career as a composer,” Rhie told a crowd at a lecture in the Radcliffe Gymnasium on March 30, “I had to learn to be very analytical about what makes a piece of music work.”
As a result, the Korean native has pulled together concepts from disparate artistic and cultural traditions as well as a variety of academic disciplines in order to explore and interpret the musical world. Employing art, architecture, literature — even math — as inspiration, Rhie seeks to find ways contemporary music, in the absence of strict form or tonal structure, “can clearly convey its musical goal.”
Architectural concepts, said Rhie, help to inform her understanding of “what kind of overall shape or structure” a piece of music takes. Similarly, the meter and rhythms inherent in the poetry that sometimes inspires her work can ultimately influence its resulting melodic cadences.
The flow of time (and its artistic interpretation) is a vital element in many of Rhie’s compositions and has inspired her to use the tranquil qualities inherent in the meditative narratives of Indonesian gamelan and Korean music, as well as the polyrhythms of African drumming, in her works.
“While all art demands a certain time from its witness,” said Rhie, “the perception of time is the actual vehicle through which music takes its course.”
Combining traditions from the East and the West and discovering new ways to interpret ancient forms are of particular interest to Rhie, whose musical juxtapositions can be as shrewd as they are successful.
Playing an excerpt from “Arirang,” the third miniature of her “Three Miniatures for Solo Piano,” Rhie explained how she incorporated the theme of a Korean folk song in an unorthodox way by investing it with bluesy, jazz-type inflections.
In her five-minute choral work “Tears for Te Wano,” written for the Men’s Glee Club at Cornell University, Rhie described her surprising fusion of Maori lament for a tribal leader from the 1860s with a Latin liturgical chant from the Italian Renaissance.
Pianist Barbara Lieurance and violinist Gabriela Diaz performed the world premiere of Rhie’s “Songs Without Words.” Commissioned by violinist Andrew Jennings, Rhie’s latest work evolves around the collection of poems of longing and loss titled “Azaleas,” by Sowol.
David McCann, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature and director of the Korea Institute, recently translated the poems. The works were familiar to Rhie, who recalled memorizing some of them as a young girl in junior high school in Korea, where they are cherished. Their rhythmic structure, she said, inspired by the rhythm and flow of Korean folk song, lend the works an unforgettable quality.
The notion of comparing the English and the Korean versions of the texts intrigued Rhie, who wondered what it would be like to “line up two languages that have such inherently different speech rhythms.”
That’s exactly what she did.
With the help of Harvard sophomore Blake Allen, who is part of the Radcliffe Research Partnership Program that connects undergraduates with Radcliffe Fellows, the two recorded both the Korean and English versions of the texts. Using speech analysis software, Allen then studied the vowel and consonant components in each reading and developed a vowel chart with which Rhie was able to create corresponding musical pitch intervals.
Using the vowel chart, “I was able to create my own harmonic map [that allowed me] to come up with the harmonic sequences of certain sections [of the piece].”
This simultaneously analytical and inspired approach has paid off for Rhie, whose compositions convey a depth of emotional range and character. Expressive tones are often paired with moving rhythmic structures to create haunting and evocative aural sequences.
Judith E. Vichniac, director of the fellowship program, while introducing Rhie at the afternoon lecture, repeated a phrase of one of the composer’s admirers, who had said that Rhie’s work is able “to speak to the soul with an absolute beauty of expression and simplicity of means.”