I was introduced to the poetry of Kim Sowol (1902-1934) somewhat by accident. I was reading a collection of sijo (short Korean poems) when I came across his work. As it turns out, Kim is one of Korea’s best-known poets. (While I was traveling in Korea, a poet told me he is “like Bach” for Koreans, completely essential.) I selected the poems based not only on their beauty and lyricism, but also because they all share common themes. In these poems Kim focuses on the Earth’s most powerful geographical features: mountains and oceans. Reflecting upon the world’s dual nature, he portrays the mountains and sea both as icons of beauty and as impossible barriers. As with many Korean poems, Kim’s words are always infused with a sense of longing and sadness, even in moments of joy.
Kim’s deep love of music comes through in each of the translations (by David McCann) and, while I have a great interest in Korean traditional music, I consciously avoided basing this work too strongly on Korean music. I did base some structural elements on aspects of Korean music, such as the use of a jangdan (a rhythmic pattern) in Korean traditional music.The third song of this set, "Though the Sun is Sinking at the Mountain Crest," has the pianist introduce my own jangdan in the opening that permeates the whole song. And the final song, "Thought of Home," makes a slight reference to pansori, a style of vocal folk music in which a solo singer is accompanied by a drummer. These songs, though, are not meant to be viewed through the lens of Korean traditional music. Instead, they are my own reactions to the texts, and should be taken for what they are: a tribute to a poet who wrote powerful and beautiful poems.
These songs are dedicated to Tracy Satterfield and Aperio: Music of the Americas, the group for whom they were written.
Available on Aperio: Music of the America’s “Across Oceans” CD: