Photo by Leslie Van Stelte
Bora Yoon talks about building the sonic design of her album Sunken Cathedral.
"Father Time", "In Paradisium", "Jansori Pansori", and "Weights and Balances," from the cd, Sunken Cathedral, composed and performed by Bora Yoon. Produced by Innova, 2014.
Jo Reed: That is an excerpt from Sunken Cathedral , the new multimedia album from composer and performer Bora Yoon and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
A 2014 TED Fellow, Bora Yoon thinks of herself as musical architect, building site specific music that incorporates the visual, aural and spatial dynamics of a place. She blends, digital devices, found objects, and instruments from a variety of cultures and centuries with her own powerfully beautiful voice, creating a series of flowing soundscapes that range from choral, to electronic to symphonic.
Her latest work, Sunken Cathedral, is both the culmination of seven years of Yoon’s commissioned works and an extension of her musical explorations as seen most obviously in its multiple platforms. It's a cd, a vinyl lp, and a graphic album app. All were released in staggered rotation over the course of a month this spring. Each iteration of Sunken Cathedral is medium specific. The cd doesn't mimic the lp. In keeping with Yoon's philosophy, each has its own internal logic determined by each one's physicality. Sunken Cathedral is unusual, mesmerizing and remarkably relatable. I spoke with Bora Yoon a few days before the cd's release and I wondered what compelled a classically trained musician on a traditional career trajectory to move into experimental multimedia.
Bora Yoon: Well, I started to just expand my vocabulary of what is "classical" to being more what is a story. Essentially, I think, at the heart of classical music whether it's an epic story, a personal story; it's a feeling that needs to get out. There's always a narrative that's within a piece, and so for me, you know, I actually have a hidden past life as a singer/songwriter actually, as a folk singer/songwriter, and now that I do very electronic and experimental. And at the heart of all of these forms, even though I know that the world sees them as very different genres, I think that there's always a story being told. And no matter what instrument you use that's when people start to shift where you belong, but I think that instrumentation is just a different way of saying, imbuing a different emotion, or tambour.
Jo Reed: Accent.
Bora Yoon: Yeah. And really starting to widen my lens of what is music to include sound, and to also include noise because all three of those things, music, sound and noise is a huge spectrum that can evoke memory, evoke nostalgia, associations, things like that that all paint a larger picture. The center of it may be music, but at the sound design of it, of why the sound of leaves rustling, which might be coming from Bible pages flipping, create a different type of memory or nostalgia that then takes you-- it tells you what time period you're in. If there's final crackles in the mix then we're in sepia. There's a kind of synesthesia, and lots of information that starts coming peripherally. And so I really use sound and noise as equal measure for music just because I think it just paints an even more visceral picture for the listener.
Jo Reed: Ok but specifically how did you begin to include sound and noise into your work?
Bora Yoon: I have perfect pitch, which is the ability to identify frequencies without any reference. And so, I would listen to the radiator, <humming>, and I'd be like oh, the radiator's in D <humming>. And so, I would, I'm just a music nerd at heart really. I would just listen to things and try to find their tonal center. And literally everything has a pitch. I mean even this glass of water <tapping glass>, that actually is a D also. Oddly. And so whenever I can find the pitch center to something as soon as you elongate it that is the entry way and the portal where it can become music, or can start to become music. So let's say we have a piece in D that's playing, and then there's just kind of <tapping glass>, and the different ways that you might want to play percussion on top of it. But it's kind of where and how that sound comes from visually when you're in performance, which then triggers different meaning and different gestural associations for the audience as well. So it's not just a concert where like a normal chamber concert where you perform, and people clap, and you're done. But if you start incorporating all these different instruments, and found objects and things that have pitches and can become music, there's a gestural language, there's a visual language, and it starts to become theatrical. And I think that that's actually where I find it to be very curious because it starts to open up the X, Y, Z of music to not being just a binary system of presentation and receptivity, but really becoming a very three dimensional thing where there's a lot more gestural language, visual language that starts to infiltrate and that becomes kind of the synergy where surrealism can happen, or little quirky-- you know, the message of what you're saying can be completely juxtaposed.
Jo Reed: Explain how you brought these elements into your album Sunken Cathedral.
Bora Yoon: Well, the entire concept of Sunken Cathedral is the fact that it is very much a metaphor of how a church and a cathedral is seen as a body. It is that the arches are its ribcage, and the swells of the organ are its lungs, and the invisible that's inside a church is kind of the breath, or the spirit that is housed inside of it. And with the idea that we may not necessarily see all the sounds, of course, because it's a record, but the fact that we can bring in field recordings, we can bring in found objects that are in tune with, let's see, the organ, or the sound of like a field recording of coins and prayers being had at Mazu Temple. All of these things start to bring in the intention of a place, and that's kind of where, in this record, I've started to weave together the sonic, as well as kind of the intentional purpose behind different field recordings and moments that I found and really taking advantage of the fact in the studio you can layer, and layer, and layer, and literally have moments of time laid on top of each other in a sense that music really isn't bound by linear time. You can juxtapose all these different past presents on top of each other to create a compound sense of time, or a compound, like if we think about it visually, a compound image where five different objects are in the same frame. You start to associate why are those five objects together? I do that with sound. I do that with music. And so, a lot of these found objects that I find along the way, they're all to create a much more dynamic periphery. The music is always the center, and I think there's always a story that's coming from there, but the sound design and the noise, and kind of all these different unexpected instruments, let's say, like loose chimes being dropped on a floor, yet they are musical, and they are arranged, how all of these things can become metaphoric in that particular track. And in Party------ [7:46] , when the chimes crash on the ground it really is a moment where all the worlds are shattering. It becomes a moment where what seems like chaos can also be totally organized, and that there is a harmony to them, and there is a rhythm, yet it really is breaking everyone's expectation of what these chimes were supposed to do by how they're played. They're dropped on the ground, they're picked up in pairs like little Pick Up Stix, and they create their own melody, and their own kind of sentences that way.
Jo Reed: Now you think of yourself as a music architect. Talk about when you began looking at music as a form of architecture.
Bora Yoon: My background in architecture literally comes just from a choral singers point of view. I think about a space acoustically and then when I'm in the studio I think about what type of space can we recreate, whether we're in a very wet reverby kind of hall, or whether we're incredibly tactile, and up close, and we're just going to mess with your ear. And that idea of proximity, and where and how you place the sound for the listener can create very jarring juxtapositions that are incredibly interesting, I think, and complex. A lot of the tracks on this record live in an emotionally complex place, like In Paradisum there's a very violent, almost sub woofing type of beat matched with Buddha box, which has a loop that is very peaceful and harmonic. And the entire tension of that song is the idea of how something so violent and so peaceful can co-exist in the same place, and how they can.
And all of the different melodies, and kind of sound design that support that, dimensionalize that tension, but that's the baseline of it. So when speaking about music and architecture, I mean, I really do see myself as a sound architect in the sense that I build environments. I build environments whether they're for actual architectural spaces, or for dance, for theater, for film, whether we're in a rectangle, and no matter where we are I think music really is weather. We don't really notice because it's so all encompassing how much weather affects our mood and affects our lens at which we see things and I feel like music is the same way. I always notice when there's no music in a room and whether there is a tempo somewhere in the background that's going, which that does help the flow of a room along. So I always kind of think about what kind of weather do I want to make. I just think about the type of experience that I would want to make for the audience member, and I think about a set list really as chapters. We're going to walk through kind of musical chapters together and I really do think of it as an architectural journey. You're going to walk in through the foyer, you're going meet each other, and how the house opens up, which rooms you go down, which corridors you pass, and the people you meet along the way, and pick up with you, collaborators that join on stage and then all end up in the garden. I think about how people experience these 90 minutes and each track of this record has really been designed as a different sonic space, and how to excavate that space, and what kind of room we're in. Are we in a small tight corridor that leads somewhere that you have no idea, and then you just know that you need to go down this hallway where all of a sudden you're at the couple of the house, and you are looking out and over everything, and there's a sense of expanse and perspective. And then there are some tracks that are incredibly visceral, and, to me, I feel like that's the basement. And all of these really correlate and are metaphoric of the body. As a rubric for me as the composer I really hesitated on releasing this record before it was fully dynamic in the sense that I want to challenge myself for it to not just be pretty. I think a lot of times music can be pretty and pleasant, and I wanted to challenge myself as to this needs to be the full dynamic of creation destruction. This needs to have not just the beautiful and the ephemeral, but also the visceral and kind of, I really saw them as, I said I'd never say this, but I will, for me I was always like this needs to hit every chakra. This needs to hit chakra one, which is like blood, sex, family, identity, like <growls>, like the really roiling parts of your identity, as well as the third eye, as well as the heart, as well as the solar plexus. For me, this album needed to embody the full dimension, and kind of the creation destruction that I believe women have.
And kind of bringing all of that to light was a real challenge, and only when that was finally done did I know that the record was complete. And, of course, those were the chambers I didn’t want to explore the most. But the great thing about the art is that that is where the crazy belongs. I feel like everywhere else in society, you know, you don't talk about these certain things, but actually that is what art is for. You can put that stuff there and actually art is one of the only places that will take it and transmute it and actually have it become something beautiful and insightful again, not just sheer expression, but actually the fact that you go there. I think that's the liberating thing when someone hears it, and they're like wow I have this too. And it's almost like that dare of when you are that exposed, or that vulnerable to be able to share that we all have these kind of ugly parts in us and as well as the ephemeral and beautiful parts that makes us fully human.
Jo Reed: Yes, and also conversely hearing a part of someone and recognizing that as beautiful, and realizing one has that one's self, and you never thought about it as beautiful. But you're able to see that beauty in someone else, and because of that you get to see it in you.
Bora Yoon: That's how I feel like the arts goes round. It is that ability to be mirrors for each other and the arts is really a place where I feel like it breaks down hierarchy, and actually it provides empathy. When you can see yourself in someone else, and everything else breaks down you meet at a very elemental place, and this record really tries to get to that division of blood, and of identity, and of history, and all these things that are kind of part of us, as well as our conscious selves.
Jo Reed: I want you to talk about that decision to produce Sunken Cathedral as a cd and then bring it out as a vinyl lp.
Bora Yoon: : Well, we're alive in really odd times in music where the entire industry, and all of that is really kind of reconfiguring itself and I think that that’s actually, as an entrepreneur, is very exciting in some strange way. I think artists have always been very good at scrambling, and learning how to figure things out no matter what state we're in. But I really believe that this record needed to be on an LP because the shape of this entire record traces the idea of creation, destruction, and rebirth. That records are spinning round and round, and old wax cylinder players used to be diamond tipped and sapphire tipped, and this entire idea of being able to drop a needle on a record and amplify what matter may be saying is something that I have been really working with, even in the stage version of this record. This record, Sunken Cathedral, is not just an LP, and not just a CD, it's also a graphic album, and it's also a stage show and I've been working on all four dimensions of them at the same time, which has been really exciting, and also quite challenging. But this metaphor of the needle on an LP, the first LP is blood red and it was created that way in the sense that when you drop a needle on it, it is literally amplifying what your blood might be saying. So much of this record is very intuitively composed. There are many tracks on this record that started from a intuitive place, a musical idea, and then far along, after the voice came in, and after the sound design came in, and small field recordings came in, did I only realize and finally catch up intellectually what I was doing, and what oh, oh this track is a eulogy for my father I had no idea, and that you're creating these things as you go. And as a Korean-American composer I have never really connected to my Korean heritage most of my life. And there comes a certain point when, I'm 33, and I feel like there's a certain age where you just start to wonder why am I made the way I'm made? And it starts to bring you back to a voice that's not just your conscious mind, but it's also like gosh, what is this that's in me? And I started to realize that it's literally like my cultural proclivities are within me in the things that I'm saying, and of how I make music. There's a track called Jansori Pansori on there. Pansori is a old ancient shamanistic Korean folkloric form. It's actually from the region where my parents are from. I did not know this, and I was researching very much into where my parents are from, the types of traditions, and music, and food, and types of different culture there, and it all just started to make a lot of sense. And my work with found objects, and cell phones, and lots of different things that I find to make music with, I started to just look at the form of pansori and started to really be like wow, I think I might just be making my own random ass version of pansori without even knowing it.
That this is in my blood, that there's something that I'm creating that is not consciously me, but is something that my blood is saying. So this entire idea of it being on an LP really speaks to the idea of kind of the ancient and also the future, and kind of how everything really is a circle. At the center of the graphic design of that record is a snake biting its tail. It's an ouroboros and it really traces that eternal return of the fact that all death and all creation are parts of the larger rebirth in kind of this recombinant universe that we constantly live in, in that these are natural cycles. And I really wanted to paint this picture of having things be so old it's new, and so new it's old. And really bringing together the idea of timelessness, and bringing an LP into the world because I really didn’t work this hard to make a coaster.
Jo Reed: And what about the graphic album?
Bora Yoon: The graphic album is a wonderful new platform that has been created by the Gralbum Collective. The graphic album is akin to a graphic novel, but it's for records and it's an iPad app that essentially turns records into a multimedia and interactive experience for the listener. There's two ways you can view it. One is a film that goes by with the music, and it's this submersive audio/visual experience that's essentially a music video that almost you can control. And the second is a literary view where you can shrink down the image of the film to actually see borders, and be able to see it as a book and then there are poems, and poetry along with it. And so it's a really beautiful and dynamic platform that's actually time based. So I really would put it in like the category of time-based art. And it really brings together this idea of film, and multimedia, and interactive art with music. And I really think that the marriage of music and art can really happen here in this dynamic way. It features the artwork of U-Ram Choe who is a soul based kinetic sculptor. He makes these really otherworldly machinations that are delicate metal that open and close. It's a collaboration where essentially it features his fine art, and it's scored to my music. And that, to me, is already a very dynamic combination, and something that I am really excited to be able to see how sculpture and art that are normally physical spatial experiences can also be a cinematic experience that is immersive in audio/visual.
Jo Reed: You've been singing with the chorus, Voices of Ascension, for seven years or so. How did that inform Sunken Cathedral?
Bora Yoon: Voices of Ascension is a incredible chorus and orchestra that's based at the Church of Ascension on 5th Avenue and 10th Street. It's directed by Dennis Keene, and I get the great honor to be able to sing with them. I sing at Church of Ascension every Sunday, and you know, when you're in a city as bustling and crazy as New York to have a place to go to on a weekly basis that grounds you, and really gives you a sense of space, and a sense of calm, that in and of itself has created such a rhythm I think in my subconscious mind, and also as a writer of just having that kind of space to think, and jot down ideas that normally don't come to you in the hustle and bustle of the city where everything is a to do list, and everything needs to get done all at once at the same time.
Jo Reed: Yesterday.
Bora Yoon: Yeah. But it has musically and energetically fed me, I think, for this record. A lot of the architecture of the space has certainly inspired me and in my own thought process behind just even seeing cathedrals, the idea of how cathedrals are a metaphor for the body, and how we were talking earlier about how your blood is speaking in some ways, and going very inward and elemental, as well as outward and architectural. You know, so much of how I see things is head, heart and gut, and I have to say like this entire record has been gut, heart, head. It's all been very gut driven, the heart follows, and eventually very far later down the line the head is like "Oh, that’s what you're doing. That's what you're saying."
Jo Reed: Your TED talk. You gave a TED talk on space and music, or music and space. How did that happen, and what was the experience like?
Bora Yoon: TED was amazing. TED is crazy. It's very intense, and it really is just like that little two second thing you see before a TED talks begins. It's just like a roller coaster that goes <makes noise>, and then you see the cosmos as well everything at the same time. I attended this year as a TED fellow, I joined the TED fellow's class this year, and I was able to give a four minute performance as well as a four minute talk, which was really an exciting and challenging opportunity to have to culminate everything that I have been about into four minutes. I have to day I've started to notice that the more challenging something is the more valuable you know it also is, like you wouldn’t be that annoyed if it wasn't important and valuable. And so I feel like it really has sculpted me in a way that it helped me distill everything that I'm about. I gave my talk about music and architecture, and I talked about how architecture really is housed within us, as well as outside of us, and music is a tool that circulates, and transforms, and illuminates those spaces. That really is the backbone behind how I come to music sites specifically, to existing architectural structures, and also the tracks on the record that kind of illuminate internal architecture within us. So it was kind of bringing together both of those dimensions, and really painting that metaphor of how everything is just a matter of scale. The world that we create around us is also something that is a metaphor. We only create that world because they are also mirrored and tessellated within us as well. That when you can scale those dimensions you start to see actually that the invisibles are the same, the movements are the same, our idea and relationship to sound and space is something that shouldn’t be masked by the actual physicality of it itself, but that our dynamics to the space, outward and inward, are incredibly similar.
Of course at TED I connected completely with all the architects because they spoke concretely about the things that I was speaking about musically and we talked about how architecture, not just reflects who we are, it actually shapes who we are. How we react to space, and how when you walk into, let's say a library, or a church, or a museum that just kind of lifts your sternum up, and it just makes you feel more expanse, and more calm, and how certain spaces can just make you go inside you, and just kind of curl in a little bit, you know. We have emotional and energetic responses to the spaces that we're in, and as well as the ones that we have inside of us and I feel like the more that we see that metaphor of the architecture within us as well as outside of us as something that's a spectrum, I think that that can really bring to light some interesting observations of ourselves, and how we govern ourselves in space.
Jo Reed: And you see music as being that bridge?
Bora Yoon: I see music as being that tool of circulation in the space. I think about how does, like how an architect things about how the space moves, and how people flow within a space. I think of music as being that wind. If we can see ourselves as this kind of synaptical body, that these rooms are part of a larger structure, or a larger body let's say, that music really is a tool that circulates this body. And how we govern ourselves in space is that kind of relationship.
That was composer and performer Bora Yoon. Her multimedia album is called Sunken Cathedral. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the national Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.