5 Questions to Min Kwon (pianist, America/Beautiful)

The United States is a country with a complex history of oppression, and contemporary society calls upon artists to grapple with this legacy. Pianist and arts advocate Min Kwon’s response is America/Beautiful, a dialog of relationships in historical and contemporary USA. The commissioning project explores our country’s diversity, values, and in some cases, contradictions by premiering seventy variations on “America the Beautiful.”

This massive undertaking arose out of Kwon’s experience as an immigrant in a divided country. She sought seventy of the most awarded and institutionally recognized composers in the country, including luminaries such as George Lewis, Pamela Z, Tania León, Augusta Read Thomas, and more. Min Kwon will record and present these performances for free online over six days, starting July 4, 2021. Many of the variations will be filmed at Grace Church, where “America the Beautiful” was first performed, with composer Q&As following the performance. The series ends with two concerts on July 8th and 9th at the Brooklyn Catacombs, which, intentionally or not, seems to gesture towards America’s past and present violence. The result is a sample of Turtle Island’s diversity of settlers and inhabitants.

What about our political and social climate of the past few years inspired you to take on this massive project?

My initial inspiration for this project was purely artistic. In 2015, I curated a program at Carnegie Hall that explored Diabelli’s “Unknown Variations.” If you are a musician, you know about Beethoven’s 33 Diabelli Variations, written in response to a call for variations on a simple theme by Anton Diabelli. But 50 other composers answered Diabelli’s call as well, including some of the best-known composers of that era, all of whom thrived in Vienna. I was intrigued by this idea, so I dreamed of reviving that project for the 21st century “Diabelli Variations,” only this time in a distinctly American context.

As we all experienced, the pandemic disrupted all of my plans. After the project’s June 2020 premiere at Carnegie Hall was cancelled, I became despondent about the uncertainty of the future. As we were all individually captive in our own homes, I also remember feeling a collective sense of fear and vulnerability, which only compounded amid the social unrest of last summer. But as history shows us, out of struggle comes a newfound strength and tenacity.

I saw an opportunity to create an even bigger and more important project than my initial idea. While America was divided and quite literally dying, I wanted to facilitate bringing something beautiful and meaningful to life—as a musician, that was all that I could do. My husband is a cardiac surgeon who saves lives every day, but for the first few months of the onset of the pandemic, he came home each night utterly depleted, emotionally and physically, having witnessed so many people suffering and dying on the hospital floor. It was difficult to watch, and it made my job of making music feel unimportant; but in another way, I knew it was more necessary than ever. I felt an imperative to give voice to the salient moment and intense feelings we were all living through.

Min Kwon--Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Min Kwon–Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

How did you choose the composers for America/Beautiful?

I began each day of the pandemic by listening to various composers’ music. I listened without reading their bios—I listened without preconceptions about what was “good” based on composers’ credentials. There were those whom I already knew well or had collaborated with, like Richard Danielpour, Fred Hersch, and Jonathan Berger. Others were less familiar, recommended to me by their colleagues or mentors. And there were others who seemed unapproachable. Some were more receptive than others: sometimes the answer was a resounding “yes,” other times a tentative nod, and there were some “no’s” and reluctance, too.

What I loved was meeting each composer individually via Zoom. As I explained my vision and mission, I was also catching them in their vulnerable state, where their artistic momentum was lost or being shaken by the pandemic. I wanted them to see the passion in my eyes and hear it in my voice. Personally, reaching out and connecting with them “saved” me during the hardest time of pandemic isolation. This would not be a typical commission, but a collective statement about our shared identity as Americans, a powerful snapshot of a critical time in America’s history. I invited composers of a variety of genders, races, backgrounds, ages, aesthetics, and personas to embrace as many different perspectives as possible on what it means to be American.

Given the continued erasure of Indigenous peoples, does America/Beautiful provide a voice and platform for the country’s native populations?

I hope America/Beautiful gives a voice in some way to everybody in America, especially those whose voices have historically been suppressed. For me, the diversity of this country is what is most beautiful about America, and I like to think of this project as a musical embodiment of e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Derrick Spiva Jr. wrote a piece for this project, and in many ways he encapsulates its multi-cultural ideals. Derrick is indeed of Native American heritage, as well as Ghanaian, Nigerian, British and Irish, and he draws on his ancestry and his everyday life in Los Angeles to create what he considers a distinctly American aesthetic. His music engages a wide spectrum of cultural influences to reflect the diverse communities he is a part of. He writes, “My work aims to promote cross-cultural understanding and communication between communities and artists of different backgrounds, through compositions that build bridges between instruments, genres, cultures, and people.”

America/Beautiful also features other composers whose music foregrounds issues of colonialism and indigeneity, which are inextricably linked to the experience of our native populations. In describing her variation, Indian-American composer Reena Esmail alludes to a pre-colonial, pre-national time that shares resonances with the state of America before it was stolen from its Indigenous population. She writes: “This arrangement intertwines ‘America the Beautiful’ with a melody in Raag Desh (from the Hindustani classical tradition of India). Desh means ‘country’ in Hindi, the reason why South Asians often refer to themselves as ‘desi’ – meaning ‘of the country.’ It implies a unity that precedes the partition, and acknowledges that there was a time where India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were not divided into separate countries, as they are now.”

Min Kwon--Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Min Kwon–Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

On your website, you mention that America is a divided nation, much of which is rooted in anti-Black racism. How does America/Beautiful respond to those realities?

After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shook the country last year, we all watched the avalanche of corporate and institutional statements of solidarity with the Black community condemning police brutality and committing to anti-racism. I think a lot of people ended up finding those messages somewhat hollow–that they sounded correct, but didn’t necessarily propose constructive action. It’s been encouraging to see many organizations start to understand that representation does matter, but how can we work toward inclusivity without being tokenistic?

Not only does America/Beautiful give me a chance to spotlight not one or two but many of the important Black composers of our time, but it lets me pass them the microphone in the most direct way I can think of, allowing them to speak through their words about their pieces on our website, and through their music that will be heard online and in concert halls around the world. In this way, I hope to provide a widely visible platform for Black composers to react—in their chosen, visceral language of music—to their experience of America. And for many people, it’s not beautiful. I was struck by Daniel Bernard Roumain’s provocative description of his piece, america, NEVER beautiful, and I was moved that so many composers, not only Black composers, explicitly responded to racism past and present that is woven into the fabric of our country. As Bruce Adolphe wrote, “It is impossible to contemplate ‘America the Beautiful’ without a mixture of pain, sorrow, despair, rage, and hope.” I hope that this kind of collective reckoning and reflection can help us heal and make our way toward a more beautiful America.

Min Kwon--Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Min Kwon–Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

You mentioned that this series starts on your daughter’s birthday. What kind of future for America do you dream of for your children?

One where we listen to each other, learn from each other, and grow from the humility that comes from listening and learning. Lauren will turn 10 on this July 4th, and unfortunately it’s impossible for me to think of her future without also thinking about the rise in hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans. We are habitually stereotyped as quiet or subservient, and it took a mass shooting to call mainstream attention to the micro-aggressions and casual racism that Asians endure every day. I’m proud that America/Beautiful features the music of many Asian composers as well, and I hope their voices and their images remind my daughters that the Asian-American experience is fundamentally, undeniably American.

Jiyoung Ko is a young Korean composer in our ranks whom I mentored after she applied for our grant program at Center for Musical Excellence. I got to know her as a person before knowing anything about her music, and I was moved by this young mother who, after a long hiatus to raise her son, wanted desperately to resume her studies but was scared to do so. I could sense her fire within but also an almost apologetic desire to pursue her doctorate and realize her full potential as a composer. She wrote an eternally hopeful and triumphant variation for this project, but had a hard time coming up with a title. I suggested My America; she liked it and went with it. That’s the kind of America I want for my children: one that they can take ownership of and be proud to call “My America,” one that will inspire them to make it even more beautiful for their children.


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