Spoken Word and Piano Soar on Eunbi Kim’s “It Feels Like”

As listeners, we’re familiar with the combination of spoken word and music in popular genres such as R&B and hip hop, but this creative medium is also finding its way into classical music. For instrumental works, spoken word has the power to advance a more literal narrative by embedding context into the music itself. Historically, contemporary piano compositions that have included spoken word (like Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis) relegate the music to an accompaniment role. But on pianist Eunbi Kim’s second album, It Feels Like, she achieves an egalitarian balance of speech, acoustic instruments, and electronics while probing existential questions of family and identity.

Released August 12, 2022, on Bright Shiny Things, It Feels Like is greater than the sum of its parts. Kim’s sensitive creative approach and thoughtful collaboration with her commissioned composers Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR), Sophia Jani, Pauchi Sasaki, and Angélica Negrón results in a narrative arc of her own introspective journey through her Saturn years: the time in which Saturn returns to the same position it occupied at one’s birth.

It Feels Like a Mountain, Chasing Me by DBR is a triumph of performance, composition, and audio engineering. Fragments of an interview with Kim unfold over the 17-minute work, recounting her memories of her parents. The composition begins with the music serving as an emotional response to Kim’s spoken words; the bleak dissonance of two piano ostinato lines colors the speech, yet the music is actually foregrounded by audio engineers Judith Sherman and Charles Mueller.

Eunbi Kim--Photo by Shervin Lainez

Eunbi Kim–Photo by Shervin Lainez

As we move through Kim’s past, the music spreads to the outer registers of the piano, paralleling the emotional complexity of her teenage years. A music-less phone call with Kim’s mother recorded in Korean (한국어) ushers in a shift to a brighter tonality and freer rhapsodic figures, marking the critical juncture of the piece. A gentle coda looks to the future with Kim reflecting on death and raising her own child. DBR and Kim strikingly balance cognition and emotion, words and music, and memories and our perception of them. Kim’s personal experience is also deeply moving in the way it speaks to the role of parent-child relationships in our conception of identity.

In Sophia Jani’s Saturn Years, shimmering piano trills and tremolos are punctuated with moments of silence in which the constantly shifting electronic soundscape comes through. Though the composition does not leave much room for Kim to showcase her technique, the track successfully accomplishes a larger musical purpose by meditating on the place of individuals in the vastness of the universe.

DBR’s songs for the alone for piano and drum set (performed by Wen-Ting Wu) is an exploration of grief and depression inspired by the death of Prince in 2016. Each of the three movements (“UnJoy,” “UnLove,” and “UnKnown”) relies heavily on repeated piano vamps, moving through dark tonalities, free improvisation, jazz harmonies, and samba rhythms. And yet their emotional significance is not easily understood without the extra context provided by DBR’s program notes, leaving us to wonder: if our emotions of grief are unable to be outwardly expressed, does our possession of them isolate us? Or does it connect us to our shared humanity through the universality of loss?

Daniel Bernard Roumain--Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Daniel Bernard Roumain–Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Mother’s Hand, Healing Hand (엄마손은 약손) by Pauchi Sasaki uses a sample of Kim and her mother singing a traditional Korean chant/song to create a backdrop for the piano trio (Kim is joined by violinist Lauren Cauley and cellist Amanda Gookin). Kim’s facility is finally showcased with quick repeated figures conveying her impassioned approach to minimalist writing. However, just like the other tracks, the music doesn’t focus on bravura; instead, it probes questions of the soul related to family and maternal love. My personal connection to this piece comes from my identity as a Korean adoptee to American parents. For me, the question of ‘What makes a family?’ has always been something that I have thought deeply about. I came away from several listens feeling grateful for my mother’s love, which transcends our many differences.

Angélica Negrón’s Disco giratorio de palabras (Rotating Record of Words) concludes the album by combining piano, synth keyboard, and an old phonograph recording of a beginners’ Spanish lesson. Negrón was inspired by conversations she had with Kim about language and how it affects identity. Kim’s precision is admirable as she plays in perfect sync with each syllable of the recorded speaker’s voice. She also captures the playful character of the middle section, executing long passages of ostinato with unflagging energy. This piece is perhaps the answer to the album’s first track, in which the music responds to the words, like emotions following memory. Here, the music and words are often completely aligned, symbolizing the reconciliation that Kim has made between her memories and present emotions.

The whole album has a reverent, cosmic profile, created by Kim’s even-keeled speaking and playing. And even if her piano playing does not often call attention to itself, Kim’s artistic vision comes through clearly in this deeply personal album. Ultimately, It Feels Like achieves what every musician hopes – that with repeated listens and additional context, the message and the music become stronger.

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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