juri seo

Juri Seo’s “Toy Store” Plays Upon Memory, Nostalgia, and Childhood

When I was a kid in the 90s, my parents owned a toy store. It definitely had its perks (collecting Pokémon cards at wholesale was peak dopamine for my 10-year-old brain), but it was also incredibly boring. Like many kids of small business owners, I spent long hours in the cramped back room doing homework on school nights, lost in a sea of boxes stocked with inventory. The worst days were those when new Beanie Babies dropped. The store came under siege by hordes of persnickety collectors who snapped “Don’t touch the tags!” at me as I anxiously handled their precious Beanies with the utmost care.

Naturally, I was intrigued by composer Juri Seo’s Toy Store, released May 5 on Carrier Records. Each of the work’s five movements is named after a popular children’s toy, such as “Monster Truck” or “Bubbles,” but despite the cutesy titles, this is not music written for children. Seo developed the multi-movement work for violin and electronics in collaboration with violinist Jinjoo Cho, whose performance through each gnarly twist and turn is astounding. An internationally acclaimed violinist and winner of the Indianapolis International Violin Competition, her expressive and nuanced playing lends a vital human element to the album, one with a warm luster that cuts through the album’s hyper-produced sheen.

On the surface, Toy Store is chock-full of contradictions: it’s incredibly catchy yet rich and complex; it draws upon a smattering of styles and aesthetics but feels cohesive; it pits a synthetic electronic palette against a centuries-old Guarneri violin that breathes with a life of its own. The work imbues a sense of cognitive dissonance in the listener – a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. After all, childhood memories can be full of contradictions when viewed through the foggy lens of recollection.

The album kicks off with “Jack-in-the-Box,” an up-tempo feast of sprightly syncopations cast in electronics that would be right at home in an arcade. It’s a mash-up of IDM beats (Intelligent Dance Music) a la Squarepusher, minimalist riffs, funky bass lines, and violin solos that sound straight out of a classical concerto. True to the spirit of the jack-in-the-box, the movement is replete with musical surprises that suddenly shift from one style to another. At the same time, these elements are tightly interwoven and result in a dynamic and captivating movement that is impossible to pause.

“Monster Truck” is a heavy-metal banger of a track that reads like a caricature of testosterone-fueled toy branding. The violin is so heavily distorted it could easily be mistaken for an electric guitar, with backing beats that would make Metallica jealous. Later in the track, an organ solo races in full throttle, its wickedness slowly consumed by abstract and droning noise.

Jinjoo Cho -- Photo by Sihoon Kim

Jinjoo Cho — Photo by Sihoon Kim

In “Mobiles,” the listener is plunged into a cool bath of white noise. At first refreshing, the sound gradually becomes oppressive as it crescendos to harsh frequencies. Once it calms, the violin enters with smooth, questioning phrases against a soft droning backdrop. The lush electronics feature Romantic harmonies that intermingle with those more contemplative and quietly dissonant.

“Roller Skates” glides blissfully with gentle percussive pops. The track features layers of strings that swerve in and out of backing grooves, sometimes erring on the side of sadness, but veering away just before. The final track, “Bubbles,” is part sound sculpture, part impressionist tone poem, as ASMR-inducing bubbles pop amidst lush and layered strings. In both tracks, Cho’s buoyant and evocative playing perfectly captures the whimsy of dancing through life as a child, unencumbered by the burdens of adulthood. As my own memories of our family toy store swirl with iridescence like oil on water, Seo’s work acts as a scrying mirror, offering the chance to peer into the distant past and examine the complex interactions among memory, nostalgia, and childhood.


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