A few moments with Peter S. Shin

Later this month we will be playing at Nottingham Trent University as part of the university’s ‘Groundbreaking’ series of contemporary music. On the programme will be works by Georg Friedrich Haas (Tria ex uno) and Chaya Czernowin Ayre, towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of), as well as works commissioned in our 2017 Call for Scores, Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy by Mirela Ivičević and Block Mouvement by Sylvain Marty. Details and tickets for the concert may be found via nonsuch studios.

We are also excited to be playing Screaming Shapes by the young American composer Peter S. Shin. We came across Peter’s music in another Call for Scores, and although we didn’t commission him on that occasion, we were really keen to play his music as soon as possible. To help introduce to his richly layered music, Peter answered some questions for us …

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Peter, thank you for talking to us. Perhaps you could begin by telling us a little bit about you and your music: what is your musical background, and how did you become a composer?

Peter S. Shin: My parents introduced me to cello lessons when I was four at the local conservatory. My first cello was made of styrofoam and the neck was a wooden ruler with strings drawn in with marker. I begged for piano lessons when I turned 10 because I enjoyed playing video game music by Nobuo Uematsu, though I never got into gaming itself.

I composed my first composition for string orchestra during my spring break of my junior year of high school because I was tired of the director’s questionable programming, which often included terrible and unidiomatically written arrangements of Pirates of the Caribbean, musical medleys, and the like; I knew I could write something equally terrible. The director allowed me to conduct my composition in class and I found it all to be a fascinating process.

TR-J: Your website mentions that your work ‘navigates issues of national belonging … and the liminality between the two halves of [your] second-generation Korean-American identity’. Could you expand on this, please? And in what ways do the questions of identity/belonging differ as a second-generation (rather than first-generation) composer?

PS: There doesn’t seem to be a consensus with how children of immigrants identify their generational status. Many would consider me first generation since I was the first to be born in another nation. Others, like me, feel that this denies the generation that came before me and their efforts of assimilation, not to mention the fact that my parents are now technically American and had renounced their Korean citizenships many years ago.

So, all-in-all, first or second generation can essentially mean the same thing and it’s not necessarily this distinction that’s important, but rather the implications of being reared in culturally conflicting environment and being made aware of your difference through self-realization, other people, and a variety of experiences. I am and feel comfortably American but I am constantly looked upon as a perpetual foreigner because of my Asian features. For example, I had a suitcase with me when I was visiting my home state of Missouri this summer and a man welcomed me to America even though I’ve been living here for 27 years. The other day, when I ran into the dean of the music school, he asked me if I was headed to the English language class for secondary learners, and after I expressed my confusion in perfect English, he realized that I might not be. These seemingly benign experiences, among many others which range in aggression, have shown me how others perceive my belonging here, and my music certainly mirrors my life thematically.

TR-J: Are there ‘Korean’ or ‘American’ aspects to your music, or is this all taking place on a higher, more metaphorical level?

PS: My recent piece, Bits torn from words, written for Roomful of Teeth is a meditation on the 14 single consonants of the Korean alphabet. Musically, I was inspired in part by the oscillating quasi-wide vibrato of the ancient Korean p’ansori vocal tradition, which nearly requires the vocalist to damage their voice to achieve the distinct sound. The oscillation is also inspired, in part, by a recurring motif in Rihanna’s song ‘Love on the Brain’. I didn’t go into this with the intention to contrast my Korean and American influences, though. That just happens inherently, I guess. Also, these are just two of many other influences that don’t fit into a Korean/American binary that made its way into the piece.

TR-J: Presumably these issues of identity feel more important today than they did before 2016? Is that an urgency that you try to convey in your music?

PS: A sudden identity crisis in 2012 is what really confronted me with the two halves of my Korean American identity.

TR-J: Speaking of 2016, Screaming Shapes is apparently inspired by a poem by the cellist Nick Volpert that responds to the results of the presidential election. How did you  come to that poem, and how does your music respond to it, and to its themes?

PS: I brought together a group of musician friends while I was studying at the University of Southern California because of the lack of interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaborations in the school. Our first meeting happened to fall on the day after Trump was elected and one of the sopranos, Liya Khaimova, suggested we write out our thoughts to share in the following meeting. Nick, the cellist of the group, wrote a poem that sparked each of our musical interests. I broke up the poem into phrases and individually recorded each musician improvising a gesture based on each evocative phrase. I started messing around with the recordings and it existed as a purely electronic composition until I added a live quartet to perform on top of it.

TR-J: How do the live quartet and recorded/electronic quartet interact?

PS: I was intrigued by the idea of failure, both human and robotic. The failure of multiple sources in determining the outcome of this particular election, and, on another level, I wanted to challenge the idea of performance perfection that musicians aim for and magnify that anxiety. A theatrical version of Screaming Shapes ends with the cellist attempting to sound as perfectly as the electronic cello that it competes with, and a secondary audience screams out ‘not quite!’ at every attempt. In this concert version, the electronic quartet duels and commingles with the human quartet.

TR-J: Finally, I sense the influence of electronic dance music in your work – particularly in what I’m calling the ‘Steve Reich-dubstep’ section towards the end of Screaming Shapes. Is that correct? And if so, what are the challenges in drawing influences from EDM into instrumental concert music, and how do you deal with them?

PS: The biggest challenge to me is that it feels sterile listening to this particular section in a proper sit-down concert setting. The sort of epileptic tremolo filters and pulsations that happen throughout the piece were informed by an experience I had in a Chicago club where the lights were flickering so erratically that I lost depth perception. This also happens when I walk through a  hallway with similarly flickering lights. It’s a neat sensation and I wanted to try and achieve that electronically which is most evident while listening to the purely electronic version with headphones due to the binaural panning. I would love there to be a choreographed light show to happen simultaneously and the bass to be amped up to really feel it in our bodies … Can we organize that?

TR-J: That sounds great – maybe next time! Peter, thanks so much for talking to us. We’re really looking forward to bringing your music to Nottingham.

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