Friday, October 1, 2010

JooWan Kim's Integration / Mark Alburger

JooWan Kim's myspace site bills his Ensemble Mik Nawooj (the composer's name backwards) as "classical, hip-hop, jazz" and that is just about right, with the stylistic traits in mere alphabetical order, for, in truth, the blend of influences is so wonderfully integrated that one would be hard pressed to say which dominates.

OK. I'll try. Upon entering Berkeley's Giorgi Gallery, the first impression was indeed classical. The performance space, nestled genteelly in the Claremont district, just downslope from the storied hotel, is redolent of the refined and progressive. The brilliantly conceived instrumental entourage consisted of a multicultural Pierrot ensemble (flutist Tracy Goodwin, clarinetist Ricki Nelson, violinist Liana Berube, and cellist Samsun van Loon) melded with a jazz trio (Kim plus percussionist Valentino Pellizzer and bassist Rob Woodcock) -- a unique "why-hasn't-anyone-thought-of-this-before" group that, on the strength of instrumentation and performance excellence alone, would be worthy of attention.

But that is just the beginning. With singer Christopher Nicholas and rapper Kirby Dominant, Kim and company provided a dynamic synthesis of the cultivated and vernacular that shook the walls, yet had plenty of well-modulated nuances and structural surprises to keep listeners at the edge.

Two Pieces for Voice and Piano found Nicholas and the composer in an initially understated mood that built from an Arioso into an impassioned Agitato. Without Goodbyes added Pellizzer, Woodcock, and Dominant to the mix in a stimulating tonic of activity, with rapper and voice in a contrapuntal interplay that felt simultaneously authentic and innovative.

The great work was Great Integration, billed as a chamber hip-hop opera ("hiphopera?"), but, at least in this telling, more of a dramatic song-cycle, staged in the imagination. And imaginative it was, in descending pop loops (the bass lines "Do Te Le" -- think the last minutes of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven -- and descending chromatic "Do Ti Te La Le" got workouts, but always in changing kaleidoscopic capacities), Latinate rhythms (3+3+2 in eighth notes and its exciting subdivision of 3+3+3+3+2+2 made for some funky rhythmic chickens), fugato passages (a tip of the hat to the composer's solid academic background), and animated interplay both rapid-fire and sustained amongst the woodwinds and strings. Bass served double-duty as pizzicatoist with the combo and arco trio member. Dominant brought out the dominant themes with a mesmerizing fluidity and rapidity both haunting and dangerous.

The group played with the freedom of fusion and the precision of post-minimalism, bespeaking a rich ongoing association with one another. In this conductorless environment, musicians played off of each other, picking up cues and running with them. The balance of amplified vocals and acoustic instrumental resources seemed right on the mark, and this overall perception was one of a composer and ensemble destined for greatness.

We look forward to continued musical magic from JooWan Kim and Ensemble Mik Nawooj.