Keeping the Eyes Open

There is no shortage of ways to be in relation, but subject as we are to instinct and instruction, patterns emerge. Over his 30 year career as a musician, Dong-Won Kim has observed tendencies in the practice of improvisation: some performers are great communicators, playing with their eyes open; other performers are lone wolves, playing with their eyes closed. There is no judgment carried about the quality of the music produced, eyes opened or closed, but when Dong-Won references it, the orientation of the eyes is a metaphor for spirit. Some players extend the relation outward, some focus their energies inward.
Hosted by Musagetes, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, and the Laurier Centre for Music in the Community, Dong-Won was Guelph’s Improvisor in Residence for four months over the fall of 2014, landing in Canada by way of his home in South Korea. Over that time I attended two of his performances that bore little similarity in terms of shape or sound, demonstrating Dong-Won’s range of relational skill as an improvisor.

When Rivers Meet6

As part of the Guelph Jazz Festival, Dong-Won performed on percussion alongside pianist Lee Pui Ming in a call and response structure that began with their voices summoning each other’s presence, an act of intention setting the ambiance of the space. This appeal for participation was eventually extended to the audience as well, our voices rising and falling with the beat of Dong-Won’s mallets on drums made of pressed metal and leather, and the purposeful fall of Pui Ming’s fingertips on grand-piano keys. In any performance, the audience gives and takes, cheering and hand-clapping, their ineffable sense of joy (or disappointment) palpitating back to the stage, like a heartbeat tended between players and the crowd. It really only speaks of my own ignorance about improvisation, but I found myself laughing, surprised at the levity of their performance. They encouraged breaking with tradition, telling us to clap whenever we wanted, a direct and immediate response to their engagement with each other as musicians. They stomped around the stage chasing each other through the tones of their steps; they jointly played the piano percussively, treating every surface as alive with the potential of sound. The joke was made that our early Sunday morning gathering mimicked religious rituals, to which Pui Ming responded with belligerent expulsions of breath to Dong-Won’s softer voicing of rhythm. In that moment I read different histories amongst them and I read a kindness in their reflections of each other as they mutually created a space to hold their distinct musical gestures.

When Rivers Meet7

Expanding the scale of improvisation, the culminating event of Dong-Won’s residency saw him performing alongside the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, the Guelph Youth Jazz Ensemble, dancer Georgia Simms, and musicians Daniel Fischlin, Jeff Bird, Lewis Melville, and Ben Grossman. At the centre of an over-filled stage, Dong-Won’s presence was both the engine and the support for his cast of collaborators in animating a series of journey stories entitled When Rivers Meet. Drawn from around the world, these parables invoked the necessity for tenacity of spirit as much as they demonstrated the possibility that our assumptions about the world can fall to pieces at any moment. As a form of improvisation, When Rivers Meet was shaped by a script and a schedule of practice shared by the musicians, dancer, storyteller, and technicians. As an event, the audience encountered narratives enlivened by music, dance, and projections, as much theatre as concert.

Challenging a caricature of improvisation as self-indulgent noodling, Dong-Won’s final gesture in Guelph asks me to recognize the ubiquity of improvisation in my own life. Improvisation is a familiar, fundamental human activity. Our everyday ways of relating to each other—timing, intonation, gesture, posture—are all improvised. People think improv is far away from what they do naturally, which is false. Improv is our natural way of being in the world; every being in the universe improvises. Dong Won would say: “Even the sun!”

When Rivers Meet21

The margins of improvisation were differently aligned in Dong-Won’s performances—first with Pui Ming and then with his large cast of collaborators in When Rivers Meet—but each was an exercise in keeping one’s eyes open, of being actively in relation. Dong-Won’s penchant for improvisation as correspondence required him to show up unarmed and willing to disassemble his own precious habits, which judging from the diversity of his performances, he did. Over the fall, Dong-Won revealed himself as spiritually contagious, using music as a metaphor for being together with full respect and deep curiosity, eyes open to whatever magic might unfold in a meeting of the minds.

Based on an interview with Dong-Won Kim conducted in Guelph on 06 September 2014.

Images: “When Rivers Meet”, The River Run Centre, Guelph, Ontario

January 27, 2015
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