Composer and multi-instrumentalist Bora Yoon makes her Seattle debut this autumn, performing as part of the Cornish Presents series at Cornish College of the Arts.
Yoon describes her process of composing music as organic. “It all usually starts, with an unusual and interesting sound that captures my attention,” she said. “I have perfect pitch—the ability to tell pitches, without a reference—and so all sounds and noises around me have been musical sources to me. I’ll hum along with a radiator until I hear, ‘Oh, that’s a B-flat!’ Or I’ll slow down someone’s ‘hello’ until they become musical pitches instead of just inflection.”
Yoon is also notable for including unconventional objects and instruments in her music. “It first started when my 2004 cellphone’s screen broke after dropping it one too many times,” she said. “I had set it on a musical keypad setting, which turned everyone’s phone number into a little ditty, which is in itself, a musical sentence. It had a nice Casio ’80s ping quality to it, which I liked, and it added to my artillery of classical instruments, into a more electronic realm, after putting it through a delay and loop pedal.”
That cellphone accident was an artistic break-through. “Since then, my ears are always open—to how we associate memories, nostalgia, associations with different sounds, whether it’s bible pages flipping, through a massive delay, up close on a mic, which then sounds like wind through autumn leaves in a tree,” she said. “I love taking small sounds, and amplifying, processing, and transforming them into an element in a larger sonic picture.”
Yoon decided to build on this break-through by enrolling in Princeton University’s doctoral program in Music Composition. “What’s great about Princeton’s composition program is that they are not preservationist about music, unlike conservatories, which are more tradition-based,” she said. “You have to know your nuts and bolts certainly, but they honor and celebrate the fact that if you are a living, breathing composer, you are adding to the current canon of music, and see music as a living, breathing thing too, that is unfurling in real-time.”
Her education there has taken her into new sonic realms. “I’m expanding my vocabulary with electronics and computer music, orchestration on a large-scale, and going further into extended techniques on traditional instruments,” Yoon said, “and how they are all interdisciplinary in the gestural, theatrical, and interactive realm with visuals, which is what you will see on stage, with my featured collaborators, DJ King Britt, from Philly, and Joshue Ott, who invented SuperDraw, and iPhone app THICKET, a beautiful interactive visual software that responds to music and sonic information.”
Yoon is known for her collaborative process, and values the contributions of those she has worked with. “The late poet Sekou Sundiata has been one I remember keenly, as it was amazing to support his dynamic poetry and literary imagery, by personifying them through sound, but never get in the way of it,” Yoon said. “A really nice complement to one another.”
The challenge of collaboration is what Yoon finds stimulating. “R. Luke DuBois is a long-time collaborator, colleague, and friend whose incredible eye and ears for transforming sound and music, and data, into cogent and astute statements is always a wonder, and fascinating to collaborate, because he transforms sound and imagery into new cinematic and algorithmic forms of visual music,” she said. “Usually, the wider the bridge to cross, the more interesting synapses you can find within the disciplines.”
Despite this artistic and collegial growth, Yoon acknowledges the challenges of a career in music. “It’s been challenging to balance everything, which is a universal struggle no matter what field you are in, I’ve realized, and to know proper and healthy boundaries, especially as a female artist,” she said. That includes “wearing many hats at once, making meaningful connections, fostering new skills and abilities, changing as an artist, while at the same time sharing work with audiences, and having new material feed into your public work, bit by bit as you change and transition.”
Yoon continues to emphasize process as key to overcoming difficulties. “I’ve realized the grace lies in the how of how things are done,” she said, “the tone of communications, the navigational tools needed to address logistical mishaps, jankiness, and energetic and literal roadblocks, and still maintain the joy in choosing a unique and creative path, and building a better world for those coming up.”
Being open to ongoing learning from others who have gone before has also helped significantly. “It’s challenging, and liberating, in that no two artists’ paths are identical, but I’ve learned from my mentors, and role models I grew up listening to, that if you can find the spirit, and resonate with the intention of these artists, not imitation, then the answer does slowly start to emerge, from within, of what feels like your inner truth that is right for you,” Yoon said. “There’s a reason why they call it an artistic ‘practice,’ in that it’s a daily practice, of how to bring our best selves to the table every day, right?”
Although Yoon has no previous connection to Seattle, she doesn’t come unprepared regarding our region. “My featured collaborator, Philadelphia-based electronic DJ and producer King Britt has done many shows in this part of the country, and definitely has some community ties here,” Yoon said. “We are jazzed to meet with students, do our electronics workshop, and bring folks together through the arts.”
Yoon is looking forward to immersing herself in our dynamic Pacific Northwest environment. “I’m most looking forward to meeting the students at Cornish Arts,” she said, “and getting a gauge and feel of the relationship of sound and place, the geography, and the people who make Seattle what it is, as a living, breathing, changing place.”
Bora Yoon performs on November 4 at 8:00 p.m. at the Kerry Hall PONCHO Concert Hall, 710 East Roy, Seattle. For more information, visit www.cornish.edu/calendar/event/1428/cornish_presents:_bora_yoon.