Premiere: Ensemble Mik Nawooj Shares New Single, “Bach on Transcendence” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Premiere: Ensemble Mik Nawooj Shares New Single, “Bach on Transcendence”

Death Become Life Out On March 19 Via Golden Fetus Records

Mar 18, 2021
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Oakland-based orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj is all about marrying old with new. Led by artistic director and classically trained South Korean composer JooWan Kim, the ensemble is a multi-genre and multi-racial crew, bringing together classical aesthetics and compositions with hip hop stylings courtesy of the group’s MC, Sandman. The band’s forthcoming album, Death Become Life aims to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity. Three of the compositions, together known as The Fountainheads Suite, were written in response to COVID-19 and deconstruct works from Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. The ensemble has returned with their final single ahead of the release of Death Become Life, the Bach portion of The Fountainheads Suite, “Bach on Transcendence,” premiering with Under the Radar.

The basis for “Bach on Transcendence” lies in Bach’s famous composition “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” Even for readers without much of a passing familiarity with classical music, will recognize the iconic opening notes delivered by soprano Anne Hepburn Smith. Quickly the piece strays into newfound territory, as drum fills introduce Sandman to the track. Though Bach is the basis for the track, Kim, Sandman, and company shift and reinvents the aesthetics of tradition, introducing new life and storytelling into the composition and transforming it into something new. Check out the track and accompanying live performance below and watch for Death Become Life, out tomorrow via Golden Features Records.

Under the Radar also caught up with JooWan Kim and Sandman over email to ask about Death Become Life, “Bach on Transcendence,” and the ethos behind Ensemble Mik Nawooj. Check out the Q&A below.

Under the Radar: How did the idea behind Ensemble Mik Nawooj begin?

JWK: It actually started as my protest against Eurocentric concert music aesthetics. When I was doing graduate studies in classical composition, I did a novelty piece with an almost identical instrumentation to what’s called “Pierrot Ensemble” which is a prototype of many new music groups. What I did to ruin the party was to add a hip-hop MC and drum set. The piece was premiered at an academic year-end composers’ concert and the professors hated it, which was a mission accomplished for me. However, the audience loved it and a reputable newspaper covered the performance with a full-page write-up. Then my MC at the time suggested I make an album. So it began.

What inspired you to bridge the worlds of classical music and hip hop?

JWK: I never thought I wanted to bridge the gap between classical and hip-hop. It was more like me “getting out” of classical music. Obviously, I couldn’t be as cool as some of the producers but I ended up making something new. Something neither hip-hop nor classical.

Sandman: As the MC I simply wanted to do something different, and challenging. It just so happened to be with a classically trained composer. If someone had come to me from the Bluegrass community and said they wanted me to MC over a Hip-Hop inspired song I most likely would have tried it, if only out of curiosity. I intended to only do a song with the ensemble initially. The first song I did with EMN was “First Song”. It was in ¾ which I’d never written in before, so I was interested for that reason, as well as the live instrumentation. I enjoyed the experience and the response from the crowd, so upon having the opportunity to do more I was up for it. From a personal standpoint, I’m just doing something different where I have to evolve as an artist, and I still think of myself as a Hip-Hop artist.

Is it difficult to bring together these genres many people would consider on opposite ends of the spectrum of musical genres?

JWK: Not at all for me. There’s this sense of subculture correlating with the genre of music you listen to in this country (i.e. if you’re a metalhead you probably have tattoos and piercings, hip-hop heads are wearing baseball caps etc.). Growing up in South Korea till I was 20, I never really thought about any of this stuff (you’ll find someone who’d listen to smooth jazz, classical, and death metal in the span of 20 minutes while eating Kimchi cup noodles). Also, football outside of the U.S. means soccer and the World Cup is much bigger than the Super Bowl. Imagine that.

Sandman: No. I will say I had this perspective of the genres existing at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but quickly abandoned this thinking. Both are made up of techniques, so if you abandon the imposed, perceived, or applied aesthetics you’re left with an opportunity. Rapping at its core is just rhyme and meter. Words toned in rhyme over classical music, I have to believe, has happened before. The context by which it’s happening now is different, is all. So, same vintage different bottle, I guess.

To further delineate Hip-Hop is thought of being opposite because it was born in the poor neighborhoods of primarily Black and Latinx people, and therefore could not possibly occupy the same space of “high-art” that classical music belongs to. Hip-Hop in intellectual corners is still thought of as unsophisticated, violent, perverse, materialistic, and misogynistic. I contend that these themes are prevalent in our society, but Hip-Hop, as an easy scapegoat, has somehow become the primary promoter of everything immoral. All the while the techniques and artistry are ignored. We don’t think of the movie Goodfellas as a promoter of violence, crime, perversion, racism, misogyny, etc. We think of it as a masterpiece of cinema, because of the artistry it took to tell such a sensational story. Even if you think about many operas, do they not tell violent stories, of betrayal, perverse thinking with misogynistic overtones, and ill-gotten gains toward power?

I’d also argue that the immorality referenced in Hip-Hop music became prevalent as a result of industry. Hip-Hop came out of neighborhoods full of heroin, cocaine, prostitution, hustling, and bustling with violent criminals. Yet, the earliest Hip-Hop songs would reference none of these. This was also before the industry believed Hip-Hop would survive. The first gold album put out by the Sugar Hill Gang spoke to none of these realities. Once the industry caught wind of artists willing to tell brash violent stories, including drug culture, and misogyny this was all record labels and distributors would put money behind. The artists who didn’t tell the stories could not get funding. They were therefore not heard in syndication, and therefore to the public at large they didn’t exist.

What does it mean for you to be a multicultural and multi-genre group? How does that change the way you approach your music?

JWK: The fundamental difference we have over all other efforts is Method Sampling, a principle of sampling foreign rationales and by reframing them to render a new system. It’s not that we’re making a buffet of differences and informing/affirming them (i.e. multiculturalism), but in fact we’re creating a new unity which isn’t merely the sum of the parts. In Method Sampling, identity isn’t destiny. It is something that’s destined to be transformed. Without this component, one can’t truly innovate or invent something new.

Sandman: As far as Hip-Hop goes, since I’ve been performing and observing Hip-Hop it’s always been a multicultural experience. One of my favorite rappers coming up was Tech None who would combine Hip-Hop and Punk rock. Initially, I didn’t observe what he was doing as combining these two seemingly different genres. I just heard it as him doing something different.

So, I don’t think of EMN in this way. I simply think of myself as doing something new or participating in the creation of music unlike I’ve ever heard before. I’m informed by the idea of innovation and considering that which hasn’t been done yet. My artistry is informed by Hip-Hop culture which has always sampled sounds, techniques, ‘methods’, ideas, etc from whatever was available to be consumed. In fact, it’s intrinsic to what is a contemporary Renaissance art culture (Hip-Hop). This is why EMN is still Hip-Hop to me. Now it’s Hip-Hop music being made using Western-European classical techniques, and performed with a live acoustic ensemble.

How do you choose which pieces to sample, mix, and reimagine?

JWK: It comes naturally. We never choose them all of a sudden. Most of the pieces we pick to deconstruct have been on our playlist for a long time.

Sandman: The composers chosen for deconstructions seem like the obvious choice. Even people that don’t listen to classical recognize these composers both by name, and most cases their music. I’ll admit when having a conversation about the deconstructions we agreed on Bach and Beethoven, of course, but I tried to get JooWan to choose a composer other than Motzart. I don’t like his music. The deconstruction is great though.

A lot of the tracks on the album have inspirations from mythology or classical philosophy. What about these themes attracts you?

JWK: Cause I’m a boring person… haha. On a more serious note, I do think some old ideas survive because of their utility, not simply because we protect them. So if they do, I’d like to know why they work.

Sandman: I think of them as being themes pertaining to the human experience. As a writer, I then have a lot of freedom to work.

I’d love to hear more about the Fountainheads Suite. What are some of the themes behind this suite and why did you choose the pieces from Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach to deconstruct?

JWK: They are sort of the trinity of the Western musical canon, hence the title Fountainheads. When I was writing the suite, I only relied on my memory of the pieces I sampled from and not the scores. It was interesting to check the discrepancies later. The pieces I knew very well were all changed within me, like an unconscious Method Sampling.

As for the themes, I have connected the ancient Greek ethical concepts of ataraxia (Mozart), apatheia (Beethoven), and eudaimonia (Bach). All of them basically mean equanimity and joy that comes out of it. Cultivation of inner virtue in the midst of an uncontrollable circumstance seemed not only appropriate but also useful.

What works are being deconstructed with “Bach on Transcendence?” I also read that the piece reflects on the Greek principle of Eudaimonia (blessedness). How do you see the theme reflected in the piece?

JWK: The famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Sandman insisted on having this piece to be used. At the end of the track, there’s a quiet section which lays out the overtone series and sustains for a while. I felt this calmness brings about eudaimonia, when your soul (daimon) is happy. In all three movements of the Fountainheads Suite, you’ll find these moments of serenity.

Sandman: “Staying in the minus, scared, and they’re livid. I’m in the bare, flaring a berry with Blair witches. Moving air with prayer, cherishing Claire vision. The judgement. Every line’s a fair sentence.” Blessedness as in not the absence of challenge, but the personal freedom, vitality to live with the acceptance of the challenge as given.


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