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Music Scores #2, Fantasia is published.

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Sept 2022

Post-Texture is published.

Étude

Min Oh

2018

1.

In midsummer 2017, Youngwoo Lee, a pianist and a good friend of mine, told me that she had participated in Everything about Étude (Tout sur les Études),1 a project that commissioned twelve Korean composers and twelve Korean pianists to compose twelve contemporary piano études. Recollecting études by Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff that I was asked to perform for competitions or auditions when I was a student, I wondered what skills the contemporary composers had required the contemporary pianists to be proficient in. At the same time, I ruminated over the techniques I had demanded from the performers who collaborated with me for my films and performances in recent years.

An étude is a short, complete music piece using a simple idea as composition material. The material typically revolves around performance techniques. The piano étude, originally conceived as a practical exercise for specific skills, developed into a concert piece following Chopin, and is still performed very much up to the present. After the 20th century, the piano étude has become something not only for performers, but also for composers. Composers employ the piano étude as a tool for experimentation and for practicing new composition techniques.

In an étude, two different concepts, “exercise” and “final,” coexist. Performing an étude can signify the final performance of a concert, or the completion of exercising a technique to perform other music that requires the technique. At the moment when the “exercise” reaches the “final,” or the “final” turns into the “exercise,” three different points of time come together on a distorted axis of time: time that should have been the “past” and another time that could be the “future” manifest as the “present.” In the meantime, “technique” is closely connected to “thoughts,” “expression,” and “attitude.” Even though these four can be distinguished in principle, the borders between them are blurred in practice. I consider expression to be realizing a technique as thoughts. I often witness that technique can be enhanced only by changing one’s thoughts. Proficiency in technique results in attitude. It is difficult for me to exclude the other three when I talk about technique. I believe that just like technique, expression, thoughts, and attitude can be improved through practice; therefore, I don’t differentiate them from technique.

2

In early summer 2017, I was composing Audience and Performers in collaboration with the choreographer Yanghee Lee, and she introduced me to the concept of “Viewpoints.” Viewpoints is a methodology, philosophy, and technique for performance and performance composition originally conceived by the American choreographer, dancer, and theatre artist Mary Overlie. Viewpoints has been defined as “points of awareness that a performer or creator makes use of while working,”2 and Overlie established six Viewpoints including space, shape, time, emotion, movement, and story. Later, SITI Company’s Anne Bogart and Tina Landau developed this idea into “nine Physical Viewpoints (Spatial Relationship, Kinesthetic Response, Shape, Gesture, Repetition, Architecture, Tempo, Duration and Topography) and Vocal Viewpoints (Pitch, Dynamic, Acceleration/Deceleration, Silence and Timbre).”3 Viewpoints has been applied to composition, rehearsals, and performances not only in dance but also in theatre plays.

I make structures4 as an artist. The structures are concretized through compositions. The idea of Viewpoints was helpful for clarifying the primary materials of my compositions and the relationships between them. The primary materials of my compositions are often the “body” and “movement.” The body encompasses not only the human body but also objects or material, or the immaterial such as light, air and sound, or concepts like roles or relationships, or questions. No matter which body it is, movement is intrinsic to the body. Movement embraces stillness. Movement accompanies time and space, and results in image and sound. The body, movement, time, space, image, and sound, individually or all together, form a flow of “intensity.” Intensity can be a consequence of a composition, or a direction that a composition should follow.

3.

In the summer of 2018, I had a conversation with an ophthalmologist about eye floaters. External visual stimuli pass through the vitreous body of the eye before they reach the retina. The vitreous takes the form of a jelly-like substance, and this substance is made up of fiber structures and fluid. With age, the fiber structures lose their elasticity, leading to separation from the fluid, and this separation transforms the jelly-like form into a liquid one. The fibers can become partially tangled in this process, and depending on the form they become entangled in, the resulting shadow cast on the retina adds a dot, or a bug, or a cloud in the viewer’s vision. This is called an eye floater. In this manner, seeing occurs not only from the external visual stimuli, but also from internal ones. However, before the jelly completely changes into liquid, little pieces of jelly can still remain. When the eyeball rolls to look in another direction, small pieces of jelly floating in the liquid can hit the retina. The brain perceives this collision as a light. This indicates not only that can we see external and internal visual stimuli, but also that we can “see” a touch.

I often see images, but neither from external or internal stimuli, nor a touch. When I try to remember, understand, or imagine something, I see images. These images can depict the concrete or the abstract, texts or scenes, the blurry or the sharp, or the still or the moving.

In 2016, at an artist talk5 with a curator, I talked about “the image of my studio and the key.” Every day, as I leave my studio, on the stairs, I recall whether or not I have locked my studio. Then, an image of my hand locking the studio door shows up in my mind. If I see this image, I can interpret it to mean that I didn’t forget to lock the door, so I am relieved. But really? The only things that I see from the image are the door, the handle, the key, and my hand turning the key in the lock. There is no date or time data to verify when this image was produced. Every time I lock the door, the image should then be stored in my memory, every day. Technically, I cannot distinguish whether the image I see on the stairs is today’s image or yesterday’s, or even older. As soon as I feel insecure, hundreds of images of locking my studio door show up in my head, from older to newer, from left to right, becoming a riddle that I have to solve as to whether the last image in the sequences is from today or yesterday.

Back to the conversation with ophthalmologist, I asked him whether I scientifically “see” when I see images in my thoughts. He replied that it depends on how we define seeing. External visual stimuli come into the body via the cornea and the eye lens, travel through the vitreous body, and arrive at the retina, at which point they proceed along the optic tract and finally arrive at a nucleus in the occipital lobe that concerns vision in the brain. This process is generally considered “seeing” in ophthalmology. However, he said that even after completing medical school and now having worked as an ophthalmologist for almost half a century, he is personally still not quite sure whether this is sufficient enough an explanation for what “seeing” is. As soon as the stimuli reach the occipital lobe, they are edited. More specifically, they are cut, added to, and translated. For example, due to this editing process, we often see a clearer image of a face that we already know compared to other faces in a crowd. The editing proceeds while the stimuli that have arrived at the occipital lobe communicate with the reticular formation. The reticular formation is a complicated structure intertwined with small nuclei and nerve fibers, and it is connected to the nuclei in the brain, the spinal cord, the autonomic nervous system, and various receptors of the body. The activated reticular formation compares the stimuli with all kinds of memories, then selects, supplements, interprets, and cognizes them, in addition to having them collaborate with the sensory and motor organs. The ophthalmologist said that the images that I see while thinking are a visual phenomenon that is produced by the activated reticular formation without any additional external stimuli, and that one of the most common examples of this is a dream. If we can embrace the process of the reticular formation editing stimuli into seeing, then we could also say that I actually “see” images while I think.

In the physical world, seeing involves a concept of space. There is the distance between the eye and the target, and this distance incorporates a space. When the target changes, another distance between the two different targets emerges, and the space becomes complicated. In one’s mind, seeing also embodies the locations and distances of target images. And it again creates space. While thinking, I constantly travel in this space. From the 19th century to 2018, from Paris to Seoul, from Viewpoints to the reticular formation. In this space, I occupy a tremendous area that I could not imagine in the physical world and manipulate the sizes of the space and the distances between different spaces like magic. In addition, it only takes 0.1 second to travel within this enormous space.

4.

On stage, performers are constantly aware, with no break. Every movement – including a minute trembling of the pupil, regardless of whether it occurs intentionally or by reaction – is an outcome of awareness. It means that performers need to refine the technique of being aware in order to perform better. But how can we hone this technique? Being aware encompasses observing, perceiving, recollecting, imagining, planning, estimating, and making decisions. All of these involve the action of seeing stimuli and information both in physical space and in one’s mind, and they concern the past, present, and future.

Performers utilize the space of their minds as well as the physical space defined as a stage. Even in the midst of focusing on the here and now, they have to keep recalling pre-made plans such as the structure of the performance, times that are agreed, and tasks that are already set. In addition, they cannot avoid making immediate selections and decisions. While thinking of a plan or deciding on an action, they visit the space in their minds to call forth old images or to produce new ones. And they jump in between them.

Performers use the past, present, and future all at the same time. They utilize the past when they approach already-made plans. Based on that, they see and move in the present. However, they have to visit the future just prior to moving. After envisaging hundreds of possibilities and juxtaposing them with the past and the present, they make their decision for the future in the present. Finally, they take action and react accordingly.

Performers constantly see. While seizing the past, in the space of their minds, they see images that are already drawn in their heads. While employing the present, in the physical space, they see images all made of external stimuli. While engaging with the future, again in the space of their minds, they create images that they have not yet seen, and then see them.

1 Organized by Seoul National University New Music Series STUDIO 2021.

2 Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005), 8.

3 Bogart and Landau, The Viewpoints Book, 6.

4 Wonwha Yoon once described this as a “Closed Circuit” in Revitalizing Nam June Paik, a review of the exhibition 2015 Random Access (Nam June Paik Art Center) published in Art in Culture (March 2015), and Sooyon Lee explained it using the concept of the “Panopticon” in Mind Game, written for the exhibition catalogue of Korean Young Artists 2014, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

5 I participated in a talk with Siwon Hyun, the curator of Audio Visual Pavilion, as a program for the exhibition 1 2 3 4 (October 29 2016, Doosan Gallery, Seoul).