Eating live octopus requires considerable skill with one’s chopsticks. The suction pouches on the tentacles just do not want to let go of the plate. The tentacles forcefully pull away from the chopsticks and try to squiggle away plate like worms. Rather understandable, I suppose: if I were an octopus, I wouldn’t want to be eaten either.
Toto, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Not even close. I was in Yeosu, a small city on Korea’s south coast, sitting cross-legged in the most celebrated seafood restaurant in town. Around the table were several musicians from the orchestra performing “Liquid Interface,” my water symphony. I had been invited to the 2012 Ditto Festival by the exceptional Korean-American musician Richard Yongjae O’Neill. While the main performance was happening the next night in Seoul, we were doing a run-out concert to Yeosu during its hosting of the World Expo.
And I had asked to experience the most authentic south Korean food. Enter the octopus.
As I nervously tried to pull the tentacle off the plate in front of me, wondering just how in the hell anyone could consider this a delicacy, my mind zoomed-out to the bigger picture. In this culture so distant from my one, would anyone understand my music? Would it be as strange to them as this octopus was to me?
The same question had bothered me years earlier. I was living in Berlin and was just beginning work on the piece. Whether or not an artist deliberately thinks about the audience when creating, one’s native culture unavoidably informs that creative act. “Liquid Interface,” for example, has an entire movement that conjures a huge flood using a torrent of Dixieland swing (an homage to New Orleans after Katrina). Huge trip-hop beats in the electronics evoke massive glaciers, and a long-lined, emotionally direct melody ends the piece. Could a foreign audience, I wondered then, ever relate to this material? And now, would the Koreans get it?
The response last night heartened me. I had been warned to expect frigidity, but we received quite the opposite. Perhaps the watery musical imagery of the piece appealed to the people of this coastal town. Perhaps it was the sheer exoticism of some of the electronica rhythms and the New Orleans swing. But no matter the reason, here was an audience that received little introduction to the piece — a highly abbreviated program note, and not a word from me — and they seemed to be transformed nonetheless.
When hearing about my penchant for big narratives brought to life musically, some people ask “But what if you don’t know the story?” No matter! If one is thrown out of a moving fan in front of the concert hall, rushed inside without a moment’s introduction, he should understand the entire shape through the music alone. That’s what I believe, but rarely do I get the chance to actually see that hypothetical in action. Enter Yeosu.
I’m writing this backstage at the Sejong Grand Central Theatre in Seoul, where are big final concert is happening to an audience of over three thousand people. We’ll see how they respond. But no matter what, I’ll always be thankful to the people of Yeosu, for listening with such open ears — and for sharing their squirming delicacies!