During the first months of the pandemic, pianist Min Kwon felt her hands were tied. Concerts had been canceled, her young children were adjusting to online school, and division and death seemed to lurk everywhere.
It was then that he came up with the idea for a project that would celebrate America’s diversity and creativity.
“I really wanted to create something new that would shed light and provide a snapshot of the very complex time we were all living together, as Americans,” says Kwon, a piano teacher at Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts.
The Korean-born American musician commissioned a diverse group of 75 composers to write a variation of the classic patriotic song America the Beautiful for solo piano. Those reimagined versions, made by Kwon, will stream online for free starting July 4. She calls the project America / Beautiful.
The highlights, Kwon says, include a piece written by a 93-year-old composer. Samuel Adler, who was the first to send Kwon his piece. Composers like Avner dorman other Paul Schoenfeld Exaggerated and excitingly crafted works that capture America’s greatness, energy, and vitality. Aaron Jay Kernis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Grammy-winning songwriter, wrote a seven-minute lament that Kwon labels “a mourning for America.”
The lyrics for America the Beautiful were written by Katharine Lee Bates, with music composed by church organist and choir director Samuel A. Ward. Bates originally wrote the words as a poem, “Pikes Peak,” first published in the July 4 issue of the church magazine The Congregationalist in 1895.
Kwon says he chose the song for its ability to resonate with Americans and that it contained a melody simple enough for songwriters to create something new.
“I wanted to find a song that every American had a connection to, or had a relationship with, or could relate to,” says Kwon. “We’ve heard it from openings, to soccer games, to all the iconic songwriters. Singers have sung it, from Ray Charles, to Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez. It’s a song that is very accessible.”
In music, a variation refers to an original that has been varied melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically, or that has changed in character or duration. For this project, he commissioned composers whose music he found attractive.
They represent different ages, races and genders, with cultural roots in countries such as Iran, Argentina, Pakistan, Israel, Estonia, Germany, Canada, France, Korea, Japan and China.
They are all American, but there are various influences from the music they grew up with, says Kwon.
“For example, I’m even playing Persian-style classical music where the piano had to be tuned differently. And I’m singing, like, [a] Jewish song. And I’m doing something inside the piano, strumming the strings inside the piano, which is one of the experimental techniques, “he says.
For the pre-recorded performances, Kwon varied his clothes according to the moods of the pieces and recorded in different locations.
To perform dark and dramatic pieces, Kwon visited the catacombs of a cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. For more hopeful pieces, he performed in a bright meadow with “amber grains.”
“We went to an Oceanside concert hall where you could literally see the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Kwon. “‘From sea to bright sea’ and ‘spacious sky’: I wanted to capture all of that.”
Kwon provided songwriters with a guideline: Try to make their pieces two to three minutes long. But it allowed flexibility in case they were inspired to go beyond time. The pieces range from two to 11 minutes.
Not all variations sound like the ancient melody they are based on. Some are confusing and chaotic. But Kwon says that speaks to the variety of pieces, and also how far some songwriters feel the country is far from the ideal of America the Beautiful.
There may be “some things that you may not understand or may confuse you the first time you hear it,” says Kwon. “But music also requires, just like our human relationships, or contacts, or communications … effort and investment of your time and your heart.”
Kwon hopes this project will help Americans reflect on difficult times, as well as find energy and hope.
FromAt 7, pre-recorded performances of the variations will be streamed online at 3 pm ET along with interviews with the songwriters. On July 8 and 9, Kwon will perform additional variations on four live shows in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
She also wants to leave something for her two young daughters, to help them better understand the last year and a half in American history.
“I wanted them to be able to look back at this moment, and not just read about what happened in the White House, or what happened in Minneapolis, or what happened in court or in hospital beds,” Kwon says. “I wanted you to see this, this amazing compendium of American creativity that is so rich in diversity.”