Ensemble Mik Nawooj digs for meaning

Musical collective perform a chamber hip-hop opera, ‘Death, Love & Life’

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Ensemble Mik Nawooj — a collective of instrumentalists, rappers and vocalists — is breaking the rules of musical genre in all the right ways. Fusing classical Western European compositions with genres like hip-hop, rock and pop, the act promises an experience that is at once refreshing, innovative and utterly captivating.
The Daily Californian spoke with director and composer JooWan Kim about Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s newest chamber hip-hop opera, “Death, Love & Life,” set to premiere on April 27 at Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco.

Daily Cal: “Death, Love & Life” stems mainly from three of your previous singles — “Without Goodbyes,” “This Is Why” and “The First Song.” Can you tell us what it’s about?

JooWan Kim: This one is basically about the different things you experience in life. For instance, “Without Goodbyes” is about death. I wrote that piece a while ago, when my friend died. I’m not really emotional, and I can be really stoic about things. I felt tremendously about that incident, and I needed to write something to express myself. So, I wrote that, and afterwards it was really depressing, so I decided to write about love. “This Is Why” is about a love that doesn’t happen because it’s about breakups. Then I wrote “The First Song,” which is a song of resolution. There could be a narrative in the sense that it starts with death, and you experience terrible loss, and you go through different stages of emotions and incidents that are related to death, because death is the biggest issue that we have as human beings so far. In between, we have “Hope Springs Eternal,” which is about humans’ aspiration to achieve completeness or happiness. There is another piece that I am working on called “We Will Conquer,” which is about struggle. The newest piece I just finished for the opera is called “Morning Light,” which is about the transformation that happens after all this struggle, and you have a revelation that things aren’t too bad, and you actually feel great.

DC: In a sense, is this piece less of an opera and more of a journey?

JWK: Yes. There’s a musical drama that will be very clear. You will be very tense and will then be rewarded with satisfaction and resolution. It’s going to be pop music, not classical.
My personal experience triggered everything in this opera. Think of it this way — say you go see “Django Unchained” or “Kill Bill,” and you really like it. I’m sure Tarantino thought a lot to put together certain scenes, but you don’t know that. Or when you buy an iPhone. You just want to listen to music or look at how pretty it is. That’s what I want you do. When you hear this, you’ll see a bunch of MCs who are really lyrically dope. I have an excellent lyric soprano that just came back from Lincoln Center who’s going to hit high C during “Morning Light.” We also have a really tight classical ensemble and a great drummer. And I’m, of course, Asian and have long hair and monk-type clothes. So yeah, that’s what you’re going to see. And it’s going to be really amazing.

DC: How did the collaboration with the Bay Area underground hip-hop group, the Attik, come about?

JWK: I was doing pieces with (rapper Kirby Dominant, who collaborated with EMN on “Without Goodbyes”), and it was he who suggested that I find more MCs to work with. I knew a friend who owned a restaurant in the city and one night, one of the members of The Attik came in to eat. (The Attik and my friend) had done an album together and (my friend) actually introduced me … After that, we did a show, and (one of the members,) Do D.A.T., came. He was super impressed, and after that, we started doing pieces together.

DC: Can you talk about your process and how you combine the lyrical rap and instrumental compositions?

JWK: First, I write out a detailed synopsis of the concept of the music, and then it’s basically a lot of going back and forth — me giving (the MCs) the detailed markup and where to go in and out, and then they write a portion and give it back to me in a week. I also employ the method of jazz in some ways because each MC who covers the same story is going to convey it differently. The music stays the same, and the rhyming changes based on the personality of the MC.

DC: What kind of experience do you want to leave your audience with?

JWK: I want my audience to feel really happy. Also relieved. This piece, for me, I mean — my friend committed suicide. That was a big deal for me. I ended with “The First Song” because it’s about resolution and your very first experiences. Your first kiss, the time you graduate from high school … it’s about life continuing. So, I want you to start with death and feel shitty but at the end feel completely transformed and kind of realize that this is shitty — but it’s okay. We can do this.

DC: The essence of the human experience!

JWK: Yes, and optimism. Even though sometimes we can’t find meaning or it doesn’t reveal itself to us, we still live. And I want people to live, sort of, happier. That’s my message.

Contact Ashley Chen at [email protected].