Water from the Perspective of Water

Water from the perspective of water
is the tug of kelp at my suspended particles,
is the lazy shuffle of my body, which encloses all things.

Water from the perspective of water
is sunshine within instead of above,
pulsating against my silvery wardrobe.

Water from the perspective of water
is words from the perspective of speech,
flesh from the perspective of a dimple,
prime factors as their numeral product.

 —The moon from the perspective of the moon
  is a nocturne ahead of music: "Before the song was,
  I am," she spins from her silent loom.—

Water from the perspective of water
is Atlas beneath the sky's overturned vessel,
a thousand boats stealing away on the shoulders of my buoyancy,

or is it
a contest of pressures,
mine against the squeeze of a whale's stomach?

Water from the perspective of water
is midnight traffic, sloshing
effortlessly homeward. My secret is gravity.

At any given moment,
though I am trodden or parted or spilled,
yet my rest is in what I am, where I go.


Produced by Stephen Davis. I'm on piano and, erm, vocals.

A Series of Articles on Music Outreach in LA

This month, the USC Thornton School of Music is publishing a series of articles I wrote about the impact of the Thornton Community Engagement Programs on schools, students, and college musicians. Take a look here.

Recital Videos and Sheet Music Now Available

You can now view the video recordings from "The Ginkgo Trees Make Nary a Whisper," my senior recital, on my YouTube page.

Since several of you have asked about which elements of the performance were improvised, I've also decided to make the sheet music "open source." You can download it here.

You can find more information about the project here.

The Ginkgo Trees Make Nary a Whisper

Ablaze in marigold flames,
the ginkgo trees
make nary a whisper, but
drip embers upon the roadside,
one leaf at a time.

From "Ginkgo Tree Road" by Ko Chae-jong

샛노란 불꽃의
활활거리는 은행나무가
정녕 고요한데도 한 잎 두 잎
길가에 불똥을 떨군다

고재종의 "은행나무길" 중에서

Tree rings teach our scientists the story of the Earth even as forests are overwhelmed by the advance of human civilization. Timeless yet endangered, wise yet passive, trees embody the contradictions of modernity. How can artists support trees' voices in a political landscape that grows only noisier?

My senior recital examines the symbolic role of trees in contemporary Korean poetry. USC student Ha Young Park will read poetry in Korean and in translation, accompanied by new original music performed by me, Trevor Zemtseff, Logan Kane, and Daniel McLaughlin.

I hope you'll join us.

The Ginkgo Trees Make Nary a Whisper
Max Kapur's senior recital
Sunday, October 29, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
USC Songwriter's Theater
(Follow signs from TMC courtyard.)

나무들은 연륜으로 우리 과학자들에게 지구의 이야기를 들려주지만 숲은 문명의 발전으로 인해 훼손된다. 영원할 것 같지만 때로는 멸종 위기에 처하기도 하고, 현명한 것 같지만 때로는 문명의 발전에 순응하는 것을 보면 나무는 현대성의 모순을 나타낸다. 과연 작가들은 시끄러운 정치적 풍토 속에서 나무의 목소리를 앞으로 어떻게 지지할 수 있을까.

저의 사학년 공연은 현대시에 나타나는 나무의 상징성을 살펴보고자 합니다. USC 재학 중인 박하영이 한국어와 영어로 작품을 낭독하고 함께 들려드릴 음악은 새롭게 작곡된 곡으로써 Trevor Zemtseff와 Logan Kane와 Daniel McLaughlin과 제가 연주할 것입니다.

귀를 기울여 주시기 바랍니다.

은행나무가 정녕 고요한데도
김만수의 사학년 공연
10월 29일 (일), 오전11:30 ~ 오후12:30
USC Songwriter's Theater
(TMC 마당에서 안내 표지를 따라 가십시오.)

Trees Love through Their Roots

My translation of 나무들은 뿌리로 사랑을 한다 by 가인혜 (Ka In-hye):

Deep within the forest,
when I turn into a leaf
and empty myself,
I don’t notice the tree turning into a person,
telling me to get out.

The trees, which cannot walk outside,
probe beneath the earth, their gaze
lamenting the departed.

Refusing even light,
within the impenetrable darkness,
the trees love through their roots.

The darkness covers
even the unmendable wound
left by a flesh-tearing stone.

Through roots that never recede once grown,
the trees give a love that’s firmer than time.

Despite the fascination with questions of existence maintained by English-language poets as unalike as Richard Wilbur and Allen Ginsburg, the term existential poetry seldom appears as a genre label in English lit crit. In the Korean scene, though, the value of poetry—as a broad literary project—seems wed to its ability to elicit feelings of existential transcendence (in the Buddhist sense; see Ko Ŭn) or dread (see above).

Thus, critic Cho Wan-ho titles his essay on "Trees Love through Their Roots" (among other poems), "Existential Poetry, like the Whetstone that Grinds Smooth a Dull Knife," suggesting existential poetry as an essential poetry that keeps us sharp in the blunting fray of modern life. He writes,

Sometimes we are drenched in joy; other times we suffer conflict. Everyone hopes for their love to last forever, keeping its original form, but the reality is that in most cases, we hold these expectations in vain. For that reason, there are some who call love the root of all tragedy. In the face of this truth, Ka In-hye longs for the love that flows through the roots of trees. Such love, she says, "never recede[s] once grown" and stands "firmer than time."

Cho's essay is published (in Korean) alongside Kim's original poem in a collection (also called Trees Love through Their Roots) by the "Simjang" T'ongin ("Heartbeat" Collective). The above translation and an analysis of the poem will appear in my yet-untitled thesis, an exploration of tree symbolism and themes of existential ecology in contemporary Korean poetry.

Centering Students as Creators

In an influential article reimagining how we teach art in the modern classroom, Gude observes that when students set about "looking for and developing images from inkblots, smoke marks, or wax drippings," even the artistically checked-out ones begin to recognize themselves as creators:

Initially, students may be confused and suspicious—claiming they don't see anything in the blurs and blobs, but as peers and teachers model an experimental attitude, soon the classroom is filled with exclamations as new images and combinations are spontaneously discovered. Students who are taught to access the creative unconscious don't drive teachers mad complaining, "I don't have an idea." These students have learned the important artistic lesson that artists do not know the outcomes of their works before they begin. Artists immerse themselves in a process of making and sensitively interact with images and ideas as they emerge.

We would do well to follow Gude's lead in other fields of art education, too. When I interned at The Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas this summer, I noticed the staff was well prepared for students who would claim, "I'm really not the creative type." In our workshops, we sometimes had students brainstorm on paper as a warm-up activity, but the proper beginning would always involve dissecting a story or film clip and bouncing original ideas around in a group discussion.

This works great for elementary schoolers, whose boundless imaginations seldom need more than a push-start. It's insecurity about speaking in front of unknown students (these were summer day camps, after all), not insecurity about their creative facility, that holds them back.

High school students are another story, though. By tenth or eleventh grade, a subset of kids now identifies as "ambitious." They are eager to see their name at the top of a page filled with text—especially if they can send it off as a college or scholarship application—and they like the idea that they have a story to tell. And they all do. But early on in our college essay workshop at BFI, when asked to describe their apprehensions about writing their applications, all also said some version of: "I have a vision for myself, but I'm not sure how telling the story of my past adds up to it."

The lead teacher on that workshop, a professional essay counselor who volunteered to do this workshop for free, was excellent at helping students connect their future ambitions with narratives of their past. Her process seemed like a formula at first, until you looked closer and realized it was the exact opposite. The students filled out surveys to get their superficial interests out of the way—things like sports and music, or what Gude would call "'symbols of themselves' [that] promote narrow, limited, socially pre-defined categories of identity." Having found this rhythm, the students next did a similar questionnaire asking about their values and social concerns.

The task of the workshop (and, I suppose, the college essay broadly) was to use storytelling to bridge column A with column B, and this central how question of writing was left to the students' creativity. There was, of course, the obligatory read-over of successful application essays to top universities. But this teacher didn't ask the students to count the number of anecdotes, have them calculate the ratio of "showing to telling," or make any other such cruel attempt to reduce writing to a mathematical exercise (as if words weren't intimidating enough without numbers). Instead, she led the students in a discussion focusing on the emotional impact of specific phrases within each essay. The students picked out the writerly gestures they found interesting; there was no judgment if they favored a passage others deemed corny or wordy or mathy. They were recognizing writing as a subjective undertaking. They were seeing the faces in the inkblots.

As I prepare to be teaching music music again after a summer of creative writing, I'm finding Gude's article an impactful synthesis of this summer's implicit realizations. In arts education, we can do more than turn up the volume on existing channels of students' personas. Rather than asking that stereotypical music-teacher question, "What kind of music are you into?" I think we can arrive at a more innovative—and more stylistically robust—pedagogy by asking students (and ourselves), "What kind of musician do you want to be?" People, after all, are at art's center.

By way of a soft ending: The next stop on this train of thought is Schippers' Facing the Music: Shaping Music Education from a Global Perspective, the core text for an elective I'm taking in our music education department. To decenter western models of music teaching and learning, Schippers favors the anthropological term transmission in describing how people encounter music. "What we hear, learn, and teach is the product of what we believe about music," he writes. We believe music can inform a positive self-identity, an emotionally attuned lifestyle, and the construction of stronger communities, but what message do we send students when we spend forty minutes of a precious hour's general music class memorizing solfege syllables?

I’m Kelp

I want I'm Kelp to challenge the assumption that music is painted on a canvas of silence. Noise is this music’s canvas, and its palette consists of the kinds and amounts of signal present. It is tertiary music.

What is "tertiary music"? One way to think about the constitution of music is in terms of dimensions. Primary music, we could say, consists of merely rhythm. We make it by tapping objects together, creating interesting patterns and variations. As the patterns accelerate and gain complexity, we begin to perceive the rhythm as a pulse, then an oscillation, a thrum, and finally, when the series of rhythmic nodes has collapsed into a singularity, a certain pitch. Now, we can create secondary music by organizing several of these pitches in time. Though we hear these melodies as having their rhythm constituted where the pitch changes, in fact, on the physical level, all we've designed is a long series of oscillations, spaced apart with a frequency regulated by a higher-dimensional plan.

Pack enough melodies together and the structure becomes fuzz once again, a counterpoint fray so thick that the ear hears only the spikes and dips in volume or intensity, not its constituent melodies. A spike. A dip. A spike. A dip. At this point, we’ve managed to collapse melody into a singularity, just as we collapsed rhythm to get from primary to secondary music. If we accept this abstraction, then our tertiary music is principally the same art as that made by a group of primordial humans drumming around the fire—save that our blunt instruments, spewing indecipherable knots of pitch material, conceal a world of melodic and rhythmic complexity that bursts in and out of focus. It’s music about music, music that contains a history of sonic creativity.

I'm Kelp is an experiment in creating such tertiary music. The three tracks on this EP represent as many divergent conceptions of the "blunt instrument" that produces such music's sonic elements. "Desert Rainstorm" uses the drone of amplifier feedback to unite tonal chaos. In "I'm Kelp," conventional instruments disclaim conventional melodic continuity. Finally, "Avalanche" seeks to embrace tertiary music without abandoning tonality.

I hope you enjoy this project and would love to hear your thoughts.

The Poet Who Commutes to His Backyard

My translation of 마당으로 출근하는 시인 by 정일근 (Chŏng Il-gŭn):

For as long as I’ve lived at the base of Kettle-Leg Mountain,
I’ve sat at a wooden desk someone left in the yard
to write my poems. I spread open my journal
and scratch away with a stubby pencil.
While my old coworkers are putting in their hours,
I’m at my new office, a mountainside clearing,
and poems are the only work I have.
I’m paid no salary,
nor do I earn any health benefits, but
because I’ve found my calling, I am content.
At my new job, my coworkers are the flowers, the wind,
the clouds. When I mutter a poem to myself,
the blossoms perk up their petal ears and listen in.
And at lunch, when I leave my desk for a moment,
the wind furtively turns my notebook’s pages,
and the clouds steal a peep at my poetry before dashing off.
Tomorrow, they’ll show me a better poem,
just to embarrass me.
So that I don’t lose out in this rat race,
I dutifully make my daily commute to the backyard.

Mystic Shape

Sonnets from the Portuguese I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair,
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove, …
'Guess now who holds thee?'
        —'Death,' I said. But there,
The silver answer rang … 'Not Death, but Love.'

Two Valentines

a jar of dust: one speck from the print of each step we've taken
white noise: one thousand whispers, overlaid as the soft folds of so many blankets

Avalanche

I
wake

up after the avalanche
and see fingers strewn before

me—little frostbitten stumps discharged from this body that made the most desperate of felicific calculi. I remember the backwards roar of the mountain before it sighed down upon me—turning to look but seeing
nothing, hearing only a broad rustling that reverberated toward where I stood. I held my hands out in front of me, still, trying to give myself a reference point so I could see if the ground was indeed moving or if it was just me.