Korean music has the reputation of sounding foreign to western sensibilities—instruments such as the zitherlike kayagum and oboelike piri stress different tonal qualities than their generally sweeter European cousins, and traditional tuning systems don’t adhere to the tempered scale. But Grace Jong Eun Lee’s music is something different. Having spent most of her life in Canada, the teacher, pianist, composer, and kayagum virtuoso has developed a kind of hybrid form, in which Asian and western styles commingle almost seamlessly. And, having a penchant for the classical and romantic styles of 19th-century Europe, she also makes music that, from any perspective, is decidedly easy on the ears.
“Mostly I write symphonic music, but bringing up a very important instrument, kayagum,” Lee says in a telephone interview from her North Vancouver home. “People wonder how they work together, but you have to see it. The eastern and western styles unify very, very well. My music has a kind of western beauty in it, and it’s not really ‘contemporary’ music, as we speak of it. It’s mostly music intended to be healing, peaceful, and hopeful. There’s care and love in it.”
The Enchanted Music of Grace Jong Eun Lee, a gala concert celebrating 55 years of Korean-Canadian economic collaboration taking place next week, is largely devoted to this kind of music; one of the highlights will surely be a new piece, Waves of Sunset, which Lee plans to debut that night.
“It’s set at the end of the day, but you’re expecting another day to come, hoping that the future and tomorrow will be better,” she explains. “And I know every day can’t be happy times all the time; sometimes we suffer and can be discouraged. But, in fact, at morning we start again and gain much hope-and-love feeling. So the piece will have a little bit of a sad movement, but eventually it gets stronger. It’s a kayagum-and-orchestra piece, with lots of brass instruments—horn and trumpet and trombone all have solos in it.”
But Lee stresses that, despite the evening’s title, it’s not all about her. Part of her intent is to showcase the strength and diversity of Asian culture in Vancouver, and so the second part of the concert will expand to include a wide variety of guest artists. For opera lovers, she’s presenting the Vancouver Singing Society: four Chinese-Canadian male vocalists who’ve trained in Europe and elsewhere. She’ll be adding her music to a demonstration of taekwondo skills, highlighting Korea’s national form of martial arts, and she’s also written new solo pieces for both piano and kayagum to accompany Poppin’ JUNO, a Korean YouTube sensation with a uniquely syncopated take on contemporary street dance. In addition to focusing on her penchant for beauty, Lee hopes to express the “powerful, energetic” side of the Korean character that has made the Asian country such an economic and cultural powerhouse in recent decades.
“It’s for my community, and also for multicultural people,” she says. “And also it’s about my background. I’ve been here over 30 years in Vancouver, so inside of me it’s partially Korean culture, Asian culture, and Canadian culture. It’s all mixed up together, and every day I’m really thankful for that.”
The Enchanted Music of Grace Jong Eun Lee takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Friday (September 7).