Chicago: Relearning to Listen–New Piano Music for Children

For her most recent commissioning project, composer and pianist Joann Cho invited a large group of composers to write a solo piano piece for her and asked them to write their piece “for children.”

Written By

Ellen McSweeney

Joann Cho

Joann Cho

For her most recent commissioning project, composer and pianist Joann Cho invited a large group of composers to write a solo piano piece for her. The restrictions for the commissions were fairly simple: each piece needed to be between one and three minutes long, and use the keys of the piano rather than the inside. Most importantly, Cho asked the composers to compose their piece “for children.” The resulting volume of seventeen pieces — called Elaeth Songs in honor of Cho’s infant son -– will have its premiere this Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Appropriately, Elaeth Songs will be presented by the Chicago Cultural Center’s Juicebox series, which has the unusual mission of presenting cutting-edge contemporary art in a toddler-friendly setting.

When I heard about Cho’s project, I was moved by the idea of commemorating the birth of a child with a set of commissions. I thought about Bartok’s beautiful set of pedagogical piano pieces for children, Mikrokosmos, and the many other ways that music for children has manifested itself in our art form. I chatted with Cho from the Oak Park home she shares with baby Elaeth and her husband, composer Jonathon Kirk. She was making final preparations for the performance and looking forward to the September release of the Elaeth Songs recording.

How did you initially frame this call for children’s pieces, and how did the composers respond?

I asked composers who had strong compositional identities, many of whom I knew personally. Although at first the project was a little amorphous, when I presented the idea to the composers, they were all very receptive. The restriction of writing for children is a fun idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything — you don’t have to change the way you’d compose a piece of music. Some people did [alter their usual language], and some people didn’t. Everyone took something slightly different away from what I asked them to do.

Could you highlight some of the pieces, perhaps ones that had a particularly interesting take on this prompt?

Although I asked for solo piano pieces only, I did have one composer ignore me. And it’s beautiful! The Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns has written a piece that is accompanied by a recording of Swiss cowbells. He wrote a piece that is completely open notation. He’s creating timbres on the piano that are bell-like, combined with the bells of the recording.

My advisor and main teacher at UC-Santa Barbara, Clarence Barlow, wrote me a piece that’s probably one of the more unique pieces in the bunch. Clarence loves to use extramusical ideas, and since Elaeth is half Korean, he started with four traditional folk tunes for children — “Rockabye Baby,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and two traditional Korean children’s tunes. He ends up creating two hybrid melodies throughout, combining the American and the Korean folk tunes. You get this sense throughout the piece where you recognize small motives and phrases from your childhood — you have this strange experience listening to it, exactly because of the juxtaposition.

I understand that Elaeth’s father, Jonathon Kirk, and his grandmother, Linda Kirk, wrote pieces for the collection!

Yes! And Jonathon wrote his piece, Fireflies, before I even prompted him. We were listening to one of Bach’s chorale preludes in the nursery, and Elaeth fell asleep. It’s this beautiful, slow, stately melody. Jonathon was listening to it — and falling asleep himself — and he got the inspiration to use this melody as a basis for his piece. It’s sort of structured like a theme and variations — he has one part in the style of Ligeti, once with a jazz harmonic progression. He places the melody in eight or so different contexts, with these nice transitions between each iteration of the melody.
Elaeth was born into a family and a world of composersI love the fact that I can include works by Elaeth’s closest family members. Jonathon and I are both musicians — we both started out as performers and began composing, we met in music school — so it’s a natural progression for Jonathon to have written a piece for him.

What a lovely family moment to have as a jumping-off point for a piece.

Anytime something like that would happen, we’d have to write it down for the scrapbook. It’s still like that. It’s amazing with a baby how you really notice those moments of calm and quiet. The moment they fall asleep, you finally see things, and you wake up for the first time — you notice.

The concept of time as a series of moments seems particularly important in a set of miniatures – and also in the experience of parenthood.

One thing that I have learned is that I really value time — my time with Elaeth, and also my time alone. All these little ways of compartmentalizing time in my life are really different than before he arrived, and I think doing a project like this also really reminded me that music is something that can transcend that feeling of having less time or more time. You can experience music apart from time.

Did the prompt to write children’s music seem to bring out anything special from the composers you chose?

I think it forced the composers to reflect on their own artistic and creative ideas in a way they hadn’t thought about in a while. Instead of trying to do something new, a lot of them reached into their previous experience. They imagined what they’d want to listen to in its purest form, from a child’s perspective. I don’t see any techniques here that are trying to be something they’re not. The composers worked with elements like harmony and rhythm — these things that we often overly complicate – in a pure and basic way. It reminded me of how children experience harmony and rhythm and form.
Every single piece that I received is completely unique. I was shocked at the diversity of the pieces I received. Even looking at the lullabies – I got several — each one is completely different from the last. These composers, who have established their careers, style, and sound, still have the ability to write a piece, listen to it, and experience the music exactly the way music is experienced by children.

What was the process of preparing these pieces like?

It felt like I was learning how to listen to myself play again for the first time. It was a rediscovery of using my ears to discern how I wanted to play some of these pieces. I was not practicing based on conveying a performance, but with a lot more thoughtful reflection on the music itself.
I was playing a lot for Elaeth — he’s amazing; he responds to all kinds of music — but it’s hilarious because sometimes I’ll play a lullaby. Scott Scharf wrote me this high, ethereal, floaty lullaby and Elaeth started dancing and screaming to it. You never know what kind of effect this type of music will have. I’m not necessarily running the pieces by him, but they were meant to be listened to by him.

Right! How do you imagine this collection, which is kind of a gift to him as well as to yourself, landing with him when he’s old enough to understand?

Actually, my plan is to do this again several more times — not necessarily with the same prompt, but to work with other chamber ensembles and continue to write new music for children. My biggest goal with this project, and doing another volume, would be to allow listeners of new music to be introduced to it without the idea of having to analyze the music. To sort of learn a perspective — not to be afraid of it because it’s in the contemporary classical idiom.

It sounds like your vision for this project expands well beyond what it means for your own family.

I’ve always wanted to include more people in the world where I studied music. I was so inspired at Northwestern when I took my first experimental music class, when we learned about content, and techniques, and zooming in. The course prioritized not only things that were new and edgy and avant-garde, but also an idea of inclusiveness. I’m not saying all contemporary music has to be accessible, or like mainstream popular music. But the first step towards getting to know something is lots of exposure.

Teaching at a community college, I notice now that students are only exposed to what they choose to get exposed to. And people like me are responsible for being advocates. To be exclusive as a contemporary musician or composer seems to me very much against the ideals of the whole reason why we got into it. The idea of including children, including newcomers to this music, is an important concept that’s close to my heart.