In Darkness

The lights were brought to zero for the first of my six performances at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It was more staggering than I imagined – it was pitch black, as if I had suddenly become temporarily blind. This project that I had been dreaming of for eighteen months was finally happening – and it turned out to be one of the most profound experiences of my artistic life.

After the premiere of “light/see + dark/hear” photo courtesy of Jayme Halbritter and The Great Northern

As I unexpectedly fell into a volunteer group in Seoul helping to lead mountain hikes for people who are visually impaired, a curiosity blossomed for me about experiencing the world without one sense; I felt a certain guilt for taking all five of mine for granted.

Nearly two years later, my project was finally at hand: a partnership with composer Steve Heitzeg, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and The Great Northern allowed this: touring a visual art gallery in silence (earplugs and all), followed by a live performance in blackout darkness. It was part improvised – inspired by the paintings and photographs I took in with each pre-concert walk – and part world premiere composition, committed to memory. It translated into me seated cross-legged on the floor, embarking on a stream-of-consciousness performance that was unaffected by anything but imagination and sound. It allowed the audience to cozy up with a cushion – hygge-style – on the floor encircling me, surrendering one sense to heighten another. At one point there was crackling bow hair on the wood of the violin to emulate snow crunching under one’s boots, then getting lost in an Old Time fiddle tune as if inside by the fire on a cold Minnesota winter night, and sounds of bird migration that turned into solo Bach. How might we listen differently to the things – and people – around us when we cannot see?

This was on the heels of another project of equal profundity of a different ilk: the intersection of fire and music. Spearheaded by Ellen McGhee and Qwalen Bernstein via The Watershed Center in the Trinity Alps of California, I dived into an immersion week of mornings in “fire school” – living in a backcountry cabin learning about Indigenous American land management practices, building bow drills, lighting friction coals, soil ecology lessons, and farm chores – alongside afternoons playing chamber music inspired or informed by fire. Learning about how Native cultures looked after our planet can transform how we think about fire, its ferocity, and its gifts. How can we borrow this knowledge?

Early mornings on the farm and heading to “fire school”

It is with continued ignominy for my lack of awareness, gratitude for what I’ve been able to learn, and curiosity about what the world of fire has to teach us that I look forward to my next immersion in April. Until soon, forest.

Prior to these two life-changers, my wonderfully swirling life sent me to Detroit to run my first-ever half marathon (finishing with an embarrassingly slow mile time – though somehow I managed to run the whole race – maybe in my next life I’ll be less tortoise-like). Then it was out to North Carolina for a residency at Duke University with my dear friend and collaborator Ieva, home to Minnesota for a little Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with bro Daniel and a stellar crew of NLCMI-ers, then to Asia for a three-week concert tour – a recital and master class back in Korea, the premiere of Piyawat Louilapprasert‘s violin concerto Tweeeeter, and premiering six new works at the ICIT Festival in Bangkok. Woof.

Before I knew it I was back in the Bay leaning into two of my many musical homes there: Castillero Middle School and the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, and then it was off to the races with the new semester at Cornell. My happy place of being with my fabulous undergrads was reborn, and I had the pleasure of hosting a residency there with 9 Horses where they jammed with students, led us through improv master classes, and played a killer show. Somewhere in there was a Knights tour with the incomparable Chris Thile (with whom we inaugurated our Carnegie residency), a recital tour with Ieva and Dan Temkin which took us from Virginia to the Berkshires, and then I wound up down in Florida playing some solo shows for a most knowledgeable and engaged audience at the Sarasota Institute for Lifetime Learning (and a little sunshine and saltwater in the middle of a New York winter never hurts). Then it was to Baltimore to give a keynote performance-presentation at the annual PCCW Symposium for a collection of incredible Cornell women, and then back to NYC. Oh yea, and in the margins, climbing rocks and cooking/eating way too much food.

I’ll return to the title of this post for a moment before picture time. I’ve been in a bit of an emotional tailspin of late, and when I find my heart in pain, I will often try to find the light right away, pushing the dark out. This time, I’m allowing myself to sit in it, trying to let my “eyes” adjust to the experience, giving into feeling the thing. Through darkness can emerge the fires of anger, and eventually those fires can transform into light. I have a number of friends who are also dealing with heartache in different forms at this moment, and I came across this poem by Rashani Réa that I’d like to share. No matter the anguish, someday strength will emerge, and we will all learn to sing again:

There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness
out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.

And once there’s a bit of levity, ain’t nothing wrong with putting on a comfy, cozy sweatshirt, ordering a pizza, and watching reruns of Golden Girls.

For the road, a photo album to accompany the prose:

Barely making it across that finish line, and post-shower/brunch bliss with the Boersma boys and some holiday family time with my in-laws-to-be in Grand Rapids

Outreach activities with students at Cornell during our Knights tour, and a most hilarious capture of Chris’s creation, on stage at Zankel (yes, there was a group dance number mid-piece)

Post-concert hang with NC pals, and on-stage with the phenomenal Ieva at Duke

My happy place…homemade Korean food; a table honoring our ancestors for New Years

Concert time in Gwangju, South Korea and Bangkok…and practicing in the van in Thai traffic – we didn’t move for 10 minutes, so I asked the driver if I could seize the moment and practice in the back seat – he gave me the green light (too bad that wasn’t literally the case for us during rush hour – makes LA seem tolerable, ha!)

Introducing Jordan to my family and friends in Korea, getting fitted for our wedding hanbok, and one of the best highlights – a reunion hike with our volunteer group – Neuteenamu is crushing it as always, and J got the chance to help lead another unsighted member from the group and meet the new pup, Ria!

Eating our weight in Thai street food, visiting friends in Bangkok, and during my one free day, flew down to the southeastern coast (Au Nang) for some world-class and unforgettable limestone-cliffs-over-the-beach climbing…

Some more pics from fire camp – back cabin quartet rehearsals, “skull class,” and remnants of my first bow drill-build…and friction fire start!

My usual Bay-to-SoCal trip after working with Scott and the PACO and Castillero team in San Jose – then a visit to Joonie (!) and his caretakers, the nuns of Kkotdongnae Monastery, and the fabulous Lee crew =)

Some additional shots from “light/see + dark/hear” – earplugs for the gallery walk, audience members pre-show, a selfie with my wingwoman for the weekend Rachel, and post-event with composer Steve Heitzeg and patron superheroes Tom Von Sternberg and Eve Parker

Giving a set of solo recitals in Sarasota and hosting the very cool 9 Horses in a guest artist residency at Cornell – master classes and jam sessions with students

Up next is our next Knights show at Zankel, a faculty solo recital up at Cornell, an NYC album – Colors – release tour with Qing Jiang and Christine Lamprea, and gearing up for hosting the next PBS broadcast for the Minnesota Orchestra.

And last but not least, a very happy 1st birthday to my niece, Olivia – her big 첫돌 party in Minnesota last week –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *