Writing "When We Were"

St. George’s Choral Society will debut a commissioned work by violinist-composer Pauline Kim Harris at our fall concert on November 20. The composer attended a recent rehearsal to speak to the choir about her new piece, which is her fourth opus.

Pauline Kim Harris. Photo: Eli Akerstein.

Pauline Kim Harris. Photo: Eli Akerstein.

"When [Artistic Director] Matthew [Lewis] suggested the idea” of commissioning a work, “there were so many things I wanted to do," she said.

Eventually, Kim Harris used her recent discovery that her grandfather, Dr. Dong Whan Lee, was a poet as inspiration for "When We Were," an 8-minute piece for choir, organ, cello, and soprano with text in Korean. Words are written phonetically in English for singers.

“When We Were,” said Kim Harris, combines the "unusual and familiar" in expressing "how we relate to each other" and yearn for the "things that help us stick together and stay strong."

After the Korean War, Kim Harris’ grandfather relocated to Seoul, which was not then the cosmopolitan city it is today. In this new and unfamiliar place, he and so many others had to start over. "In hard times," Kim Harris said, "we find ways to reconnect, rebuild, and remember that we have each other."

"The tone of the poem predominantly directed the composition of the piece, rather than the actual words themselves," said Kim Harris. "Challenging, because the words are not necessarily translatable. One has to capture the essence of their meaning."

"When We Were" uses fragments of the poem, originally written in ancient Chinese calligraphy by Dr. Lee, nicknamed "Bamboo." The piece is in three parts: "Then," "Now," and "When." Each group has a role: the nostalgic chorale, reminiscent of the past; a cello solo (to be performed by Christine Kim) representing the reality of the present; the organ stating the passing of time; and a soprano solo evoking memory and transcendence.

"I’m excited to hear the piece come alive," Kim Harris said. And we can’t wait to perform it in November.