Composer Jean Ahn on “Roasted Chestnuts”

Jean Ahn, composerYour new piece, Roasted Chestnuts, was commissioned by SFBC and is being premiered at our December concert. How did you approach writing for SFBC and this particular concert?

When Magen told me that the concert is about the winter solstice, I immediately thought of Roasted Chestnuts, one of the most cozy Korean folk songs we have. The Korean winter is brutally cold, but we have ​ondol ​(heated floors) that bring families together to sit on the floor and warm each other. We would eat roasted chestnuts while sharing stories. Although Korea is modernized now, roasted chestnuts are still essential street food because they give us warmth both physically and emotionally. I wanted to share that communal spirit with the Bach Choir.

Your music often brings traditional Asian elements into Western music. What are some musical elements that you incorporated into Roasted Chestnuts?

I used the original folk song melody nearly intact, but I expanded the use of grace notes. Grace notes [short ornamental notes that sound just before a main note] are very important in Korean music, as they give life to the main notes that follow.

Korean folk music always has a continuous drum pattern. In “Roasted Chestnuts” we hear that drum pattern in the sung background syllables, “dung koong koong tta koong,” where each sound indicates a different part of a Korean barrel drum.

You have collaborated with SFBC Artistic Director Magen Solomon on a number of occasions. Can you tell us a little about your working relationship with her?

It is not an exaggeration to say that I learned my choral writing from Magen. I worked as her assistant conductor while she was conducting the UC Berkeley Chamber Choir, and I have been Composer-in-Residence with her choir, SF Choral Artists. Her rehearsals are always full of inspiration (I am sure the SF Bach Choir singers already know this!).

Magen gives so much helpful and practical advice when I bring my pieces to her. We have had many discussions back and forth, and there have been times when I disagreed with her suggestions, but often later in a rehearsal I would say, “Can we change that to what you suggested? You were right.” That doesn’t mean that she imposes her ideas over mine. My original ideas are still there, but I have been able to realize my ideas in a more effective way, and successfully communicate with the choir in the process.

Is there anything else we should know about Roasted Chestnuts?

This is not a serious piece, so I hope the audience has fun as the singers repeat “a-ha jon-ne” which means “ah, all good.” This piece is actually not easy to put together, but nevertheless I hope it sounds very easy to the audience. I would like everyone to have a big smile as they listen to this music!