‘Unforgotten Song’ remembers the comfort women of World War II

November 22, 2019

Between 1932 and 1945, imperial Japan was at war with numerous countries in Asia and the Pacific. During this time, the Japanese government enslaved between an estimated 80,000 to 280,000 women from various occupied countries, including Korea, Taiwan, China and the Philippines, horrifically sending these women to military brothels to “comfort” stationed Japanese soldiers. This past weekend, Brandeis’ MusicUnitesUs program commemorated these “comfort women” through its “Unforgotten Song” concert, which artistically encapsulated and politically honored the anguish of these women. Led and curated by the multi-instrumental musician and Brandeis artist-in-residence “gamin,” the performance was a mixed media venture developed in collaboration with visual artist Chang-Jin Lee, composers Ki-Young Kim and Yoon-Ji Lee, musician Adam Robinson and the Lydian String Quartet. 

The night opened with a video collage by Chang-Jin Lee, in which audio recordings of survivors contemplating their experiences could be heard. As these women verbalize their hopes for the future––for legal justice, for apologies from perpetrators, for protecting subsequent generations of women and girls––English translations of their words are typed out onto the screen, the text overlayed onto extreme close-up photos of the survivors’ faces, in a kind of visual poetry. It was incredibly chilling yet powerful to hear the first-hand accounts of women who have been systematically silenced. Additional video art by Chang-Jin Lee was projected onto the screen throughout the night.

Gamin’s solo of “Untitled” on saenghwang, a Korean free reed mouth instrument, followed the opening video. The piece, composed by Yoon-Ji Lee, is quite sparse but nonetheless provocative, moving from the wail of long, sustained singular notes into swelling full-bodied, dissonant chords. Projected on the screen behind gamin were photos of comfort women survivors in their youth, the images slowly moving into frame to reveal the women’s faces. With this juxtaposition of image and sound, “Untitled” was haunting.

For the next song “Collage—Remembering Song,” gamin brought Adam Robinson on shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, to the stage. For this piece, the house and stage were plunged into darkness. Suddenly, audio recordings of comfort women survivors singing traditional songs from their home countries began playing over the speakers, over which gamin and Robinson improvised, at times echoing the song’s theme in a musical round or else embracing the vocals with supporting harmonies. 

The third piece “Mudang,” featured gamin on piri, a Korean double reed instrument made of bamboo, as well as the Lydian String Quartet, with Yonah Zur as first violinist, Judith Eissenberg as second violinist, Mark Berger on viola and Joshua Gordon on cello. Composed by Theodore Wiprud, the piece was characterized by the piercingly nasal screams of the piri and the agitated and sforzando strings. Compounding this deeply unsettling and fear-inducing audio was Chang-Jin Lee’s intentionally shaky B-roll footage of cityscapes, almost as if filmed from the perspective of someone scrambling through the alleyways of a dark metropolis. It was the night’s most graphic and memorable production.

“Quiet Revolution,” composed by Ki-Young Kim, was the final piece before the intermission. It included gamin on saenghwang as well as Zur and Eissenberg on violins. Comprising five parts, each section embodied a different mood. In the first movement, the instruments spiraled together in an unsettling mélange, the sonic swirls echoing the painterly brushstroke and curvilinear forms of Chang-Jin Lee’s ink and charcoal drawings. The next passage resembled a melancholic march with its steadier, grounding beat, while the third act evoked a suspenseful, tense chase with moments of intensity followed by release. And while the fourth segment used pained, droning wails to lament to the audience, the final movement’s stripped-down production displayed a quieter kind of chagrin.

“Loons,” performed by Robinson and composed by Elizabeth Brown, was the first piece to follow the intermission, for which the sound of the shakuhachi’s mystical warbles reverberated throughout the auditorium. Next, for “Remembering Song,” gamin and Robinson teamed up again to improvise harmonies over recordings of comfort women singing traditional songs. On the screen, meanwhile, photographs of the survivors’ houses faded in and out of focus, divulging the intimate corners and spaces of these women’s homes. The penultimate “Angels Broken,” composed by Yoon-Ji Lee and featuring gamin on piri, the Lydian String Quartet and some pre-recorded compositions, was brilliantly cataclysmic and nightmarish, opening with the brash and fuzzy sounds of a tuning radio before being joined by the screech of the piri, the crunch of bow on string, and horror-movie-esque pizzicato. 

Dae-Seong Kim’s “Lullaby for Peace in Asia”––played by the ensemble gamin, Robinson, the Lydian String Quartet, as well as guest musicians Patrice Jackson on cello, Christopher Janson on bass and Nina Sayles on percussion––rounded out the night’s performance. This piece’s serene melody was a stark contrast to what had come before, and served as a kind of respite from the rest of the program’s granularity. Here, the shakuhachi sings, and the cellos are rich with vibrato. Where there used to be choppy sonic fragments, there is now legato; where there used to be dissonance, there is now euphony. Inspired by traditional Korean melodies, “Lullaby for Peace in Asia” is an ode to healing the wounds created by war.

In “Unforgotten Song,” gamin foregrounds the voices of survivors and crafts artistic interpretations around their stories. Through abstraction and experimentation, each piece embodies a discrete feeling while never abandoning the trauma experienced by comfort women. As a multisensory performance, “Unforgotten Song” transcends traditional visual and auditory boundaries to enter the realm of pure expression. It is a tribute to survivors everywhere.

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