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70 New Ways To Think About 'America The Beautiful'

Jul 6, 2021
Originally published on July 6, 2021 10:16 am

More than 100 years ago, a poem by Katharine Lee Bates was put to music by Samuel Ward, and the resulting song has become one of the United States' most recognizable patriotic hymns, "America the Beautiful."

Looking at how the country has evolved and changed over the last century, the pianist Min Kwon wondered what it would sound like if this traditional tune evolved and changed as well. So, she invited more than 70 composers to write variations for solo piano based on a theme of "America the Beautiful." The result is a new project, America/Beautiful, she's releasing on July 4.

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Kwon joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about the project, the pandemic and the American dream. Listen to the full audio above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Shapiro, All Things Considered: How does [one interpretation of "America the Beautiful"] fit into the larger project of these dozens and dozens of variations?

Min Kwon: It just reminds once again what I love the most about our country and that is the exciting diversity and multilayers of who we are, where we come from, where our parents come from, what we look like and what kinds of experiences and feelings and emotions that we bring to the table. And I think the last year, because so many of us were kind of at loss for words, "When words fail is when music begins," somebody said this, and it's one of my favorite quotes. ... Music is, in a way, it's an outlet; it's an outburst — sometimes of our soul. Something that we are too afraid to express or too uncomfortable to think about, music gives us that outlet. And also, it gives validity to all the emotions and feelings that Americans were feeling [last year].

Can you tell us about your own relationship to "America the Beautiful" – I mean, as an American who devotes your life to music, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant from South Korea, what does this patriotic hymn mean to you?

I came to America, as corny as it might sound, with a true American dream. Musicians that I adored, admired, idolized — they all came from America. And I promised to myself that one day I want to go there and make a life out of music, and I've been so fortunate to be able to pursue that dream. This song is, of course, idealistic. But, what is a human being if we don't hold our own ideals or values or hopes? And every tragedy, every darkness, I think, has to turn to something brighter and better.

In some of these pieces, it's hard for me to actually track the original melody of "America the Beautiful." I feel like I lose the theme. And I wonder if that, too, is a metaphor for this country.

Exactly, yes. America means so [many] different [things] to so many people, and we have complex feelings about our country, and because of that, I think this project was the perfect outlet for these people to express that complex feeling. Nothing ever stays the same. Also, a lot of the composers wrote in their variations things that change, and there are opposing characters. But, what they have in common is what they want America to sound like.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than 100 years ago, a poem by Katharine Lee Bates was put to music by Samuel Ward, and the resulting song has become one of this country's most recognizable patriotic hymns.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BATES AND WARD'S "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

SHAPIRO: Looking at how the country has evolved and changed over the last century, the pianist Min Kwon wondered what it would sound like if this traditional tune evolved and changed as well. So she invited more than 70 composers to write variations for solo piano based on a theme of "America The Beautiful."

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF RUO'S "MEDITATION ON AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

SHAPIRO: The result is a new project, America/Beautiful. And Min Kwon is here to talk with us about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MIN KWON: Hello. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF RUO'S "MEDITATION ON AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

SHAPIRO: Let's start with this variation that we're hearing right now by the composer Huang Ruo. He calls this "Meditation On America The Beautiful." What do you hear in this reinterpretation of the song?

KWON: Basically what it is, is that it's winter going away and spring coming. And it kind of represents what last year has been for us and the brighter future ahead of us. You know, so the ice is melting. You can hear the breeze, the sunshine, flowers blossoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF RUO'S "MEDITATION ON AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

SHAPIRO: That's one specific slice among so many different interpretations of this piece. How does what you just described fit into the larger project of these dozens and dozens of variations?

KWON: It just reminds me once again what I love the most about our country, and that is the exciting diversity and multi layers of who we are, where we come from, where our parents come from, what we look like and what kind of experiences and feelings and emotions that we bring to the table. And I think the last year, because so many of us were kind of at a loss for words, when words fail is when music begins. You know, somebody said this, and it's one of my favorite quotes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWON: Music is - in a way, it's an outlet. It's an outburst, sometimes, of our soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWON: Something that we are too afraid to express or too uncomfortable to speak about, music gives us that outlet. And also, it gives the validity to all the emotions and feelings that Americans were feeling at the time.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to another variation that contains such emotional turmoil. This piece by Daniel Bernard Roumain is dissonant, and he titled this "America, NEVER Beautiful."

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF ROUMAIN'S "AMERICA, NEVER BEAUTIFUL")

KWON: So this is a powerful piece. Many of our composers also didn't hold back. They were being very honest with the feelings that they were experiencing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF ROUMAIN'S "AMERICA, NEVER BEAUTIFUL")

KWON: That really unexpected dark cluster at the very low range of the keyboard, that is the confusion, chaos, destruction, death, literally, of pandemic time in America. And then the melody "America The Beautiful" emerges while that cluster is still ringing in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF ROUMAIN'S "AMERICA, NEVER BEAUTIFUL")

KWON: It's a fascinating kind of juxtaposition of the two, the darkness with the light and the tragedy with hope and longing for the better future. A lot of pieces actually represent this kind of dichotomy, the conflict between the two forces. And I think that's what America was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF ROUMAIN'S "AMERICA, NEVER BEAUTIFUL")

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about your own relationship to "America The Beautiful"? I mean, as an American who devotes your life to music, who came to this country as an immigrant from South Korea, what does this patriotic hymn mean to you?

KWON: I came to America, as corny as it might sound, with the true American dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWON: Musicians that I adored, admired, idolized, they all came from America, and I promised myself that one day I want to go there and make a life out of music. And I've been so fortunate to be able to pursue that dream.

This song is, of course, idealistic. But what is a human being if we don't hold, you know, our own ideals or values or hope, you know? And every tragedy, every darkness, I think, has to turn to something brighter and better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: In some of these pieces, it's hard for me to actually track the original melody of "America The Beautiful." I feel like I lose the theme, and I wonder if that, too, is a metaphor for this country.

KWON: Exactly. Yes. And, you know, America is - it means so different to so many people. And we have complex feelings about our country. And because of that, I think this project was the perfect outlet for these people to express that complex feelings. Nothing ever stays the same. Also, a lot of the composers wrote in their variations, things are changing. There are opposing characters. But what they have in common is what they want America to sound like.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. Will you choose a variation for us to go out on?

KWON: Oh, how about something fun and lighthearted?

SHAPIRO: Sure.

KWON: Can we listen to John Harbison's "Getting The Upper Hand On America"? I think it's so humorous. It's delightful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF HARBISON'S "GETTING THE UPPER HAND ON AMERICA")

KWON: So he sent me a piece that was for right hand only. And I was like, well, can I play this with my left hand? (Laughter) Because that will give me more challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF HARBISON'S "GETTING THE UPPER HAND ON AMERICA")

SHAPIRO: So are we hearing you play this right now with your right hand or your left hand?

KWON: (Laughter) Right hand.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK. Pianist Min Kwon - she is the creator and performer of America/Beautiful. The piano variations will premiere starting Fourth of July at the website america-beautiful.com. Thank you so much. It's been wonderful talking with you.

KWON: Thank you. Likewise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN KWON PERFORMANCE OF HARBISON'S "GETTING THE UPPER HAND ON AMERICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.