State of the Arts

S39 E7 | CLIP

Min Kwon's America/Beautiful

Korean-born American classical pianist Min Kwon asked 70 very different composers to create variations on the familiar song “America the Beautiful,” originally composed in 1882 by the music director of Grace Church in Newark, NJ. America/Beautiful is now a streaming series, with over 6 hours of new music recorded to date. Kwon describes the project as representing a "United Composers of America."

AIRED: July 24, 2021 | 0:10:09

[ Piano music playing ]

Kwon: I've been always a fan of "America the Beautiful."

I love the simple, beautiful melody of it.

Narrator: Min Kwon, New Jersey-based arts advocate,

a professor at Mason Gross School of the Arts,

and a world-class pianist,

commissioned more than 70 composers

to create variations on "America the Beautiful."

[ Piano playing ]

Min began premiering the new works on July 4th, 2021,

in a series of streaming performances,

many of them recorded right here at Grace Church in Newark.

[ Piano music continues playing ]

Kwon: As I started the project, of course,

I started doing research on the song itself --

You know, who wrote it? Where was it written, you know?

And I was so pleasantly surprised

that it was written probably right here,

because the composer was working here

as the choir director.

Bates: Sam Ward, who wrote the tune

to "America the Beautiful" -- The tune name is "Materna."

He wrote it here in the 1890s

when he was organist, music director at Grace Church.

The tune "Mother Dear, Jerusalem,"

You can tell that the "Materna"

is from "Mother Dear, Jerusalem."

And that was the original text that it was set to.

Narrator: In 1910, a popular poem

by Wellesley College professor

and social reformer Katharine Lee Bates

was set to Samuel Ward's melody.

"America the Beautiful" was an instant hit.

Bon Jovi: [ Singing ] America

Kwon: And there has been so many different versions of the song,

you know, sung by so many different icons

in American music.

Bon Jovi: [ Singing ] God shed His grace on thee

Charles: [ Singing ] 'Cause He, He crowned thy good

He told me He would

Say, with brotherhood

[ Piano music playing ]

Narrator: Min Kwon contacted a wide range of composers

to create variations on the familiar song.

She e-mailed and Zoomed with them

during the locked-down summer and fall of 2020,

one of America's darkest times.

Adu-Gilmore: Your prompt, Min, of thinking about

"America the Beautiful"

and the piece coming together

as, you know, all these varied people in the United States.

So I decided to call it "United Underdog"

to think about the people who maybe don't have visas,

who are stuck across the border, who are working

here in the pandemic without health insurance.

And so that's my dedication, is for the unhoused,

the incarcerated, the Black, brown, yellow, trans,

gender-nonconforming, domestic workers, food gatherers,

delivery workers, and underdogs that make these United States.

[ Piano music playing ]

Kwon: I knew that I was kind of catching them

at their most vulnerable moments.

We were all confined in our little space.

So, composers, when I [Chuckles] gave this call

to please write something in "America/Beautiful,"

first reaction, of course, that I got from many of them

is like, "What do you mean? America is not beautiful.

It's the last thing I'm thinking about right now."

And, you know, with some, it took some persuasion,

but I'm I'm pretty persuasive, I think.

[ Laughs ]

[ Piano music playing ]

And I said, "That's exactly why we have to do this project now."

I wanted to really show that even musicians

of so many different styles and sounds and philosophy

can all come together on the same common goal or purpose

and create something that's very new and powerful and moving.

[ Piano music playing ]

Masaoka: Everybody in the bus

was basically Japanese-American Nisei,

born in the United States, second-generation,

who had been -- who had lived in the camps,

and we were all doing this reunion.

And they broke out into "America the Beautiful."

And I was just shocked.

They were starting to cry,

and they were all singing the song.

[ Piano music playing ]

Kwon: As I got to learn, adopt, and kind of absorb,

assimilate their language,

the way that they express themselves,

you know, that became a really wonderful lesson for me,

you know, as an artist, also as a -- just a human being.

[ Piano music playing ]

Narrator: Each composer took a different approach,

including some who traveled far from the original tune.

[ Piano music playing ]

Iyer: I mean, I changed the melody,

and I changed the harmony, and I changed the rhythm,

so I don't know what's left. [ Chuckles ]

And there's no lyrics, so you can't really recog--

I don't know. You have to hear it in context

to know that it is somehow connected to the piece.

[ Piano music playing ]

Narrator: When Min asked jazz composer and pianist Vijay Iyer

to write a variation,

the pandemic was in its most lethal phase.

[ Piano music playing ]

Iyer: I didn't really want to write a song

in tribute to this nation or any nation,

you know, in a time of mass suffering,

you know, and mass death

brought about because of politics.

In fact, I just wasn't going to do it.

And I was ready to say no,

but something just drew me to the piano.

I said, "Yeah, this is a terrible idea,"

and I started playing. [ Laughs ]

And then just in that moment,

I came up with this version that I wrote out for Min.

[ Piano music playing ]

It's almost like a perspective on the nation

from an outsider's place.

[ Piano music continues playing ]

Kwon: Vijay brings a different perspective to the project.

It's mourning about our state of the country, you know,

but in sort of very kind of Zen kind of way

that this is what it is,

and we endure.

Narrator: Min's project grew.

She's recorded more than six hours of newly composed music.

Kwon: Artistically, it's inspired by a project

that about 200 years ago,

a very famous Viennese music publisher named Anton Diabelli,

he wrote a little, simple waltz.

[ Piano music playing ]

And then he gave it to about 50 composers

that were active in Vienna around that time,

because Vienna being the center of classical music,

and asked them to write a little variation on this waltz.

Currier: The Beethoven Diabelli, I love.

Most people don't know those other variations

that were written by composers in Vienna at the time

that included Schubert, Liszt, and so on.

Beethoven wrote 33 variations.

Kwon: And this is the Diabelli variation that everybody knows.

And I remember talking to Sebastian.

I was kind of joking, "How long do you want this to be?"

And I said, "Well, maybe two, three minutes, you know,

but I'll leave it to you.

If you get inspired like Beethoven did,

you know, I'm not going to stop you."

[ Chuckles ]

[ Piano music playing ]

Currier: I've always enjoyed doing miniatures,

and so actually, I have -- My piece is only six minutes long,

but it's 23 variations,

so they're 10 seconds each. They're very short.

[ Piano plays ]

Kwon: Or --

[ Piano playing ]

Currier: Yeah, that's okay like that.

Narrator: Spanning over four live streams

and two in-person concerts,

"America/Beautiful" brings together works

by a diverse group,

including many of the most original composers of our time.

[ Piano music playing ]

Min Kwon, herself an immigrant from South Korea,

calls it a literal united composers of America.

[ Piano music playing ]

Kwon: I feel very American,

having lived here over 30 years now,

and it's really in my DNA,

I think the spirit of America,

the strength, the tenacity, you know, diversity,

everything that the country represents.

I am proud of my country.

[ Piano music playing ]