Jihye Lee Explores Grief and the Cycle of Life with Big Band Sounds

By Kelly Yunmi Choi

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

There are times in life that can only be described as fate. As a Berklee College of Music student, Korean-born jazz composer Jihye Lee knew she wanted to make music but wasn’t yet certain what kind. Until one day she heard a tremendous sound that stopped her in her tracks. “I looked through the window and saw a bunch of people just blowing their horns, and it was just so energetic and so enthusiastic and so lush…I think that was the moment when I [knew] large ensemble is for me,” she mused. Despite lacking prior jazz experience, she felt an inextricable pull toward the big band sound, which eventually became her musical home.

Lee saw immediate success as a jazz composer, receiving acclaim from American and Korean critics, musicians, and institutions. She eventually joined the ranks of talented composers and choreographers by becoming a 2022 Toulmin Fellow. There, she first started forming her newest work, Infinite Connections, premiering in October at National Sawdust.

“It feels like it was all planned,” Lee replies when asked how she first got the idea for Infinite Connections. She was already creating a piece for her grandmother when she suddenly passed away in 2020 during the pandemic. Her death profoundly affected Lee and her mother, with her mother even falling ill during her fellowship.

In talking about grief, I could not help but ask how 한 (han), a uniquely Korean word encapsulating the intergenerational trauma caused by colonization and war, influenced her work. Lee shared her personal perspective. “My grandma became an orphan when she was 5 or 6. She was raised by one of her relatives who…wasn’t kind. My grandma had to escape from the situation by marriage. [At] the time, all the men were heaven, and the women were the Earth. So, my grandpa would [go to] a Korean pub…[while] my grandma would take care of all three kids…wouldn’t you have han?” she said. Her grandmother's story serves as a poignant backdrop for incorporating Korean rhythms into her music, a challenge she undertook for the first time as a Toulmin Fellow. 

Although she lived most of her life in Korea, Infinite Connections is the first time Lee introduces Korean traditional sounds, specifically the four percussive instruments that makeup 사물놀이 (samulnori), to her compositions. Through the Toulmin Fellowship, Lee took a trip to Korea, where she met with traditional Korean percussionists and witnessed firsthand the instruments used by her ancestors. Initially, she was at a loss on how to include the traditional Korean sounds into her work. She learned that the foundation of Korean traditional music is almost the complete opposite of modern K-pop and Western music, like jazz. “If you hear Korean traditional music, especially the melodic instruments, it’s so subtle. Whereas all the horns [in jazz] are big and brassy,” Lee remarked. 

However, she persisted in her endeavor by focusing on what she found most compelling in Korean traditional music: the rhythms. She created nine compositions based on nine different Korean rhythm sets. “The special thing about Korean [rhythm] is that it really doesn't stay the same tempo. It gets faster and faster [until] it transforms into another rhythm set,” she said. This rapid pacing is the perfect metaphor for her grandmother’s life from post-war to modern South Korea. “I thought [her life] was so dramatic…and I used that tempo change as [if] she’s dancing with her whole life. When I play the music, it still gives me tears.” 

The hardships that came with her grandmother's passing led her to see death as an unavoidable part of nature, and the thought brought her solace and inspiration. “I can [now] see that death is not something irrelevant to me…losing loved ones is one the most painful things, if not the most painful thing, but all human beings have to go through [it],” she said. “It really got me thinking: we [come] from nature, [live] our life, and [eventually] go back to nature…if [death is] a part of a cycle, death is not really a sad thing. It’s not the end.” Creating these pieces based on the ideas of life cycles, nature, and mother-daughter relationships was seemingly inevitable, like the blaring horns she once heard reverberate down the halls at Berklee.

Lee's mystical fate to become a composer and to create Infinite Connections is rooted in the temporal belief that music has the power to connect. Her favorite thing about being a bandleader is that everyone is in it for the music. “Everybody wants to give 100% of themselves by playing, and then I do my best to compose better music…so that community and tremendous energy really inspires me. Just to hear the music come to life [from a] bunch of notes by them, through them, it becomes alive,” she said. When asked how she hopes people feel leaving her performance, she answers with the artistic answer: "I think my role is to create. After that, I have no control of [the creation], [and then] it’s all about the audience. So, whatever they feel, I’m fine with that." But, if she could impart one message to the audience, she hopes Infinite Connections leaves people feeling "comforted after the show, realizing we are not alone in this universe!" 

About Kelly Yunmi Choi

Kelly Yunmi Choi is a Korean-American writer and organizer based in Brooklyn, New York. The experiences from her work as a youth activist in Texas showed her the power of storytelling, inspiring her to pursue and create intentional stories of the global majority. Her past work includes (but is not limited to) a TEDx talk, various zine publications, and Korean pop culture analyses.