By Elana Bell

Thursday, September 28, 2023

My first meeting with TENGGER takes place over zoom. TENGGER is made up of Itta, who plays harmonium and sings, her husband Marqido, who plays a variety of electronic instruments, and their twelve year old son RAAI, who sings, plays synth and toy piano, and dances onstage.

They greet me from the living room of their apartment in Seoul, their warmth palpable through the screen, just a few days before they head to Mongolia to shoot a music video for their soon-to-be-released second self-titled album. 

Our subsequent interviews take place over email and include bringing in Ami Scherson, a Japanese translator. As we spoke, the multi-cultural duo told me about their interests in creating bridges not only between cultures, but also between the technological, natural, and spiritual world. This is reflected in their haunting ambient music, which combines electronica, harmonium, Itta’s ethereal vocals, and various sounds recorded in nature and temples.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the background of our band. We are not limited by our country or nationality. Our countries of origin (Japan and Korea respectively) exist but our band TENGGER's origins are both NOT Japan or Korea, as well as being OF Japan and Korea. We both grew up in totally different environments but acknowledge the influences of those environments on ourselves and our music.”

Marqido grew up in the ‘80s playing video games, and Itta spent her childhood in the church where she learned how to play the organ. Their eclectic musical and cultural upbringings led them to be interested in music beyond their respective countries, soaking up the sounds of traditions like Indian raga. “Our band has two countries of origin,” they explain, “and so we want to focus on the things our respective countries don’t have.”

This focus goes beyond bringing in music from other cultures, and includes influences from the natural world and various spiritual traditions.

“When we observe nature, we learn so many different things.TENGGER's music has a simple and minimal distinctiveness, but most of it is inspired by the natural world. For example, many people find cicadas just ‘loud’ but we find it beautiful that these creatures are working so hard to be seen (and heard). The song ‘Cicadada’ on our album Earthing has cicadas as a guest vocalist. Sadly, those cicadas are no longer on earth anymore.” In addition to the natural elements in their music, TENGGER’s music is influenced by Buddhism, and often has a meditative, spacious quality. They have done field recordings in sacred sites, including a recording of the environment of the temple in Shikoku and the sound of the temple bell, which are part of their piece “Shikoku.” 

The band began as a duo called 10, merging the meaning of their two names: Itta, which means existence and 1 in Korean, and Marqido, which “Maru” means circle or 0 in Japanese. They changed the name to TENGGER when their son RAAI joined them. 

As a mother and an artist myself, I am moved by RAAI’s involvement in the band. I have struggled with balancing these two identities, often sacrificing one or the other. There are very few examples of children being involved in serious art-making in the US, especially in the contemporary avant-garde music scene. I am very interested in how RAAI became a full fledged member of TENGGER. 

“RAAI started performing with us because he literally came on stage during a performance and started dancing. We do not force him to perform with us at all. We think he naturally enjoys being on stage. If we were normal parents we would have told him to go away and off stage, but we didn't do that. We are parents with big hearts. Having our son join us on stage felt like a natural progression, especially because we met on stage.”

This year they are releasing their second self-titled album, and I ask how this album is different.

“When we started as the unit TENGGER, we released a self-titled album in 2014. With our second self-titled album coming out in 2023, we want to symbolize a new beginning. TENGGER means ‘heaven (or sky)’ in Mongolian. The music on our new album explores the meaning of ‘heaven.’ For example, we believe that far away planets and galaxies are interested in us living on Earth. In the solar system we are closest to the sun and moon and are aware of their impact on us, but we also wonder if further planets can impact us too. We believe that we take space’s power for granted, and that we need to look up at the sky more. Let’s look at our phones less!” 

This ethos plays into their vision of TENGGERLAND, a utopia without borders or nationality under a big sky. 

“TENGGERLAND is a place, as well as a lifestyle. As we come from two different countries, we reflect upon where we are from and where we will go. TENGGER means ‘sky’ in Mongolian. We interpret it in Kanji as ‘Ten Gou.’ Ten means sky (or heaven). Gou is a character that describes a quiet and peaceful countryside. You have to have a pure heart to live there. We are working hard to achieve this.”

And if the impact of their peaceful, meditative music is any indication, they are on their way.


About Elana Bell

Elana Bell is a poet, sound practitioner, and creative guide. She is the author of Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012), and Mother Country (BOA Editions 2020), poems about motherhood, fertility, and mental illness. Elana is also the founder of the Mother-Artist Salon, a virtual community dedicated to supporting mothers in their artistic practice. In addition to leading her own Creative Fire workshops, Elana teaches poetry to actors at the Juilliard School and sings with the Resistance Revival Chorus, a group of women activists and musicians committed to bringing joy and song to the resistance movement.

About Ami Scherson

Ami (ah-mee) Scherson (she/her/hers) is a Queens, NY based arts administrator and translator. She is currently the Membership & Individual Giving Manager at National Sawdust. Prior to joining the organization, she worked at Americans for the Arts and Arts Business Collaborative to develop and implement programs that supported and elevated the voices of BIPOC arts leaders. Ami is committed to creating equitable and inclusive arts spaces through her professional and personal work, such as co-chairing the Dance/NYC Junior Committee and as a fellow with the Morgridge Acceleration Program (MAP) fellowship. Ami is a native Japanese speaker, and is excited to utilize her translation skills in supporting and uplifting Japanese artists who perform in the United States.