Nililiya, Part II: Arrangement - Joyce Kwon
Joyce Kwon - singer, composer & gayageum player making folk music for folks of the diaspora
Joyce Kwon, voicekwon, gayageum, Asian American, Korean American, New American Folk
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Nililiya, Part II: Arrangement

This is part two of two posts on the track from my album Dream of Home. Read part one here.

Arranging Nililiya

Of all of the songs on the album, “Nililiya” took the most work in terms of arranging. Ross and I went through multiple contrasting iterations of the folk song over months and tweaked parts many times over before ending up at what we did. And where we ended up feels less final and more where we found ourselves at the time.

The song is normally played with the 굿거리 (Gutgeori) rhythm and I started arranging with that traditional rhythm in mind. You can see it written out in Western notation below. I generally play the pickups before the third eighth on the big one and three but do without the pickups before the big two and four.

A cappella sections were significant in earlier arrangements but most of it didn’t make it past the preliminary mockups. You can hear a remnant of the choir in the middle section of the album recording. Below is an early mockup with a choral beginning and end, while I was still hearing a people-making-music-in-a-circle vibe. The tongue clicks and laundry hamper thuds were placeholders for other percussion instruments as I had a low-tech setup in my mockups: I’d simply open up Garageband and record vocals and any other acoustic instruments directly into my phone, and I’d record keys by holding my phone by my practice keyboard speaker and plunk out some bass parts within the app.

100 + 100 = 100

With the exception of the a cappella track “Motherless Child,” which I arranged on my own, all of the album songs are clearly me and yet clearly Ross when I listen to them—not a 50/50 situation but something closer to a mathematically impossible 100/100. That includes “Nililiya” but with a caveat. This is the one track where it didn’t stay in the realm I envisioned. I was thinking a rootsy setting for this but Ross veered into a more heavy-hitting rock territory and that was for the best; having someone unfamiliar with the traditional music allowed for a truly fresh take on the song. The one thing I wish we could have tried was keeping the underlying 12/8 Gutgeori meter, which we lost with the boom-chuck-chuck pattern framing the song in a rather crude 3/4.

It still captured the spirit of the song so I was fine with Ross’ lead overall. We had mocked up the drums more or less with the boom chuck chucks but I was thinking we’d iron it out with Gavin (drums) during the tracking session. When tracking day arrived, I was preoccupied running between two rooms to get video footage of Gavin, Erik and Hitomi simultaneously and abandoned the control room, leaving Ross and Keith without input from me. (Next time, I will get someone else to take video!) Even if I had had the mind to iron out that part, there may not have been time. Or we may have still stuck with it after experimenting with other approaches. When I perform this song solo, I teach the audience the Gutgeori pattern and when I get the full band for a live show one of these days, we may test out a different approach.

Spirit of song

What is the spirit, the essence of the song? I’ve seen many articles on the Korean concept of 한 “Han,” a feeling of indignation and a sort of grief over injustices suffered. There’s a deep spring of that collective sensation of pain given Korea’s position as a small nation sandwiched between a looming, sinocentric China and Japan with its history of colonizing and attempting to wipe out Korean culture. So there’s naturally a lot of Han in my music but I wanted to incorporate another central element of Korean music into my album—흥 ”Heung.”

Heung is something beyond fun, something exhilarating and exuberant that lives in Korean music (for an example, watch pungmul, Korean drumming/dancing). When you go to a traditional music concert or even just a gathering of people, one might say you have to play another song or stay longer because you haven’t released all the Heung yet—people are still giddy, spirits are high, the party must go on. I know that we captured that with our version of “Nililiya” because it’s a song that makes me want to dance (and not just hips but also upper body—I’ve heard before that Korean dancing involves lots of arm movements and I feel like that’s true). Below is the painted key phrase for “Nililiya.”

I translated the Korean lyrics into English, not word for word, but keeping the spirit and meaning. The English lyrics paired with the original melody sounded awkward (listen to the first solo sketch to see what I mean) and Ross noticed that, asking me to keep reworking the lyrics/melody each session when I’d come in with the tweaked version. Finally, we either got tired or to a place where we were both satisfied with the lyrics/melody and left it alone. I left the chorus in Korean because with the verses translated, any English speaker could get the gist of the song. And frankly, many modern Korean speakers don’t understand the old Korean used in the chorus either.

Asian American album

Once the arrangement got into a rock groove, Ross suggested a burning saxophone solo at the end and I thought of a few horn players I could hear on the song. I was already going to have Hitomi on my album but I wasn’t sure about her playing on the Korean folk song because she’s Japanese American and that might be shooting myself in the foot in regard to my Korean audience, and I had to think through the intent of the piece. This potential issue came to mind because my friend who worked in broadcasting in Korea had to scrub a Japanese American’s Japanese last name on a show she was producing because people wrote in complaining. If you don’t know anything about Korean-Japanese relations, I’ll give you a one-sentence summary: The crimes against humanity committed by the Japanese against Koreans, including sexual slavery and human trafficking, are still not fully acknowledged by the Japanese government and yet to be accounted for.

After reflecting, I decided that Dream of Home is an Asian American album of solidarity among people of the diaspora, more than a Korean album, and I welcomed having my dear friend Hitomi Oba on “Nililiya.” I also asked my producer friend for her Korean opinion and she said that nobody reads the credits/line up of side people so it doesn’t matter. Problem solved. Then I somehow ended up having Hitomi solo on the two Korean folk songs on the album (the other one being “Little Bird” where I quote a folk song). Haha.

Hitomi’s solo, much like the groove of the song, was not what I initially had in mind, fiery in its chromaticism and motion rather than volume and pyrotechnics. But I love it, and I love that collaborating with other people means they overturn my expectations, allowing us to create something that no single party would have come up with on their own (also see the guitar countermelody that Brandon added on the song—it fits perfectly!).

Lastly, when I get into a wacky state of mind, like when I was thinking I’d sing “Nililiya” like it’s Fiddler on the Roof, it’s good to have honest company that says, “Why are you singing like that?” Thanks, Ross.


Read my post on “When I’m a Raisin” next.

Find Dream of Home on YouTube Music, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify.

  • ross garren
    Posted at 01:06h, 06 November Reply

    I love this insight!

    • voicekwon
      Posted at 11:40h, 08 November Reply

      Ahahaha, thanks Ross for remembering to read the post!

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