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‘Beautiful art that is stretching boundaries:’ Hip Hop Orchestra Experience coming to southeast Iowa

Mississippi State University
courtesy photo

Combine classical music with hip hop, throw in a bit of dance, and what do you get?

An audience in southeast Iowa is about to find out.

Hip Hop Orchestra Experience will collaborate with the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra for a show on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. at the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center.

JooWan Kim, Artistic Director for Hip Hop Orchestra Experience, said the seeds for the group grew out of his days as a graduate student, when he got fed up with what he calls the oppressive aesthetic of concert music.

“I did a show that would possibly piss off my teachers, which was a chamber ensemble and put an MC in it,” Kim said.

“And after that show, indeed, everybody was very upset, which was a job well done for me. But what I didn’t expect was a really massive reaction that was very positive from the audience.”

He said the MC suggested making an album, and things took off from there.

“These are all original compositions, and among them are deconstructions of the works by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. We take a very familiar tune and then stretch them and change them,” he said.

Their shows include a featured dancer on stage who punctuates key moments during the performances. And they have a live orchestra on stage, including 13 string instrument musicians.

“That’s enough strings to make a lush, impactful sound,” Kim said.

He emphasized that the orchestra is not just there for background music – Hip Hop Orchestra Experience is melding musical styles to create an American phenomenon, much like jazz.

“Jazz began as sort of an interpretation of classical music at first. And then it blossomed by the time the bebop happened into a completely different sort of sophistication,” Kim said.

“I think that this is a continuation of classical music, but then on the way we met MCs and started partying with them and then we just got somewhere else.”

The orchestra has employed several resident MCs through the years. Unity Lewis currently holds the title.

He said when orchestra leaders have a song they want him to add to, they send the composition along with notes about the topic.

“It’s more so fun than difficult, and it’s a great challenge. It’s an exciting and fun game almost to play with the music for me. It’s a great challenge,” he said.

Lewis believes hip hop has become part of the culture because one of the most direct ways to transmit a message is through music.

“It’s literally like I’m talking to you, or I’m preaching to you, or I’m delivering like Malcolm X or an activist, or just from a podium where you’re right here with me,” he said.

Lewis said hip hop is rooted in the art of sampling and multiculturalism in the sense that it takes a little bit from all over the world and repurposes it into music.

He said that’s why hip hop has made such a big impact. He said it’s constantly transforming into new things, such as what they’re doing with Hip Hop Orchestra Experience.

Lindsay Bauer, Executive Director of the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center, said they had no trouble getting the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra interested in collaborating on the project.

“They were excited from day one,” she said.

“It took a while for them to understand what it was that we were talking about, I would say, but I think that’s normal for a project that is this new, that is this different from anything else we’ve ever done or anything else that they’ve ever done.”

Bauer learned about Hip Hop Orchestra Experience a few years ago while serving on a panel for the Western Arts Alliance Launchpad program.

“I was just blown away right away with seeing what they were doing, what they were creating, how immediate it felt, how very visceral it felt to be watching these familiar strains of some classical music that I knew, and then layering over it with gorgeous, I mean just this beautiful poetry,” Bauer said.

“It was fresh. It was new. It was different. It was edgy.”

Bauer said she knew then that she had to bring the orchestra to southeast Iowa.

Bauer said it’s important to look for what’s new and alive in the moment in art and music. She said that should not be limited just to audiences in large cities, but that those living in rural areas should get to enjoy these experiences too.

“Our small communities have the right to see beautiful art that is stretching boundaries and coming up with new ways of talking about the human experience,” Bauer said.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.