[Correction (Saturday, Feb. 16): The original headline misspelled “Mik” as “Mic.”]
[Disclaimer: The quotes in this article are sourced from an email interview, and they have been edited for clarity.]
The studio artists, dancers, musicians and actors who participated in this year’s Modfest interpreted the theme, “In Motion,” in myriad ways; examples include The JACK Quartet’s musical depiction of tornadoes and the Vassar College Women’s Chorus’ performance of “Its Motion Keeps.” Hip-Hop Orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN), which consists of classically-trained pianist and composer JooWan Kim and MCs and lyricists Do D.A.T and Sandman, adopted the theme both literally and figuratively. Their performance on Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Poughkeepsie Trolley Barn marks the first time that Modfest has moved off-campus, and EMN’s work demonstrates how music continues to evolve and subvert expectations.
Prior to their performance, Assistant Professor of Music Justin Patch moderated a panel discussion with Ensemble Mik Nawooj titled “Method Sampling and a New Aesthetic.” Patch asked the group questions about “method sampling,” EMN’s unique artistic process in which they borrow principles of hip-hop and classical genres, as well as unrelated artistic fields, and then reframe them into a novel creation. They illustrated this concept by delineating their deconstruction of the Wu-Tang Clan track “Shame on a N****,” in which they blended the song’s trademark beats and lyricism with classical compositional techniques.
Kim articulated the effect of this process: “By using ‘Method Sampling,’ we are creating a novel performing art genre .The fact that we can successfully synthesize seemingly disparate genres into a brand-new form and claim that as the new concert music is, I believe, completely unique and noteworthy.”
EMN believes that via their fusion of seemingly dissimilar genres, they create a space for inclusivity. Sandman explained: “We don’t have music that we say is meant for one group or the other, but for anyone willing to listen. Hip-hop and classical music are seemingly opposites as far as genre is concerned, and as far as race is concerned, Black and white, affluent and indigent, but our artistic process is not informed by these phenomena.
The ensemble’s Trolley Barn performance showcased the eclecticism of the EMN’s repertoire. Kim, Do D.A.T and Sandman were accompanied by soprano, winds, strings, drums and piano. Their first set featured various deconstructions of classic hip-hop tracks, including more songs by Wu-Tang as well as Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” and J Dilla’s “Last Donut.” The second half exhibited seven pieces with original lyrics and composition; however, their practice of sampling different artists and mediums remained evident. For example, the composition “Hope Springs Eternal” derives its title from the Alexander Pope poem “An Essay on Man.”
The ingenuity of the group is due in part to the members’ diverse inspirations. For example, Kim remarked, “As for my influences, it’d be Hegel, evolutionary biology, disruptive technology, all the classical canon, boom bap, minimalism, Zen and Taoism.” Sandman cited hip-hop/punk artist TechN9ne. He expounded, “He was set to have a deal with a major label, but because of his will to be himself, the labels ultimately rejected him. He had white executives tell him that he didn’t come off as Black enough, because he was eclectic, with spiky red hair … He, amongst others, inspired me to do something different, try things out, evolve and be myself.”
Sandman further elucidated how their work bridges the gap between two divergent musical worlds and how this affects listeners: “Our want to work together is simple and innocent. This is new and interesting, and thusly challenging, and I think, subliminally or otherwise, the crowd picks up our intent, and therefore feels welcomed and engaged.”
The members of EMN asserted that their music’s message of amity and harmony is visible at their concerts, as their audiences vary greatly in age and cultural background. Do D.A.T elaborated on this sentiment during the panel discussion: “For me personally, hiphop offers opportunities like this where there are people from different races, classes, genders, backgrounds…to come and have a conversation, and that discussion is something that is necessary for progressive change in the United States,” he stated. “I think Ensemble Mik Nawooj does great at being a space for that, and bringing different people with different ideas together.”