Carnegie Hall hosts world premiere of associate professor’s composition

Author: Matt Itelson, SF State News
June 2, 2022
Ben Sabey
Photo Credit: Photo by Hailey June Photography

Benjamin Sabey composes solo work for the haegeum, a two-string fiddle

A composition by San Francisco State University Associate Professor Benjamin Sabey was among the world premieres on one of the world’s most esteemed stages. Carnegie Hall in New York City was the venue where his solo work for the haegeum, a traditional Korean two-string fiddle, debuted on April 18.

Eunah Noh, a haegeum virtuoso from South Korea, performed Sabey’s 19-minute composition “Scattered Wings” for the first time at the Carnegie Hall performance, held in the Weill Recital Hall. It is also featured on Noh’s new album, “The World of the Haegeum.”

Sabey discovered Asian music in his early 20s, inspired by its reverence for nature. The traditional Korean style of sanjo and its use of the haegeum caught his ear. Sanjo translates to “scattered melodies” in English.

“I love the elasticity and mutability of the silk strings of the haegeum and I am fascinated by the bow which can be tightened and loosened at will,” Sabey wrote in his program notes for “Scattered Wings.” “The instrument itself evokes the tension and release of a bird flexing and spreading its wings as it arcs elegantly in the air. The sanjo genre — which melds traditional melodies into a fluid and mobile stream, full of wide vibrato and intricate ornamentation — also strongly evokes, for me, the swoop and weave of a bird in flight.”

Although Sabey does not perform the haegeum himself and it is not taught in American schools, his deftness with Western musical notation played a role in composing for the instrument. He spent hours browsing YouTube for traditional Korean performances and transcribed them by ear.

“You learn its range, the basic mechanics of how it works, what’s possible and not possible,” said Sabey, who leads the composition, theory and electronic music programs in San Francisco State’s School of Music. “There’s not a lot of new repertoire for that instrument, so there is a lot of a collaboration with the performer. Eunah took my piece and brought her own voice to it as well.”

Sabey hopes that “Scattered Wings” encourages musicians of diverse backgrounds to collaborate and learn about each other’s cultures. He views it as “a prayer for unity in a divided world.”

“I’ll never be able to fully appreciate the music the way a native-born Korean could appreciate it,” Sabey said. “It’s like learning a second language. You can become fluent in a second language, but if you weren’t raised in that culture, there are things about that language that you’ll never be able to fully understand.”

At SF State, Sabey has introduced his students to the haegeum through performer Jeonghyeon Joo. She gave lectures and demonstrations and even performed new student compositions. She will return in the fall for more student-focused work as well as a performance of “Scattered Wings.”

Learn more about the School of Music at SF State.