When this story first was assigned, it was to be about the exciting year that Eddy Kwon — the Cincinnati musician, composer and Price Hill Will artistic director — was expecting 2020 to be. And they (Kwon identifies as non-binary) shared those plans during an interview at East Price Hill’s then-busy BLOC Coffee Company, a week or so before Ohio closed all dining/drinking gathering spots to the public as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 began taking its toll on daily life.
The coronavirus’ spread has since dashed some of those plans. But, even as Kwon maintains social distancing and is sheltering in place now, they still have some promising events planned for the future.
“While these restrictive measures can feel really difficult, it’s so clear it’s what we absolutely need to do now in order to get the spread of the virus under control,” Kwon says by phone.
Born and raised in Minneapolis to parents who emigrated from South Korea, Kwon moved here to study at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. They have stayed since, developing a growing reputation as one of the city’s most exciting young creative individuals.
The decision to identify as non-binary is relatively new, Kwon says. “It means I don’t identify as man or woman. That seems a little bit reductive and subtractive. I think of identity as more additive and expansive than that. It’s only been recently that I’ve been comfortable sharing that part of myself with people.”
The big year for Kwon, who also lives in Price Hill, was going to get underway in earnest this month. On April 26, members of nonprofit Price Hill Will’s MYCincinnati youth orchestra — modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema network, which gave the world the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Gustavo Dudamel — were to participate in the Contemporary Arts Center’s This Time Tomorrow festival by performing with Jens Lekman, the acclaimed Swedish singer-songwriter.
It was to be part of Lekman’s U.S. tour performing with 10 different youth orchestras, with Kwon as a collaborator, music arranger and also violinist. But the health crisis has forced Lekman to cancel, and the CAC has had to cancel its festival as well. (Lekman hopes to try his tour again in 2021, Kwon says.) And MYCincinnati, founded in 2011, has had to suspend live classes, although its instructors are making and posting music lesson videos online.
The idea for the tour started here in 2015, when the CAC put Lekman together with MYCincinnati for a concert at the Woodward Theater.
“That experience so impacted Jens he reached out to me a little while later and asked if I thought a U.S. tour might be possible,” Kwon says. “I immediately said yes, as it combines many of things I love about music and working with young people, and of course I love Jens’ music.”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has also put a stop to an upcoming high-profile performance by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the crucially important Jazz group for which Kwon has been the violist since 2018, when it expanded to 16 members to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Art Ensemble was to be a headliner at May’s first Long Play Festival in Brooklyn, sponsored by the new music ensemble Bang on a Can. Long Play is devoted to “mind-bending music of the moment.”
“It is one of the most sublime honors of my life to share space, time and music with all the members of that band,” Kwon says. “The Art Ensemble has changed the way we think about music, creative music, about the legacy of Jazz and black music in this country, about the way we think about improvisation and about what it means to be part of a collective. It has been a really humbling and inspiring experience to learn to be embedded within that web of music. It’s challenging in all the right ways.”
Kwon would love to see the Art Ensemble perform in Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, there are several projects involving Kwon that are progressing. A fifth Price Hill Creative Community Festival is in the works. So, too, is Price Hill Will’s ongoing $10 million restoration, in partnership with The Model Group, of the 21,000-square-foot Price Hill Masonic Lodge in East Price Hill. The target date for opening is fall. The building, vacant since the 1980s, will be known as ARCO and become home to many of Price Hill Will’s current activities.
But it will also have significant expanded activities, as a result of adding two performance venues and an art gallery. One venue, on the first floor with a raised stage and similar in size to Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater, will be the Shawnee Theater. Upstairs will be the black box-like Myaamia Hall. The Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition was consulted on the naming.
Kwon is putting together a community curatorial collective to help program the venues.
“It is a group of youth and adult Price Hill residents who will be working together to engage in all aspects of the arts creation process,” they say. “They’ll be surveying residents in all Price Hill neighborhoods to learn what kind of arts experiences we want and need as a neighborhood. And they’ll be researching local, national and international artists making work that resonates with the needs of our neighborhood, then collectively program an entire season of performances. That leads to learning about the nitty-gritty of artist contracts, production, ticket sales and then growing and building audiences.”
More long-term are two projects with some similarities. Kwon is collaborating with a Colorado Springs visual artist Senga Nengudi and the two directors of Seattle’s Degenerate Art Ensemble, dancer Crow Nishimura and musician Joshua Kohl, on a work called Boy mother / faceless bloom. It’s set to debut in 2021 at Colorado College and the Contemporary Arts Center.
Kwon also is working on a solo performance piece that draws on Korean music tradition, UMMA-YA. It means mother in Korean. Both projects explore the feelings of a boy who learns he will become a mother. In UMMA-YA, Kwon plans to compose and play music for violin and viola as well as to sing and incorporate dance/movement elements.
“Both UMMA-YA and Boy mother / faceless bloom draw from similar thematic and narrative source material: the formation and contradictions of gender, motherhood and parenthood in a time of climate crisis, and the spiritually violent legacies of colonialism and other institutions/ideologies of domination,” Kwon explains.
What else might Kwon do? They don’t know, but like so many people now, they’re looking for ways to help out in these very troubled, very scary times.
“I think all of us, as we transition into this new normal, are going to be looking for other ways to make a positive impact within our communities,” Kwon says. “So, I’m looking forward to finding ways to do that as I start to get used to this new life here in Cincinnati.”
To learn more about Price Hill Will, visit pricehillwill.org.