Ensemble Mik Nawooj
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Ensemble Mik Nawooj


Band Hip Hop Classical


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The best kept secret in music


"A "Great Integration" of musical genres"

One of the most exciting things you can experience at any concert is being one of the first to hear a new song or piece of music. So imagine what it would be like to be one of the first to hear a whole new genre of music. That's what JooWan Kim and his Ensemble Mik Nawooj are predicting when they unveil the latest installment of Kim's "Chamber Hip-Hop Opera," The Great Integration, starting Saturday, August 21 at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco. Kim and his ensemble (read the name backwards) have been building this project as a sort of musical collective for a number of years, and the results so far have attracted the notice of folks like jazz great Ahmad Jamal, who said, "In this day and age, for an artist to succeed, the talent has to be either exceptional or very different. JooWan Kim is both; exceptional and very different."

JooWan Kim was born in Korea and studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He's certainly got his classical chops: he recently received a lifetime endorsement from Steinway Pianos. He calls himself a "Taoist/Zen practitioner and a connoisseur of fine tea." Kim founded Ensemble Mik Nawooj in 2005 specifically to give a jolt to both the classical and vernacular elements of Western Music, which he felt were losing their integrity. The Great Integration is not just an epic saga, but a metaphor not only for these troubled times, but for what he hopes will be a new style of music to ease these times, melding classical, film music, jazz, hip-hop and pop into a unique blend that "lies in the common place where all music lives and breathes, expanding and transmuting its sound."

So, what does it sound like? It's impossible to put a label on it, because it sounds like nothing you've ever heard in this form. The Ensemble is a rotating collective with Kim's piano at its center, and featuring vocalist Christopher Nicholas, MC Kirby Dominant, drummer Valentino Pellizzer plus a couple of violins, a cello, bass, flute, clarinet and trombone. And on top of his skill at translating his saga into the rhythms of hip-hop, Kim can also write a great tune; there are lots of melodies to take home with you at the end of the concert. Now, you may have heard things like this before; lots of artists have tried it, and ever since George Martin put a string quartet under Paul McCartney in "Eleanor Rigby," it's been a quick and easy way to add some elegance to a song or even a part of one. But to my mind, nobody has ever attempted anything like this on such a large scale, or with such sophistication. Check out these clips of a recent performance. It won't be long before you realize, as I did, that there's something very special going on here.

Photo: Ken Lew

The story of The Great Integration was inspired in part by the Mayan prophecies of the End of Days in 2012 (Roland Emmerich movies aside), and revolves around the Black Swordsman of Dominance, "chosen as the one to trigger the Great Integration of the world before the arrival of the Great Celestial King. When all five lords of the material realm are conquered, the old world we know will merge into one, and the Celestial King will descend from Ninth Heaven to wipe out all the impurities of the world, thus creating a new world from a new paradigm." Heady stuff, to be sure, but not unprecedented. In 1914 composer/mystic Alexander Scriabin began work on a piece called Mysterium, the performance of which was intended to bring about the end of this world and the birth of a new one. Fortunately, he never finished it.

Even though many of them have been commercially successful, "crossover" projects have gotten a bad reputation in the music world because of the number of cynically-produced and poorly-performed attempts featuring classical artists performing pop music or pop artists trying to write in classical styles. But it's composers like Elvis Costello and JooWan Kim that are the true crossover artists, merging existing styles into something new that - NPR

"Classical pianist finds hip-hop and jazz lead him to his muse"

This article is archived.


“… JooWan Kim envisions a musical landscape that defies such categories as jazz, classical, and hip-hop.” - Brenda Payton, Oakland Tribune - Oakland Tribune

"Chamber music meets hip-hop"

What is the sound of chamber hip-hop opera?

Judging from composer/pianist JooWan Kim’s sound clips on his Ensemble Mik Nawooj MySpace page, not at all what you’d expect.

Nor is “Great Integration,” an “epic chamber hip-hop opera” that melds Kim’s music with Raissa Simpson’s choreography into an allegory that has definite parallels to the Mayan story of the end of the world.

Performed by Ensemble Mik Nawooj and Simpson’s Push Dance Company, and featuring MC Kirby Dominant and jazz vocalist Christopher Nicholas, “Great Integration,” onstage this weekend at ODC Commons, breaks established boundaries between genres and styles.

“‘Great Integration’ is my attempt to channel,” Kim explained during a conference call with Simpson. “The basic story came through me in cryptic fashion in the BART tunnel while I was riding between San Francisco and Berkeley.”

Kim, who came to the U.S. from Korea 12 years ago, first performed the work in Hellman Hall while getting his master’s degree at the old San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

He then spent a year making an album, which led to a three-year contract with the great Ahmed Jamal’s record company.

Kim eventually met Simpson, who thought the music of “Great Integration” ideal for her Push Dance Company.

After the two performed together, they decided to integrate hip-hop, classical, modern technical dancing and other idioms into a multichapter chamber opera with Taoist overtones that tells the tale of the cosmic shift that will change humanity forever.

“I’m translating JooWan’s story visually,” Simpson says. “Our musicians and dancers will share the stage. I think JooWan approached me because my style is eclectic, and uses aerial dance to invoke the mythological, magical, celestial story line.”

This weekend’s presentation represents the penultimate chapter in Kim’s saga. The final chapter, “Celestial King Descending,” will be performed in 2011.

On the eve of Dec. 21, 2012, the crucial date in Mayan Prophecy, both chapters will be performed together.

And what is the tale? According to the press release, the “Black swordsman of dominance is chosen as the one to trigger the great integration of the world before the arrival of celestial king. When all the five lords of material realm are conquered, the old world we know will merge into one and the great celestial king will descend from ninth heaven to wipe out all the impurities of the world, thus creating a new world with brand new paradigm.”

You’ve got to be there. I certainly will. - SF Examiner

"Ensemble Mik Nawooj Drops a Spiritual Atomic Bomb on Oakland"

Ensemble Mik Nawooj got tired of Berkeley–its real estate prices in particular. So two years ago they moved to Oakland’s Fruitvale district, opting to buy a house instead of continuing to rent; putting down roots and preparing for longevity here. They set up their live/work headquarters there. Their local shows are selling out to crowds of 200 to 400 people. They recently had a billboard up in San Francisco to promote a performance of their Chamber Hip-Hop Opera, Great Integration.
We sat down with EMN’s founder, Joowan Kim and business manager, Christopher Nicholas at their house over some Pu’er tea. Joowan prepared the tea in a Gongfu style, meaning carefully prepared, with effort, which turns out to be a great analogy for EMN’s opera.

Christopher Nicholas & Joowan Kim
“It was pretty exciting, and pretty expensive,” Joowan says of their recent SF billboard. “It was a lot of both; people don’t forget that hand,” Christopher says, referring to the band’s trademark mudra-posed hand image (it will always look like a fox shadow puppet to us). That hand has come to symbolize the Great Integration project.
Although he is an integral member of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, Christopher doesn’t perform in Great Integration. He serves as the business manager for all of EMN’s projects and of their record label, Golden Fetus Records. He does appear on upcoming projects as a (beautiful) singer. Under his guidance, Golden Fetus focuses on paying and treating its artists well, and not gouging the fans. Their shows to date have (consciously) been ‘economically correct’ at $5 to $10 a ticket.
Kim says the story for Great Integration came to him in a cryptic vision he calls “the prophecies,” but he doesn’t remotely consider himself a prophet. He seems to think of himself as more of a vessel than anything–an author through whom the characters in his masterpieces express themselves. The result–an opera that includes a heady exploration of materialism and an inevitable armageddon. Not a physical, world-ending armageddon, Kim says, but more of a “spiritual atomic bomb.”
Like most of EMN’s work, Great Integration is a hybrid of chamber music and hip-hop. There are cellos, a flute, a clarinet, percussion and two emcees: Do D.A.T., and Rico Pabon. Former Great Integration emcee Kirby Dominant will appear on an upcoming EMN single, the content of which will be a somewhat lighthearted take on romantic breakups.
Great Integration is undoubtedly ambitious and might even sound far-fetched for pop or hip-hop, but remember, this is an opera. Loftier flights of fancy have been told in this medium. Frankly, we find it pretty plausible: Occupy, financial collapse around the world, a sudden proliferation of new ideas and ways of being. EMN’s opera is pretty timely. - Go Banter

"The Great Integration: A New Kind of Hip-Hopera"

We might as well get this out of the way: If JooWan Kim is one of the stars of the Bay Area hip-hop scene, he doesn't exactly look the part. Bespectacled and slight of frame, the 34-year-old Korean American wears his hair long and favors sandals and white robes — a look befitting a martial arts guru (if you're into stereotyping like that), or maybe Jesus Christ.

Kim doesn't rap — he has no aspirations to be the next Denizen Kane or Jin Au-Yeung. He doesn't work the turntables; he doesn't cull out obscure tracks to sample. Rather, he's a classically-trained composer with degrees from Berklee College of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory. He also cusses a lot, dismisses the classical genre as mostly "old white people music," and has an abiding love for N.W.A. Go ahead, try putting him in a box.

Back in Korea, Kim says, you could be into a type of music without having to buy into the whole subculture — without having to dress a certain way or only hang out with certain kinds of people.

Here, it's different: "Because I have long hair and I'm Asian, they're, like, 'Who is this guy, and why is he into hip-hop?'"

Anyway, Kim isn't so much trying to break into the hip-hop world as he is determined to reshape it, in what might appear to be the unlikeliest of ways — by combining rapping and hip-hop rhythms with elements of his first love: classical music. And so he's assembled a crew that not only includes two highly-regarded Bay Area rappers — Do D.A.T. and Rico Pabón — but also a flute player and a violinist and a guy on stand-up bass.

On Friday, June 8, Kim's Ensemble Mik Nawooj (read it backwards) will perform his magnum opus, The Great Integration, at the Oasis Restaurant & Bar. The ninety-minute, two-act "chamber hip-hop opera" will feature a nine-member ensemble: strings, woodwinds, drums, the two emcees, and Kim himself holding court on the piano.

If you're an old school hip-hop head or a classical purist, maybe you cringe a little at a term like "chamber hip-hop opera." Maybe it makes you think of Puff Daddy rhyming over some sappy strings. Maybe it conjures images of Yo-Yo Ma trying too hard to be hip (scratch that — I've never seen Yo-Yo Ma do anything that wasn't awesome).

According to Kim, the truth is that most of the time when musicians try to blend classical music with hip-hop, or any other kind of pop music, the results are disappointing. There's the so-called Third Stream, a term Gunther Schuller coined to describe the fusion of classical music and jazz, most of which Kim says just sounds like concert music — not jazz, really. And when pop musicians try to incorporate classical music, they usually just mimic the sound by hiring a string section.

What Ensemble Mik Nawooj strives to achieve is more than just a mash-up of two genres, but rather a coherent hybrid: ambitious, multi-layered compositions that rely heavily on hip-hop rhythms, but within which the rapping is just one element — one instrument, if you will.

"I'm not trying to mix classical and hip-hop; I'm actually creating new music," Kim explained. "It's not classical, and it's not hip-hop. Once you have a hybrid, it's no longer the predecessors — it's the next stage of evolution."

The story of Ensemble Mik Nawooj is, in its genesis, an immigrant's tale. As a 20-year-old Kim immigrated to the US to study classical composition at two of the great meccas for Western music: first Boston's Berklee College of Music and then the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He wrote piano concertos and string quartets — pretty standard stuff.

Kim said that back in Korea, classical music was a fresh, relatively new thing to study. Then he got to the States and found it no longer seemed relevant, that it had become "old white people music."

"For me, it was not the music of today," he explained.

While he was at Berklee, Kim met Valentino Pellizzer (now the Ensemble's drummer), who introduced him to hip-hop. Kim says he hated it at - East Bay Express

"Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera"

If you want to do something awesome Saturday night but you’re not entirely sure what, try JooWan Kim’s hip-hop opera, Great Integration. It’s an allegory of end times (think 2012, Mayan-style) layered in a pulsing hybrid of hip-hop, jazz, and classical.

An exceptional and very different talent (so sayeth jazz legend Ahmad Jamal), Kim is also a Taoist, and elements of Zen creep into the fray. Ensemble Mik Nawooj plays out this apocalyptic saga on flute, clarinet, violin, cello, drum, piano, bass, and vocals. - 7x7 Magazine

"Chamber hip-hop opera 'Great Integration' returns with a second act"

Perhaps you've seen the billboard on your daily Bay Bridge commute: simple white background, a hand with two fingers pressed together, and in bold type, the words Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera.

If you, like many commuters, are intrigued by the concept, allow me to shed some light. The two-act performance, which takes places this week, is a true blend of classical music and hip-hop; it's 90 minutes of continuous flow, MCs spinning a dark and moral tale of modern corruption over a live ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, drums, and bass. It's a production spearheaded by the duo behind Oakland's Gold Fetus Records – Christopher Nicholas and Joo Wan Kim, musicians who met in the dorms at Berklee College of Music, and Kim's Ensemble Mik Nawooj. For this particular piece, Nicholas is mostly behind the scenes in organizing mode, and Kim is the music director who wrote the lurid tale at the heart of Great Integration.

“I think in order for something like this to happen, there has to be a general hybridization,” says Kim, “if you think about 'crossover', it generally means you’re compromising the genre, but what I’m doing is not necessarily hip-hop or classical, but bringing the elements of [both] and creating something new. In that way, to my knowledge, I don’t think anybody has done this – or to this length.”

The basic storyline follows five material lords, each corporate tycoons who represent fundamental elements of the world – wood, fire, earth, water, and metal – and what happens when the Gods decide to assassinate the lords. Kirby Dominant is the MC for act one of Great Integration, playing a character in this act called “the Black Swordsman of Dominance.” Rico Pabón, the MC for act two, plays a character dubbed “the Water Bearer.”

Initially, Kim planned to base Great Integration on a comic book, but Dominant disliked the idea and pushed him to look deeper. The final plot came to Kim in a vision during a routine BART ride between San Francisco and Berkeley. It was those cryptic messages about God coming to earth and the material world's end that inspired his story.

Creating the initial concept behind the chamber hip-hop opera itself took even longer. If you'll allow it, I'll reach farther back into Kim's musical past to illuminate the hybridization. Born and raised in South Korea, he got his bachelors at Berklee, studying Western European classical music, and later received his masters at the San Francisco Conservatory Of Music . He was introduced to hip-hop by his friend, drummer Valentino Pellizzer, and initially hated it.

“I just didn’t understand it, then one day it clicked to me, I realized it was actually good,” Kim says. “I listened to NWA and really liked it. People think it’s really weird, because I’m totally into classical so they’re like ‘you might like J Dilla or Mos Def’ or some like, conscious hip-hop, but no, I listen to gangster rap.”

In 2005, Kim wrote a piece that started as chamber music. Pellizzer suggested he add an MC on it, so Kim contacted Dominant and they did a show together. That was the musical precursor to Great Integration, long before the storyline was written. With the concept, the plots, the ensemble, and the MCs all in place, Kim and Co. presented the first act of Great Integration in 2010 with live dancers. They later performed it again at Yoshi's and the Red Poppy Art House with just the musical elements. Now, for the first time, Great Integration premieres the second act, and the debut of MC Rico Pabón in the production – all going down this Friday, Sept. 30 at the Old First Concerts. Kim hopes the piece will expand the public's understanding of what you can do with a piece of music.

“For our culture, the only thing we have is pop art. And unfortunately some of it, is really bad,” he complains, “People running the business don’t really care about good or bad, as long as they make money.”

Though he also sees the importance of music for th - SF Bay Guardian

"Ensemble Mik Nawooj: Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera"

Sometimes excursions into cross-genre musical creation don't turn out so well, especially with such a traditionally brash and stand-alone style such as hip-hop. But put aside that thought: Ensemble Mik Nawooj is fresh and crafted with intention and precision. In some ways reminiscent of the great hip-hop collaborations with jazz, Korean composer, rapper, and Taoist JooWan Kim takes great care to make this more than a mash-up. The styles employed complement and build on each other, make each other better. The music makes the rapping even more clearly art and poetry; and the music itself, infused with the lyricism, the rhymes, and the very particular narrative of Mik Nawooj, could easily stand on its own for a meaningfully complex composition. Performing, appropriately, at the Oakland Metro Operahouse, this concert is more than a hip-hop show. It's a tale, a gestalt, and not to be missed.” - Flavorpill SF

"Ensemble Mik Nawooj merges hip-hop and orchestra"

Have you been listening to chamber hip-hop operas recently? As of yet, your iPod doesn’t alphabetically list this between blues and classical. Nor does Spotify, Grooveshark or iTunes offer you this section to listen to your favorite rap-cantatas. This is because, as JooWan Kim, co-founder of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, revealed, “People haven’t heard anything like this.”

“Chamber hip-hop opera,” Kim explained, is a type of “hybrid music,” synthesizing hip-hop lyricism with classical composition, without compromising either format, and ultimately creating a new style. There isn’t literal opera being sung, but instead, rap and instrumental music are presented in a shared genre, riffing off each other, giving space for rhymes to tell a story while orchestral pieces are played either as background music or as their own refrains.

In a digital age where, in order to create new music, electronic beats and distortion are used to revamp standard musical verses, it’s a bit risky to pursue anything that doesn’t pertain to one kind of sound or even combines various types of music that would most likely appeal to other listeners. Yet JooWan Kim and his music business partner, Christopher Nicholas, have made the move to Oakland in order to pursue the creation of their music with their group, Ensemble Mik Nawooj.

Kim and Nicholas’ friendship has spanned over 13 years, beginning when they were freshmen roommates at Berklee College of Music. Since then, these entrepreneurs have been working on sharing music that they truly believe in. They have created the record label (or “musical fraternity,” as they put it) Golden Fetus Records in order to maintain their own integrity and produce healthy pop music void of corporate demands for a mass-appealing style.

The Ensemble’s own diverse musical qualities stem from the fact that both its founders come from such varied musical backgrounds. Nicholas received his master’s degree in jazz music. Kim is a classically trained pianist who used to loath jazz and dreaded being subjected to friends playing hip-hop music. But now, Kim conceded, “Once you go hip-hop … you can’t go back.” The two have musically found a way to reconcile these differences with the creation of their recent piece, “Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera.”

Their latest endeavor is a hip-hop opera about the end of a fantastical reality ruled by materialism. Inspiration for “Great Integration” came to Kim by surprise while he was taking BART one day. He explained, “I had a moment of automatic writing.” He was given the story in an outpour of clear words from a source that he can’t pinpoint. Eerily enough, Kim, who never knew of the Mayan predictions, later discovered that his own “prophecies” matched up quite consistently with stories of the end of the world in 2012.

As the story goes, in a world dominated by five non-human lords born from complete materialism (symbols of corporate tycoons), the hero, the Black Swordsman, must assassinate the lords to save humanity. Yet due to the world being consumed by its own materialism, it must ultimately be destroyed in order to leave a blank slate for a pure, new life to have a chance. Simply put, Kim explained, “(It’s) ‘Fight Club’ meets hip-hop meets ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”

The story itself is even laid out in a fantastical format, staying true to the usual themes of operas, but as Kim revealed, it is even closer to that of a cantata and oratorio. The actual show is not fully staged but presented in a concert fashion, with the orchestra sitting behind the MCs as they perform to the audience. The show weaves in and out of combining rap with classical instrumentation, but at times, will separate into segments of purely instrumental music. Kim’s compositions range from repeating minimalistic motifs to flourishing phrases that resonate on a rich, Wagnerian level.

Reflecting on the music business, where musicians are willing to sacrifice their beliefs to sell their music, Kim s - Daily Califorian

"A millennial allegory with a Black Swordsman"

“… The most ambitious is “Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera,” a millennial allegory with a Black Swordsman… set to the rapping of MC Kirby Dominant over JooWan Kim’s moody piano score.” - The New Yorker

"Mik Nawooj: Reshaping Hip-Hop One Concerto at a Time"

Classically trained Korean composer turned Bay Area Wu-Tang and NWA fan Kim Joowan is looking to generate a new genre entirely. Nick-naming the orchestral arrangements and stylized rap form, “chamber Hip-Hop Opera,” Kim Joowan with ensemble Mik Nawooj (read it backwards) will be performing the Great Integration: A Hip-Hop Opera tonight at the Oasis Restaurant & Bar in Oakland, California.

K-hip-hop and opera? We’re as intrigued as you are. In Korea, Joowan found himself interested in the classical music scene and relocated to the states for formal training. At Berklee College of Music in Boston and then the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he slowly realized that classical music wasn’t as fresh in the US. Here it had become “old white people music.”

But at Berklee he met Valentino Pellizzer (who now plays as drummer in Mik Nawooj), who gave him a taste of hip-hop. The “G-funk” style of Dr. Dre and edu-taining style of Public Enemy became his influences, and eventually led to his composing The Great Integration. It was a project that took six months to create, where he tells the story of five material obsessed tycoons combating against the knightly “Black Swordsman” (spit by Oakland’s own Kirby Dominant, who Joowan knew from his Conservatory days). According to Joowan, the piece is meant to be spiritually cathartic, to destroy corruption and bring about “the end of the world.”

Along with the vocals of his former Berklee roommate Christopher Nicolas, Kim Joowan performs The Great Integration in two acts. Searching for something that’s not quite hip-hop, not quite classical, Mik Nawooj is thirsty to change the name of the game overall.

Take a listen below and tell us what you think. - MTV


Great Integration: A Chamber Hip Hop Opera Act 1 (ft. Kirby Domiant)

Great Integration: A Chamber Hip Hop Opera Act 2 (ft. Rico Pabon) - Live @ Old first concerts in SF

Without Goodbyes (ft. Kirby Dominant)
WGFYU! (ft. Kirby Dominant)



Jazz legend Ahmad Jamal said, "In this day and age, for an artist to succeed, the talent has to be either exceptional or very different. JooWan Kim is both; exceptional and very different."

Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) performs the innovative music of composer/pianist JooWan Kim, who blends classical, hip-hop, film music, and pop into a unique musical hybrid. Since its first public performance in spring of 2005, EMN has generated both shock and praise from audiences and critics alike for its uncompromising blend of rap and classical. Ensemble Mik Nawooj is the first and the only band that successfully merged pop with traditional Western European music without losing the integrity of either genre.

Music director of EMN, JooWan Kim, is a Taoist/Zen practitioner as well as a lifetime endorsee from the Steinway and Sons Piano Company.