Shortly after moving to Seoul, South Korea, in 1992 to study the kayagum, a zither known for its abstract and very un-Western repertoire, Juneau native Jocelyn Clark had a brainstorm.
She asked composers from all over Asia to write music that incorporated three of the East Asian long zithers - the 13-string Japanese koto, the 21-string Chinese zheng and the 12-string kayagum - and changgu (an hourglass-shaped Korean drum.)
Clark explored the koto for a year with the Sawai Koto Academy in New York City and later with Maruta Miki at Wesleyan University. She studied the zheng from 1990-91 at the Nanjing Academy of Arts in China and with master Wang Changyuan in New York. And in Seoul, she had a scholarship to practice kayagum and traditional Korean musics at the National Classical Music Institute.
Theoretically, a cross-cultural composition seemed like a good idea. But her letters, written in Japanese, Chinese and Korean, were received cooly.
"Everyone said it was a good idea, but 'Where's the funding?'" Clark said. "I had no idea what composers were at the time, or how they worked."
Now 12 years later, Clark and the three members of her group, IIIZ+ ("three zee plus," short for "three Asian zithers plus Korean percussion"), are rehearsing in New York City. Their 2004 international tour, "Pling, Plang, Plung, and [ka] Boom!" begins Friday, Feb. 20, in Philadelphia, and winds through New York, Middletown, Conn., and Medford, Mass., before hopping over to Belgium and France. The show in New York is sponsored by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.
The group's tour program includes three pieces, two brand new, for kayagum, koto, zheng and the guitar/changgu work of IIIZ+ co-founder Il-Ryun Chung. IIIZ+ hopes to record a compact disc in Bavaria during the tour. Visit their website at iiiz.jocelynclark.com.
"When I first wrote the letters to the composers, I was thinking about how a composer from any culture could write for these three instruments so that one culture didn't take over the rest of the instrument," Clark said. "How do you make it sound unique? How does each instrument keep its own voice in a conversation without losing its own identity? It's hard to write a piece that answers all of those questions."
At first, it was simply difficult to find players who were willing, and proficient enough, to reach beyond the traditional bounds of zither playing.
Clark formed an early version of IIIZ+ in 1998, when she was invited to organize a concert for the grand opening of Harvard University's new Asia Center. The show was intended to celebrate the disparate cultures housed in the new building.
"Of course, it was my dream to put together these three zithers," Clark said.
Clark invited all of her zither teachers to play at the show. German-American Stefan Hakenberg, now a Juneau resident and Clark's husband, composed "Three Zithers and a Pair of Scissors" for the show. The piece is actually a montage of traditional zither performances. Chinese composer Liang Lei also wrote a song.
"It was the first time that I know of that the instruments came together," Clark said. "There was a mixed group of people at the concert, and since it was the concert of East Asian studies - Asian-American, Japanese-American, Korean-American - everyone sort of interpreted the concert in a different way."
"Encounters," as the show came to be called, led to an invitation for Clark to play a show in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2001.
"At that point, I wasn't ready to do a concert by myself, so I thought, 'We have these two pieces from the opening of the East Asia museum. Why don't I put myself in this group with whoever else I could find?'"
Clark played kayagum. She asked Il-Ryun Chung to play changgu and tracked down zheng player Yu Jun, whom she had toured through China with in 1998, in Berlin. The concert organizers found a koto player, Makiko Goto, in the Netherlands.
"We didn't even have a name, but it went so well that they invited us back the next year and we did it again," Clark said. "We introduced the instruments to composers and tried to get people to write for us. After the second year, we decided to make it a group."
IIIZ+ has played nine shows in the last two years, including an appearance at the Werkstatt der Kulturen: Musica Vitale, an international contest for groups that perform non-traditional music in a Western classical sense, in October 2002. Chérif Khaznadar, the director of the Le Festival de I'Imaginaire, a two-month festival of new art and ideas every March and April in Paris, saw the show. He invited IIIZ+ to play his festival March 15.
"It was in Berlin, last year, at the Musica Vitale where I have been a member of the jury for a dozen-or-so years, that I was seduced by IIIZ+," Khaznadar wrote on the festival Web site. "Seduced by these three musicians who came to set themselves up on the stage with their immense instruments and soon joined by someone who played the changgu...Within a few minutes, three instruments, almost identical in their forms, revealed the spirit of three close cultures, neighbors, but profoundly different."
IIIZ+ now includes Clark (kayagum), Il-Ryun Chung (changgu), Masayo Ishigure (koto) and Fiona Siang Yun Sze (zheng). Ishigure has played koto since age 5 and is currently trying to establish a koto school in New York City. Sze, a famous zheng player in China, has played since age 3 and toured all over the world.
Empire reporter Christine Schmid translated French for this article.