More than 100 years ago, a poem by Katharine Lee Bates was put to music by Samuel Ward, and the resulting song has become one of the United States' most recognizable patriotic hymns, "America the Beautiful."
Looking at how the country has evolved and changed over the last century, the pianist Min Kwon wondered what it would sound like if this traditional tune evolved and changed as well. So, she invited more than 70 composers to write variations for solo piano based on a theme of "America the Beautiful." The result is a new project, America/Beautiful, she's releasing on July 4.
Kwon joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about the project, the pandemic and the American dream. Listen to the full audio above, and read on for highlights of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ari Shapiro, All Things Considered: How does [one interpretation of "America the Beautiful"] fit into the larger project of these dozens and dozens of variations?
Min Kwon: It just reminds once again what I love the most about our country and that is the exciting diversity and multilayers of who we are, where we come from, where our parents come from, what we look like and what kinds of experiences and feelings and emotions that we bring to the table. And I think the last year, because so many of us were kind of at loss for words, "When words fail is when music begins," somebody said this, and it's one of my favorite quotes. ... Music is, in a way, it's an outlet; it's an outburst — sometimes of our soul. Something that we are too afraid to express or too uncomfortable to think about, music gives us that outlet. And also, it gives validity to all the emotions and feelings that Americans were feeling [last year].
Can you tell us about your own relationship to "America the Beautiful" – I mean, as an American who devotes your life to music, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant from South Korea, what does this patriotic hymn mean to you?
I came to America, as corny as it might sound, with a true American dream. Musicians that I adored, admired, idolized — they all came from America. And I promised to myself that one day I want to go there and make a life out of music, and I've been so fortunate to be able to pursue that dream. This song is, of course, idealistic. But, what is a human being if we don't hold our own ideals or values or hopes? And every tragedy, every darkness, I think, has to turn to something brighter and better.
In some of these pieces, it's hard for me to actually track the original melody of "America the Beautiful." I feel like I lose the theme. And I wonder if that, too, is a metaphor for this country.
Exactly, yes. America means so [many] different [things] to so many people, and we have complex feelings about our country, and because of that, I think this project was the perfect outlet for these people to express that complex feeling. Nothing ever stays the same. Also, a lot of the composers wrote in their variations things that change, and there are opposing characters. But, what they have in common is what they want America to sound like.