For Beata Moon, a North Dakota-born, Indiana-raised Korean-American minister’s daughter who was trained as a pianist but is a completely self-taught composer, being able to create her own music was something of a revelation. It was also a defining moment in her personal identity, even though she had already experienced notable triumphs as a pianist—she was a concerto soloist with the Indianapolis Symphony at the age of eight and has a performance degree from Juilliard, where she studied with the formidable Adele Marcus.
“It was fun and I was able to do it, but I never had an interest of my own,” Moon remarks about her early years studying the piano and what made her turn to composition. “In college everyone around me was so passionate about what they were doing, but I was just there because I was supposed to be there. So I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do for myself and that’s how I discovered composing. I hadn’t really improvised a single note up until that point. I was never given that liberty or encouragement, so I just played what I was supposed to play. … My teacher came from the old Russian tradition where it’s very domineering, so I didn’t really feel like I had a voice of my own on the piano. I wanted to protect that with composing. I didn’t want to seek other people’s opinions … I’m grateful for the discipline and I still enjoy playing, but now it’s on my own terms.”
Playing on her own terms has meant playing predominantly her own solo compositions or her own original chamber music with her own ensemble. She has, however, also championed the music of other contemporary composers in the series of “Whodunit?” concerts she curated and performed in at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere. For these programs, information about the music—a combination of old and new repertoire—was not revealed until the end of the concert.
That sense of discovery and not quite knowing what to expect that she instilled in the audiences who attended is the same sense that she tries to bring to her students when she teaches, as well as to her own music when she is in the process of composing. But she always guided by a strong desire to communicate. Although she composes almost exclusively at the keyboard, her music sounds completely idiomatic regardless of the instrumentation. Two particularly effective chamber compositions are her 2004 Wind Quintet and the cleverly titled Moonpaths for piano with clarinet and violin from 1998, which, like her numerous solo piano works, marry unbridled tunefulness with odd rhythmic alignments. While she eschews conforming to any particular compositional camp, generous melodicism and unusual metrical patterns have been a hallmark of her music since she began composing. Her earliest solo piano composition, the 1995 Prelude, is extremely pretty though it is predominantly in a peculiar meter with 13 beats per measure. But according to her, this was not really a conscious decision. Rather, she claims with a great amount of humility, it’s a by-product of trying to be completely unselfconscious.
“I know there’s so much I need to learn still and I try to absorb and listen and study, but when I’m composing I don’t want to think like that,” Moon explains. “I think it’s helpful to go back into that childlike state if you can, or just be freer so that hopefully everything that you’ve retained and learned is in there, but you’re not worried or self-conscious about it. I try to apply that in my work so that I’m not judging in that really adult frame of thinking where it can be too critical because of whatever baggage you might have. When you’re a child, you can just be free and creative and you’re not worried about what people are going to think or what camp it’s going to be in.”
Four years ago her life completely changed when she gave birth to her son Oliver. But being a mother has given her an opportunity to connect even more directly with that childlike state on another level. Experiencing her son discovering the world has inevitably taken her in some new compositional directions. Oliver’s passion for toy trains was the inspiration behind a piece she composed earlier this year, The Curious Engine for piano with young audience participation which she wrote for Orli Shaham’s “Baby Got Bach” concert series. And she guarantees that the orchestral piece she hopes to write in the near future will also be inspired by him. However, it has been a complex balancing act between being a mother, teaching young students, and all of the activities that comprise the life of a 21st-century composer: in addition to being the primary initiator of performances of her music (through her own solo playing as well as her own ensemble), she is also self-published. And while she has CDs on Albany Records and Naxos, the newly released Saros—her latest recording and her fourth to date—is on her own label, BiBimBop Records (the name a nod to her Korean heritage). Just being able to carve out time to work on new compositions has taken a great deal of effort. While an upright piano greets visitors at the entranceway to her Forest Hills apartment, an electric keyboard which she can work on at odd hours with headphones when everyone else at home is asleep has become her most frequent go-to instrument. The other tasks have taken a back seat.
“I’ve definitely cut back on the business part and it’s a constant challenge,” Moon acknowledges. “I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of family nearby that can help out with babysitting, but at the same time I want to be there with him. It sets your priorities. Time management is crucial. You learn to get things done in a short amount of time. The balancing can be challenging. I haven’t been to as many concerts as I would like to go to, but it’s O.K. because I have other rewards that take its place.”