Artistic Director of San Francisco-based, Magik* Magik Orchestra, Minna Choi formed the orchestra a mere five years ago and this year will celebrate it's success with a grand fundraiser - "When We Were Young". Choi wasn't much older than five herself when a music teacher spotted her knack for picking out melodies on the piano. A natural talent that has been nurtured with a childhood of piano lessons and a love of pop music, it was not until her first job out of college at a New York studio that she felt the confidence to charge producers for her skills. This prompted Choi to return to formal schooling again and in 2007 she came home to the Bay Area to study at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music where Magik came into being.
What inspired the name Magik* Magik Orchestra?
Classical music seems to always have unpronounceable names. I wanted a name that was playful, whimsical and most importantly easy to pronounce. Also around the time I was dreaming of Magik, I saw a photo of myself as a 5 or 6 year old in a Yamaha Music School group photo with a banner above saying “Music Is Magic”.
Why did you come up with the idea of “When We Were Young”?
Almost every year, we have wanted to do a Magik celebration concert. But this year was the first time that our organization has hit a stride. We now have the bandwidth and creative time to see what is the next step. That we decided is education and outreach to children that we hope to do more intentionally. We get hundreds of requests but only a handful are educational. And I don’t think it’s because there is no demand. We hope to raise some funds so we can do some workshops and be proactive about marketing and letting people, schools, parents know that we are here.
Did you start Magik as a way to make classical music more accessible to pop fans? Or saw a niche to giving the classically trained more work?
“No. I might have studied classical music on the piano but the music I listened to on my Walkman when I was growing up was pop. I came from a rock world not the classical one. In High School I was in a rock band. I went to NYU to study Communications and all my internships were in magazines, advertising and broadcasting. I was 26 when I decided to go back to school and get a Masters in Composition at the San Francisco Conservatory, a pretty late start to be studying classical music. And my mother always said that I learnt to work the rewind function on a tape recorder before I learnt to speak.”
So as a composer would you like to see Magik writing original music eventually and inviting bands to sing and perform on these original works?
“My degree was in Composition. And when I started I had aspirations to be a true composer because if you don’t write original music as a composer then you are not valid. That inclination has died down. I have found that I really like being a musical sidekick, to add to a piece, to make it pop!
While in New York, you also had a stint writing and arranging for hip hop music?
“Yes, it was for a New York producer, Lazy Legz Dymond. He started making beats when he was 13 and selling them at 16 to rapper friends at school. By 19, he was selling beats to producers and MCs. I started as a studio intern at Unique Recording Studios in NYC but eventually I was being called in by producers to demo out keyboard lines or track scratch vocals for songs. Lazy Legz Dymond would have me come in whenever he was booked in the studio. He would say, write some music for me here or some lyrics there. He would hire me to write whatever he felt inspired to do.”
And that’s about when you decided to come back to San Francisco and study music composition. Do you miss that hip hop vibe?
“It would be fun to be able to work more in hip hop again. To get back to that kind of music creation. That world of the studio is something I understand, to create beats based on samples, adding and subtracting. But since I moved away from New York. I have not had that opportunity to have that community, it’s more indie-rock here for me.”
What does having a strings section or an orchestra bring to an indie-rock band’s music?
“I see it as a new character in the story that is the last to be introduced. It’s a script that’s almost done and you are writing lines for the final character. Usually when bands come to me, the song has been written and all the vocal parts are there. It’s very conversational – that’s how I see it. The guitar asks a question and I try to give it an answer. I write string parts the same way I write vocal parts. For example, good background vocals answer to the lead vocals.”
And what if you can’t find an answer?
“Then it probably means it doesn’t need an answer,” she laughs. “It’s also about not trying to overstuff every silent moment with a sound.”
It strikes me that Beck’s “Song Reader” – his album of sheet music must be right up your alley? Why haven’t you recorded any of the music already?
“A couple of people have asked me…and I kinda don’t want to do it, unless Beck himself was involved. Sometimes people see Magik as a kind of cover group. We are on the artistes’ team not the cover team. We are always interested in collaborating with artists to make their music more emotive or more dramatic – to work on the actual ‘thing’, not someone covering the ‘thing’. While the artistic purpose of “Song Reader” is to be covered, I have zero ambition to be a cover orchestra.”
So where would you like to see Magik in the future?
“My dream vision for Magik is that we can be light and nimble enough to respond to current musical culture and established enough to simultaneously do our own thing. I look at institutions like the San Francisco Symphony, the Ballet or SFMoma and there are aspects of it that I really envy – the budget to do five years of programming or a calendar projection for 10 years. There is a little of that which I want. But it also may feel like we’re not current or living in the moment. I want us to be able to hear a song on the radio and then put together together a show with the band not long after. My big dream is to become a real San Francisco Arts institution.”