RON KORB
Asia Beauty
(Humbledragon Entertainment)

 

Canadian flutist / composer Ron Korb is clearly in love with Chinese and Asian music in general and the results of that musical affinity can be heard on the excellent 2015 CD release of Asia Beauty. Packaged like a book, complete with hard back CD case and multipage CD booklet, Asia Beauty takes the listener on a journey through the magic of Asian music motifs. Commenting on his Asian connection and how it relates to Asia Beauty, in the following interview Ron tells mwe3, "I was born in Toronto, Canada and still live there but I have lived in England briefly and Tokyo, Japan many years ago. Toronto is a stimulating multicultural city with large Asian populations and musicians from every country imaginable. In this city, mixing cultures and celebrating each others diversity is encouraged. I supposed that is partly why I feel so at home as I am part Japanese on my mother’s side. My mother always referred to me as Eurasian. Growing up I felt Asian as I was surrounded by Asian people and customs." With song titles like “Hanoi Café” and “Ancient China”, Ron Korb's Asia Beauty album is quite soothing to the ears and as such falls neatly into the contemporary / crossover instrumental fusion genre as well as a wealth of World Music genres. What’s even more impressive about Asia Beauty is Ron’s performance on a number of Chinese musical instruments, including all types of flutes that he plays, while backing from a range of musicians, including a number of guitarists, keyboardists and percussionists, keeps the music intriguing and stimulating throughout. In depth liner notes, complete with fascinating artwork and superlative CD sound quality, will keep the listener even more focused on Ron Korb’s magical Asia Beauty. Filled with an entertaining mix of exotic musical instruments and Asian music sounds, Asia Beauty is one of the finest contemporary crossover instrumental CD releases of 2015. www.RonKorb.com

 



 

mwe3.com presents an interview with
RON KORB



mwe3
: Can you tell us where you’re from originally and where you live now? What are some of the defining characteristics of where you live now?

Ron Korb: I was born in Toronto, Canada and still live there but I have lived in England briefly and Tokyo, Japan many years ago. Toronto is a stimulating multicultural city with large Asian populations and musicians from every country imaginable. In this city mixing cultures and celebrating each others diversity is encouraged. I supposed that is partly why I feel so at home as I am part Japanese on my mother’s side. My mother always referred to me as Eurasian. Growing up I felt Asian as I was surrounded by Asian people and customs.

mwe3: What other cities and countries are you most interested in?

Ron Korb: It is no secret that I have a particular love for Asia. I have traveled there over 20 times and performed in many of the countries like: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Singapore, and Mainland China.

mwe3: How did the Asia Beauty album come together so to speak? When did you first begin studying Chinese music and showing interest in it and the many musical instruments that China is known for?

Ron Korb: I was exposed to the Chinese music world early on while living in Tokyo. I was writing for a Japanese publisher and they got few Canto Pop singers in Hong Kong to record my songs. I traveled there a few times and immediately found the culture very alluring. Still, back then for me, and most of the world, Mainland China was shrouded in complete mystery. I returned to Canada and studied dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) a bit with a local Chinese player in Toronto. Since I had already studied shinobue and ryuteki bamboo flute in Japan I found an immediate affinity for dizi. I started to incorporate the Chinese instruments into some of my recordings and live performance like in “Behind The Mask.” In 2002, I was invited by the great erhu player George Gao to be part of a musical collaboration between Canada & China. We rehearsed with the traditional instrumentalists in Guangzhou before doing the concert tour. Collaborating and mixing the musical styles was quite challenging both conceptually and practically. It put the goal in my head of producing something in the future that could blend the different musical styles and culture more elegantly.

mwe3: So how did things progress from there?

Ron Korb: I had a successful solo concert tour in China in 2005 and was then asked to do another East West collaboration but this time with the Oriental Angels which was made up of the top female virtuosos in China. Whereas in 2001 I was a sidemen, in 2007 half of the concert would be my own compositions incorporating the Chinese instruments. It was great having a deadline yet having time to delve into the ways to use the Chinese instruments to their fullest.

mwe3: Tell us something about working with the group Oriental Angels on the track “Little Jade” in Shanghai? You did a show and a made a DVD with them?

Ron Korb: Yes, “Little Jade” was written and premiered for that televised show that became a DVD released in China. I have a lot of affection for that piece because of the title and it is reminiscent of writing in the Canto Pop style earlier in my career. The Angels were very professional and technically excellent. However, they never had been asked to play standing up and moving around while playing before so we spent a lot of the rehearsal week working that out.

mwe3: I know you’re also married to a very lovely Chinese lady so you must have a lot of connections to China.

Ron Korb: Actually she is from Taiwan. She is an amazing help explaining the Chinese history, poetry and customs but actually most of the connections to China are through my old music friends (laughter). In Taiwan, however, there is always one of her old colleagues, friends or family member to help us out organizing or facilitating the performances.

mwe3: Where and when was the music for “Asia Beauty” written and recorded and how did you record the album with the other musicians? For instance was a lot of the recording done live or with overdubs and even recorded in remote locations?

Ron Korb: The music was written over many years in many places. When I am traveling I carry manuscript paper with me and jot down ideas as I get the inspiration. It was basically recorded in the same studio, Kuhl Muzik, even though the album took so long to make, the studio actually changed names in the process (laughter). My work process is I write charts for the musicians and try to record as many instruments “live off the floor” as possible to capture that human feel. Some additional recording was done in Glenn Gould Studio in CBC to get that natural reverb sound. The Oriental Angels recorded their tracks in Beijing and the drums and bass on the bonus track “The Sword of Heaven” were recorded in Hong Kong.

mwe3: Where did the title Asia Beauty come from?

Ron Korb: Originally I was going to call the whole album “Dragon Flute and The House of The Five Beauties”, after the story written in the liner notes, but as other songs were included that were not part of that narrative I thought of calling the album simply “Asia.” I liked adding the word “Beauty” because the essence of the music is celebrating the beauty of Asian nature, artwork, poetry and also refers to “The Beautiful Sadness” aesthetic and the characters in “House Of The Five Beauties.”

mwe3: What inspired you write the story of the Sorceress? There’s eight tracks surrounding this part of the Asia Beauty CD right? It’s imaginative and colorfully played! Would you say it’s the centerpiece of the entire CD?

Ron Korb: I wrote “Dragon Flute and The House Of The Five Beauties” in my hotel room in Shanghai in the week following our concert with the Angels. My band had returned to Canada and I spent my time alone walking the streets during the day and writing the story at night. I was inspired to write a supernatural story set in Ancient China based on some history and my own personal experiences. The Sorceress is partly inspired by the story of Empress Dowager Cixi who began life as a lowly concubine and ended up being the controlling power behind the scene in the Qing Dynasty. The story is the centerpiece of the album and even the other songs still compliment the imagery and mood.

mwe3: Your fantasy “House of the Five Beauties“ could be made into an animated film or Anime series. Have you ever pitched it?

Ron Korb: There was interest to make the story into a feature length animated film by a Chinese animation company however, I am happy that it is finally available in the liner notes of the album.

mwe3: You mainly play the silver flute and an instrument called the dizi. What is the difference between the flutes sound wise. Do you often mix different flute sounds and how many flutes do you have?

Ron Korb: I have over 250 flutes from all over the world. I normally mix the different flute sounds but on this album I mainly focus on the different kinds of Chinese woodwinds the Dizi, Xiao, Xun and Bawu because it is a concept album. Soundwise, the dizi is more organic and with its buzzing resonator it has clearly a Chinese sound. The classical flute has good intonation and pure tone but the mechanical key system lacks some intimacy, similar to the difference between an automatic transmission and a standard car. With the Chinese bamboo flute, your fingers touch the holes directly and you feel every curve and bump in the road. It allows you to slide and bend the notes.

mwe3: What countries do you find have the best sounding flutes? India is also known for its flutes right?

Ron Korb: I think every country makes great flutes. The bansuri and venu from India are amazing but so are the instruments from Japan, China, Cambodia and Ireland. It just depends on what sound you want for a particular song.

mwe3: I guess China is the mother load of Asia. Where in China have you traveled and played concerts?

Ron Korb: I have performed in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Kunshan, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Wuhan, and Wuxi. I have also traveled through Xitang, Suzhou and Guilin.

mwe3: There must have been unexpected things that happened. Can you share some experiences in China with us?

Ron Korb: One rather touching thing happened just on this last tour in 2014. We were working with a young group called Xin Yi at the same concert hall in played in 2007. The erhu player and leader of Xin Yi told us that as a teenager she attended my concert in 2007 and it really inspired her to become a professional musician and make cross-cultural music. This was astonishing because when I write music, I rarely think of it having any lasting impact beyond just enjoyable listening.

mwe3: On “Two Mountains” you play the bawu flute, which has a great sound. Where and when did you attain that flute and what else can you tell us about that track?

Ron Korb: The first bawu I bought was at Ray Man Music Shop in London, England. I played it for years and then when I was recording at Real World Studios in Bath, Peter Gabriel asked to try it. He actually said, “Can I bowu your bawu” and he tried to play it. It never worked after that, so the next trip I went to China I bought another one and have been buying them ever since. The instrument is played by hill tribes and they use the natural echo as an inspiration.

mwe3: On the track “Magic Sleep” you co-produced with Paul Intson. Tell us about that track and working with Paul. It has a little pan- cultural kind of vibe.

Ron Korb: Paul is a well known film composer who composed the score for the animated film The Nut Job a few years ago. Working with him is always fun and we have known each other for ages. Asia Beauty was almost completed but I felt it needed an ambient track to contrast the mainly melodic song forms. We started by recording the mbira thumb pianos and then overdubbed the xiao and acoustic bass. Everything was done with both of us playing in the open air.

mwe3: Your catalog of CDs is most impressive. Clearly you put a lot of work into the sound and vision and packaging. How many albums do you have out and when did you first record a CD? I guess you’ve made quite a bit of progress in getting the sound you want from your head to the disc! Are you trying to keep all your CDs in print? Is that a challenge these days especially with all the streaming and illegal downloads?

Ron Korb: I made my first CD in 1989 and if you include all the reissues and compilations with my name as a solo artist there are thirty releases. I actual like legal downloading and I don’t mind streaming either. It has brought my music to a much wider audience. I can keep most of my major CDs in print. As you can see the Asia Beauty packaging is very expensive hard cover book and I feel if you continue making physical CDs you should make them very special. Even if you have streamed the music or have the mp3’s it is still worth it to own the album as a collectable.

mwe3: The Asia Beauty packaging is beautiful, 38 pages of full color photos of both rural and historic China. Who took these gorgeous photographs and where were they taken.

Ron Korb: I’m happy that there are no stock photos in the picture book at all. Most of the photos were taken by my wife. The exotic locations in China include: the beautiful characteristically Chinese mountains of Guilin and Yangshou, the Reed Caves of Guangxi provence, the gardens of Suzhou, The Great Wall, and the Forbidden City in Beijing. Other locations include Hanoi, Vietnam and the gorgeous bamboo forest at Xitou in Taiwan.

mwe3: Track 19 “Country Life” appears before the 3 bonus cuts. Is that like a Chinese country song? You even have two guitarists on there. Did you blend a cool mix of Eastern and Western scales on that track?

Ron Korb: You asked earlier about the recording process and that is a good example of a piece recorded “live off the floor” with six musicians playing simultaneously. Part of my sense of humor was to mix American country music with yangqin and guzheng playing the Chinese pentatonic scale.

mwe3: The bonus cuts are cool. What about that pic of you with the Asia bride on the page listing “The Sword Of Heaven” and “Jasmine Lullaby”? Is that some special outfit that girl is wearing?

Ron Korb: The girl is from a mountain tribe in China called Dragon Spine where there are terraced fields shown inside the CD with the song “Two Mountains”, She is wearing a traditional costume. The women in that area are known for having really long hair that flows to the floor.

mwe3: There’s actually 22 tracks on the CD right but you only list 19 of them on the back cover while mentioning the two bonus cuts inside the album booklet?

Ron Korb: It is true there are 22 chapter markings. In my concept, the album is complete at “Country life” track 19. The last three chapter markers are encore pieces or if this were a film, they would be the end credits music. It was important for me that the bonus songs continue the same feeling and mood and be actual polished tracks as opposed to alternative mixes.

mwe3: Track 21 “The Sword Of Heaven” is a bonus cut. Is there fuzz guitar and some rock drumming on that? It’s a great spacey kind of pan-global world rock feel.

Ron Korb: “The Sword Of Heaven” was a real challenge. It is an 8 minute epic with dozens of instruments and hundreds of tracks to mix. It starts quietly with the elegant prelude of the pipa and guzheng. Soon we have the rock guitars, bass and drum and various percussion creating a wall of sound, with Chinese and Japanese instruments intermingling, painting my impression of the grandeur of an ancient Asian world. I put “Jasmine Lullaby” at the very end of the album because after the turbulence of the electric guitars it is nice to end with something serene.

mwe3: Speaking of guitars, I hear you worked with a legend who we interviewed recently here on mwe3 - Steve Hackett?

Ron Korb: I never actually never met Steve Hackett in the flesh but on Jim McCarty’s Sitting On The Top of Time CD I acted as a co-producer where he played on a song. We recorded the tracks at Kuhl Muzik and Mr. Hackett put his part down in his studio in England. It was amazing when we got the part back. He has such a vibrant guitar sound with so much style and finesse.

mwe3: You've done a number of sessions for other artists, for example with Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds and singer Olivia Newton John and film composer Mychael Danna. What was it like working with those artists and what are some of your other favorite and most memorable studio sessions?

Ron Korb: In general terms, working with other professionals often teaches you how the simplest ideas and techniques are often the most effective. I suppose working on the early Mychael Danna albums like Sirens or Skys was exhilarating because it was so new and all those genres like space music and world were still in their infancy. It was incredible to play on Olivia’s album but it was particularly amazing when we performed it live in Philadelphia because she has so many loyal fans that just seemed to know every note we played.

mwe3: What achievement are you most proud of?

Ron Korb: That’s easy and it has nothing to do with music. My mother passed away back in December of 2011 and my wife, father and I did palliative care for her in the home. The government health service provided everything we needed free of charge. It was of course very difficult but very meaningful. She had no fear at all of dying and actually comforted us. As hard as it was there were moments of joy where all four of us could laugh. Needless to say it changed us all forever.

mwe3: What do you attribute your excellent recorded sound on the CD to? What role did you take in getting the mastering and CD sound perfect?

Ron Korb: We are always striving for the best sound possible. My engineer Gary Honess, and I are always trying different mixing techniques and even going to other acoustic spaces like the Glenn Gould studio to squeeze a little bit better recording quality. A major part of getting the best sound is hiring the best musicians. You will notice that 20 of the 22 pieces are completely acoustic and all the exotic Asian instruments are played by excellent musicians. The album was mastered at Lacquer Channel by Phil Demetro and it was difficult to master. Parts of it are so delicate that it needed special treatment. We did many versions before we were both satisfied.

mwe3: What directions would you like to go in next with your music? How about your plans for writing, recording and possible live concerts moving into 2016?

Ron Korb: We are planning to do an Asian tour in 2016 and I have some other projects at various levels of completion. I also love collaborating with other artists and I have a feeling there will be some interesting opportunities to work with some talented people in the future.





 

 
   
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