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 mothers 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.
Whats even more impressive about Asia Beauty is Rons
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 Korbs
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
presents an interview with
mwe3: Can you tell us where youre 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 mothers
side. My mother always referred to me as Eurasian. Growing up I felt
Asian as I was surrounded by Asian people and customs.
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
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.
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 youre 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.
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.
What inspired you write the story of the Sorceress? Theres eight
tracks surrounding this part of the Asia Beauty CD right? Its
imaginative and colorfully played! Would you say its 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
mwe3: Your fantasy House of the Five Beauties could
be made into an animated film or Anime series. Have you ever pitched
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.
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
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.
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 youve
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
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 dont
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 mp3s it is still
worth it to own the album as a collectable.
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: Im 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.
Theres 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? Its 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.
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 McCartys 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
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 Olivias 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.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Ron Korb: Thats 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
mwe3: What do you attribute your excellent recorded sound on
the CD to? What role did you take in getting the mastering and CD
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.
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