Han Hee Jung’s Space Reaction is a curious phenomenon in that it is a contemporary classical album by someone who primarily was known for being a songwriter. This fact was exciting to discover and made the feat of an album like Space Reaction more impressive. Because not only is Han able to tell stories through the mesh of music and words, she’s also able to do so with just music, just sound.

han hee jung space reaction

Space Reaction is a mix of narration, vocal pieces, and instrumental pieces. It’s a coherent collection of songs that I’d love to see performed live, especially because it has a fun mix of instruments (from what I can pick out: violin, cello, piano, drumset, and a viola).

It’d be really engaging to see how the musicians would perform the pieces. There are parts in the pieces that would require lots of coordination and rehearsal and I’d love to see how the musicians would engage with each other, through eye contact, breathing, movement. How would they cue in tricky rhythmic parts? Sudden tempo changes? Parallel melodic lines?

One deeply satisfying element of the entire album I enjoyed was how Han’s compositions really lean into dissonance, which is when notes don’t sit well with each other. This was especially delightful in the two pieces featuring vocalist Park Min Hee: “In Silence” and “Reconstitution Part 1.” Dissonance is crunchy and sounds weird and at times uncomfortable, but Han doesn’t stray away from having Park hold on notes that clearly clash with each other. The clear, shimmery quality of Park’s voice makes dissonance sound really good and even alluring.

On the other hand, in “Another Inspiration,” dissonance is more in your face and intentionally uncomfortable, which is interesting considering that the title made me think that inspiration would be a brighter thing. Instead, Han’s take on inspiration is that it is something messy, textured, and at times chaotic. There are abrupt, harsh moments scattered throughout the piece, but it works. And it leads us to “Cabbage Juice,” which lives up to its name by featuring sounds of gulping, presumably, said liquid.

Was Cabbage Juice the inspiration? How do the Reconstitution pieces lead to Cabbage Juice? Do they have to?

Perhaps the final track, which is a narration of Han whispering “reacting to your reaction” holds the answer. Whatever we pull from the pieces Han has created and curated is the takeaway. Poet Mary Ruefle once said, “I believe that if a poem gives you pleasure, you have understood it.” Space Reaction gave me a spectrum of experiences including pleasure and perhaps that’s what Han wanted to do.

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This is a review that I’ve sat on for far too long, due to both loving the album and being intimidated by it. I didn’t know how to approach an album like this. There are snippets in Korean that make me have to wrestle with the language, and in doing so, my insecurity with my Korean proficiency. But then also, there’s the question of how to even start unpeeling contemporary classical music. In a space that can be unfamiliar and at times seemingly inaccessible to people, how should we, as audience members, engage? 

Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Listening through this album brought me back to sitting in the bright red recital hall at the University of Iowa’s Voxman School of Music, soaking in the sheer electric sensation of live music. In those moments, all I focused on was the moment, the experience, the reaction.

In the span of the performance, all that mattered was what was unfolding before my eyes and ears. Sure, I could be reacting to particularly hard passages with questions but they’d be rhetorical. In the moment, all that happened were reactions.

Space Reaction emphasizes the nature of music even more by being named Space Reaction. I’m sure that there’s a lot that went into Han’s compositions and process but ultimately, it’s the 15 minutes and 21 seconds of that first listen that makes the impact. 

So I encourage you, even if classical music isn’t something you’re as familiar with, to give this album a spin. For the best experience, listen through it at one go in a quieter space. Close your eyes and imagine if it were live. And soak it in. 

Ashley J Chong is a Korean American poet musician most likely scribbling a to do list or a new idea. She's a glutton for making playlists and is down to listen to pretty much anything cause maybe she can pull a song or poem idea from it. You can connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @ashtree39 and she also does music @saenabi.music.