Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Contemporary Renaissance

By Christian Carvajal

As rap music continues to evolve and diversify, it only makes sense that talented artists raised on hip hop and armed with music degrees seek to sample from the greatest discoveries of every musical era. From Mozart to Marvin Gaye, every compositional luminary is fair game. Ideally, these young artists recombine these styles and flavors into something wholly new and surprising, and that’s absolutely the case with Ensemble Mik Nawooj, the hip-hop orchestra coming soon to The Washington Center for the Performing Arts and Tacoma Arts Live.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) is directed by composer and pianist JooWan Kim, a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He founded EMN in 2010 after incorporating an MC and chamber ensemble into a composition for his master’s degree. That blending of musical vocabularies evolved into what Kim now calls “Method Sampling.”

“It’s a principle of sampling a ‘method’ that’s outside of your field,” Kim explains, “and reframing it to come up with a new way of doing things. It’s almost ubiquitous in all human systems — biomimicry, copying natural shapes to design things for utility; Henry Ford’s production line; haute cuisine gastronomy; many fields of science.” He further hypothesizes “that all innovation or change occurs via Method Sampling.”

JooWan Kim of Ensemble Mik Nawooj
JooWan Kim of Ensemble Mik Nawooj

Ensemble Mik Nawooj now includes drummer LJ Alexander, violinist Clare Armenante, clarinetist Andrew Friedman, operatic soprano Anne Hepburn Smith, cellists Evan Kahn and Bridget Pasker, flautist Joyce Lee, songwriter and vocalist Christopher Nicholas, bassist Michel Taddei and, last but far from least, lyricist and MC Sandman. EMN will perform works from its Hip Hop Orchestra Experience concert project on its way to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

Given the size of EMN and its breadth of constituent talents, we asked Kim about the pipeline for writing new material. “It actually is all written out as the orchestral version first,” Kim replied. “Then Sandman works on his lyrics after getting the less-than-perfect MIDI mock-up from me. We discuss the subject and the mood of the song while I’m writing, and he puts his lyrical genius into the rhymes [after] listening to the sweet, sweet sounds of 16-bit rendering of strings and fake drums. When it comes to writing, I’m pretty old-school and composer-y, so the only thing that’s different from now since we began the group over 12 years ago is that I don’t use pen and paper anymore. It was becoming too much work to write them all on the staff paper and inputting them into the notation program.”

Adds Sandman, “For an MC the music always comes first. JooWan will compose the music, and the themes are always broad enough that I have the freedom and space to interpret.”

Sandman of Ensemble Mik Nawooj
Sandman of Ensemble Mik Nawooj

Sandman ties Kim’s philosophy of “Method Sampling” to his genre’s long history of cultural cross-pollination. “Hip hop is a contemporary renaissance art culture,” he explains, “because it’s all sampling or Method Sampling. This is why it is America’s most quintessential art culture. There are no boundaries. The music began by repeating the breakdown portion of songs, for creating an environment where the physical movement to the music became the emphasis. The MC was originally a host or moderator responsible for exciting dancers to the floor. Soon the MC sampled rhyme and meter to make use of their voice [to make the] music more interesting, and the MC/rapper came about. Breakdancing sampled the violence of street culture to create a competitive dance style that helped to channel aggression into a nonviolent activity.”

Christopher Nicholas of Ensemble Mik Nawooj
Christopher Nicholas of Ensemble Mik Nawooj

As another nod to “Method Sampling,” EMN is notably gifted at crafting videos that seem wedded to material from note one. “Thank you!” says Kim. “Mostly we let the filmmakers come up with an idea for the video after we’re done with the piece. We have developed a relationship with a group of directors and editors, such as Matthew Boman, [with whom] we have worked on multiple projects together. He’s directing a documentary of our guiding principle, Method Sampling, during this tour.” The group’s most recent album, Death Become Life, was accompanied by five live-performance videos recorded at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj
Ensemble Mik Nawooj

The result of all this cross-cultural borrowing and blending is a rich, new sound New York Music Daily called “as ambitious as any classical-rap hybrid ever devised.” This is a show every fan of modern music, especially its most intercultural, experimental streaks, should make enthusiastic efforts to attend.

Jill Barnes, executive director of The Washington Center, agrees. “I first saw Ensemble Mik Nawooj in Las Vegas,” she recalls, “and there was a palpable energy in the room. I loved their unique mix of genres and instrumentations. About four months later, they were performing in New York City, and I had to make sure what I felt wasn’t a fluke. Sure enough, the room and everyone in it reverberated with a vitality that, while this is often felt in live shows, was inimitable and electric.”

The Washington Center requires proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test from guests aged 12 or older. Testing appointments are available in front of the venue. Adult guests must also present a photo ID.

Photo credits: Ensemble Mik Nawooj.


Ensemble Mik Nawooj


7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3 in Olympia;
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 5 in Tacoma


The Washington Center for the Performing Arts,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia;
Tacoma Arts Live,
1001 S. Yakima Ave., Suite 1, Tacoma






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