By Patrick Widdess
South Korean musician and academic Hyelim Kim, has been bringing the taegum, a bamboo flute, to a wider audience since moving to London two years ago. The city has offered amazing opportunities to share her country’s traditional music and in turn it has broadened her own horizons. She is quickly becoming established as an innovative composer and performer with a debut album that uniquely fuses Eastern and Western, traditional and contemporary music.
“I grew up listening to traditional Korean music” she recalls, “but I also listened to jazz, western classical and Korean pop.” She admits that she was not always passionate about the music she was required to study as part of her classical training.
She started playing music aged nine and her love of wind instruments led to her taking up the taegum aged 11. This traditional Korean instrument is a bamboo flute with a membrane that buzzes to create unique sounds. It has a versatile range and sounds like the warble of a rare and exotic bird.
Hyelim studied at a prestigious government-run music school which was a highly disciplined setting to learn her art. “I didn’t have much freedom to express myself,” she recalls though it’s a time she’s grateful for. “I was lucky to get a good and intense education in traditional music from a young age” she says, and the experience inspired her to explore music outside her country.
When she arrived in London in 2011 to continue her PhD studies, she found greater freedom to find her own sound. She began composing, having previously focused on performing traditional pieces. “In Korea there’s a strict division between performer and composer” she says, but now she is free to be both.
Whilst Hyelim has always been influenced by both Korean and Western music; it is only recently that she has started to combine the two. She describes the difficulties in bringing together two fundamentally different forms of music. “Western and Korean music use different tuning systems” she explains. There are also differences in performance. “We don’t normally have a stage. When we have a stage it’s unavoidable to modify the original setting. Also we don’t have a conductor,” she continues. “If we want to play with musicians from other cultures we have to learn their system.”
Ironically it was Hyelim’s background in traditional music that helped her adapt to playing with other musicians. She explains that improvisation has always been a big part of traditional Korean music but its role has been overlooked as musicians focus on preserving traditional pieces. Hyelim’s ability to improvise on the taegum has enabled her to blend in with non-Korean musicians.
In 2012 she reached the attention of the producers of Late Junction on Radio 3 and recorded a session for the programme with German pianist Nils Frahm and UK hip-hop artist Ghost Poet. The three musicians had never met but Hyelim says, “We overcame our differences through improvisation.” The result was a unique blend of styles which received an enthusiastic response from listeners. “I thought that my traditional background would be an obstacle but actually, focusing on the fundamental methods of Korean music helped me adjust to that multicultural setting.”
Hyelim has been involved in further collaborations with Asian and Western musicians for the recording of her debut album, Nim. These include Simon Barker, a jazz drummer from Australia. He has taken the opposite route to Hyelim and studied Korean shamanic drumming which he performs on Western drums. “It’s a kind of mixture of compositions and improvised pieces and some traditional music too,” Hyelim says of the album. It includes commissioned pieces by Korean composer Taesong Kim and one of Hyelim’s own compositions.
Hyelim is pushing her musical boundaries but Korean music and culture remain at the heart of her work and she hopes her country will gain greater recognition on the world stage. “There have always been internationally successful artists from Korea but they don’t emphasise their national identity,” she believes. “Hopefully, more people will become proud of their culture and people will realise Koreans are talented in many ways.”
She acknowledges the accomplishments of other Korean artists and is grateful for the success of K-Pop global hit Gangnam Style. “The general interest in Korea and its culture is growing thanks to PSY’s success. I’m really glad more people are asking questions about Korea and listening to more kinds of music than just K-pop.”
Hyelim will lead a concert at the Royal Asiatic Society this month. It promises “an intoxicating mixture of east-west sounds. Cool beautiful Korean classical traditions, rhythmic Japanese shamisen, the earthy taegum with the ethereal Chinese flute, the passion of dark Argentine tango mixing with toe-tapping Irish folk,” which is culturally diverse even by cosmopolitan London’s standards. It’s a fantastic start to her future ambitions. “I want to make as many bridges as possible,” she says. “People like to categorise everything but sometimes these divisions are not necessary. I think I can build better communication through music.”
With passion and expertise Hyelim is quickly building those bridges and all the time creating music which is new, innovative and exciting.