Beyond Taegŭm: Interview with Hyelim Kim

Hyelim Kim is a hugely talented and passionate musician specialising in the traditional Korean instrument, the taegǔm. Using her skills she aims to promote greater understanding of her cultures’ music and to exchange knowledge and friendship via the medium of music. Currently Hyelim is studying at SOAS in London, where she’s working towards her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and writing a comprehensive Ph.D thesis concerning world music, the taegǔm and the modernity of Korean music. With her base in London, she has also been treating British audiences to beautiful demonstrations of the taegǔm and is regularly wowing crowds, creating new interest within the British public for traditional Korean music. Having performed in multiple countries across the globe, her experience is huge and her enthusiasm is inspiring.

Coming up on the 17th September, Asia house in London has a very special evening with Hyelim. ‘Beyond Taegǔm‘ is an event that “will be part lecture part performance as Kim performs and explains her musical choices and will feature diverse repertories from traditional to contemporary compositions to explain the way that Korean traditional music has been recontextualised in a contemporary and increasingly globalised world” (source).

There are two different kinds of taegǔms, a slightly longer one that was used in front of the Royal family and aristocrats, and the other for Korean folk music. The taegǔm is made from a huge bamboo stick and is played similar to the western flute with a mouth piece and a number of holes you cover and uncover to manipulate the sound. Sound is produced from a membrane that vibrates and buzzes to create a very unique and earthy sound, almost like a deep bird warble in the wild. Because of this, the sound is truly unique and has lead to many considering the taegǔm as the most representative of Korea’s traditional instruments. At this very special evening, you’ll get the chance to see this mystical instrument in action as well as learn a bit more about traditional Korean music and the taegǔm from Hyelim herself.

Ahead of her performance, we asked her a bit about herself, her music and her lecture/performance event.


KCM: How did you first become interested in traditional Korean music? As well as performing, we read that you’re also writing a thesis on the Taegŭm and the Modernity of Korean music, where does this passion for Korean music come from?

HK: Music’s always been my big passion, I think I am inclined to sounds as a medium of expression. I found that Korean traditional music, in particular, has a deep and varied spectrum of sound, which allows me to explore many different kinds of musical languages. If you listen to the taegǔm’s (my flute) sound, you will be surprised at how diversified the layers of sound in one tone can be. I wanted to analyse this mystical side of the flute and its music and tried to see it as a creation of a broader context. That’s why I started doing my PhD at University of London.

KCM: How long have you been playing the Taegŭm and what made you pick the Taegŭm to play and concentrate on?

HK: I’ve been playing this flute for almost 15-17 years since I went to a special secondary school for Korean traditional music. The sound of the taegǔm is so extraordinary that I just fell in love with it.

KCM: Have you learnt to play any other instruments? Korean or Western?

HK: I can play piano, western orchestral flute, and a bit of violin. Also I can play Korean drums.

KCM: You have performed in many countries, what made you decide to study in the U.K?

HK: As a musician, the physical accessibility to many kinds of musicians is critical for networking and collaborating, I think. In that sense, I thought London is the best place to be. Considering its long history, the UK has a balanced culture drawn from the rich tradition and the advanced modernity

KCM: We’ve spoken to many Korean artists who went to study abroad and have often spoken about how different the studying culture was between Koreans and Westerners. We understand you are currently a Ph.D. student at SOAS, how different is it studying music in the U.K compared to South Korea?

HK: Of course, academically, the methodologies and theoretical tools are very much based on the Western/European sources in the U.K. And we, as a Korean scholar, tend to have values on our historical documents and theories and try to develop the academic outcomes from them. Also, the pool of scholar is more diversified in the U.K since they are from different countries, backgrounds and races. It also brings me so much valuable experience and learning.

KCM: Are there many young people in South Korea who are also interested in traditional Korean music?

HK: Korean people seem to be more interested in their own culture these days since they noticed that Korean culture is recognised worldwide. I think it is a big change that people feel confident and proud of their own culture, which, I think, leads into increase of interests in Korean traditional music.

KCM: What has the British response to the Taegŭm been like? Do you see a lot of British people at your performances?

HK: In general, the response is very good, someone said that the sound of the taegŭm is most ideal to represent to Asian spirit. I know it’s a bit generalised comment but I also noticed that people in UK discovered that Korean music from my flute is distinctive from any other cultures and it is very appropriate to show off Korean spirit.

KCM: You’ve performed in Australia, Europe and South Korea. How do you find the reception of audiences differs in different countries? Do you find that they experience the music differently?

HK: Yes, of course they are all different, it is subject to their cultural identity. I think South Korea still sees the Korean music as an old tradition, but Australia and Europe interestingly see it as a very modern or even experimental sound. This implies that we see the Korean music through the view for our cultural conception. This also affects the way I create and perform my music.

KCM: Do you still get nervous before concerts?

HK: A bit of nervousness brings me a big amount of concentration. I don’t avoid it and try to convert the natural feeling into a positive element for performance. This is a very good practice..

KCM: How will you decide on the pieces for your upcoming “Beyond Taegŭm” performance? Does having a British audience influence the type of pieces you choose?

HK: I am trying to present the old and new version of music for the flute. This is not only about the instrument in isolation, but also about Korean traditional music in general. This chronicle will show the linear change of the Korean society and give deeper understanding on Korean music, a way of present ‘Koreaness’.

KCM: You took part in a BBC Radio 3 Late Junction Session where you jammed with Nils Frahm and Ghostpoet. It was so different to see a traditional Korean instrument in this kind of setting. Was it difficult having to work with such different instruments and styles of music?

HK: Actually, it was really fun, I didn’t feel any difficulty or so. I think the willingness to communication is the most critical thing when it comes to musical communication or even any kinds of communication. We were all professional, well-trained musicians in our own field, on the top of that, we were opened to ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ so that the result was really satisfied.

KCM: What are your future plans in terms of performing and traditional Korean music?

HK: I am trying to narrow down between the connotation embedded in the taegǔm and the creativity I try to carve in the flute. If these fragmented ideas are united into one single sound, I think my music and sound will be more appealing to people inside and outside of Korea. To do so, more practice, more performance, more studies and more composition, and more travel…maybe?? :)

A huge thanks to Hyelim for participating in the interview! We know she is very busy with her thesis at the moment and really appreciate her taking the time to answer our questions. Best of luck in your Ph.D and the upcoming concert!

No doubt the Hyelim’s ‘Beyond Taegǔm’ lecture and performance will be an insightful and fun experience. This is your chance to get a very interactive and informative evening regarding traditional Korean music. So don’t miss out on this amazing chance to get to know a brilliant musician better!

‘Beyond Taegŭm’ Event Details:

Date: 17th Sept 2013, 18:45
Venue: Asia House
Prices: £10 Non-Member, £6 Asia House Friends, £8 Concessions
Online Booking


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