Our Guest Editor Joel Bell interviews Hyelim Kim, a performer of the traditional Korean taegum flute, engaged in cutting edge contemporary music.

As a Korean traditional musician, my musical foundation is rooted on Korean tradition. I was selected as the pioneering artist by the Korean Arts Council; and was selected as the Kumho Artist. I have also won prizes at various acclaimed competitions, including the Gold Medal at the Korean National Taegum Competition and the 1st prize in the National Chongro Competition.

After this, I decided to expand my creative passion to an even greater worldwide audience, so set off for the United Kingdom where I now live and work. I obtained my Ph.D in ethnomusicology from the University of London in 2014, where my dissertation was on the performance-as-research of Korean music. Since graduation, I have been engaged professionally as a musician, performing taegum flute, including performances at the London Jazz Festival, the Spitialfields Festival and the International Flute Festival to name a few. I also played with the Alchemy Ensemble of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, including Sura Susso on African kora and Aidan O’Rourke on Scottish fiddle. I am now a member of ensemble Notes Inégales and have collaborated with musicians such as Lionel Loueke, Evan Parker and Bryon Wallen. My debut recording, ‘Nim(2013)’ was released by Universal Music and includes traditional pieces together with new works based on the collaborations.

My experience in London enables me to take different approaches to my tradition and to open up to new expressions, cultures and techniques. Therefore, I am excited to take them back to Korea and nourish contemporary music employing Korean and British music.

What was your experience of contemporary western classical music before coming to the UK?

I have already been exposed to contemporary western art music while still in Korea as a performer, having performed and worked with composers of this genre before coming to the UK.

 How has your music changed since arriving here?

I’ve now had the chance to collaborate with so many more musicians from different styles and backgrounds. In working with them I’ve had to learn to adapt my own style and in that process also absorbed various musical traditions. 

You have mentioned that the essence of your music is bamboo. What shape is that bamboo now?

The shape has not changed. Only the context where the bamboo is located has changed. 

What is the essence of the Korean tradition that remains despite all your musical adventures?

There are two: the Korean rhythmic groove; and the “living tone”, which is the concept that each note has a life of its own.

Why not just play traditional music?

To communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds and countries, you have to learn their language.

What does your message have to do with the taegum?

The instrument is made of the most natural material (bamboo) – it is the ultimate respect to nature.

Tell us about your experiences with Peter Wiegold and Notes Inegales.

It gives me the freedom to find my own space within a composition.

Who are the ghosts who look over your shoulder when you play?

All the taegum masters!

How do you approach the performance of a work such as purcells King Arthur, dealing with a non-western instrument and equal temperament? 

Mainly by actively varying the angle of the embouchure and “half-holing”, but most importantly by listening.

And finally, how do you find playing with an electric guitarist?!

There are actually many techniques in common with the taegum (bending, distortion), which I am keen to explore.

What are your upcoming projects?

I will be at the Korean traditional music workshop summer school, at SOAS.