Dual Major Allows Kim to Explore Korean Roots By Ken Keatley Charles Kim, a native of Houston, is an American composer of contemporary classical music, heavily influenced by such minimalists as Philip Glass and John Adams. It is, however, with an early 20th-century composer Hungarian Bla BartĒk that 22-year-old Kim shares a special kinship. "BartĒk actually went into the Hungarian countryside and researched the traditional music," explained Kim, during a break Tuesday morning from classes at the Peabody Institute. "He created a blend, successfully in my opinion, of Western and Hungarian styles. So that s a definite influence on my work." Earlier this year, Kim a dual major in composition at Peabody and computer science at the School of Engineering produced a BartĒk-like blending with his musical composition for soprano and computer-controlled electronics that in his words "brought me closer to my Korean roots." His 15-minute piece, "Does Spring Come to a Lost Land?" was set to a Korean poem of the same name by Yi Sanghwa. Written during and about the decades-long Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, the poem is, said Kim, "about people who have lost their country, their freedom, and still have hope." Kim wrote the piece to honor his parents, Yu Sang and Jin Ae Kim, who endured that tumultuous era of Korea s past before immigrating to the United States. "Growing up in America, I wasn t interested in Korean culture," said Kim, who wrote the piece using funding from a 1993 Johns Hopkins Provost s Undergraduate Award for Research and Excellence. "But before my senior year of high school, my parents forced me to go with them to Korea, and something awakened in me there." That "ancestral calling," Kim said, prompted him to immerse himself in Korean traditional music and art, an experience that culminated in "Does Spring Come to a Lost Land?" The composition, which Peabody professor Geoffrey Wright has described as "a powerful demonstration of how the expressiveness of the artistic spirit can be enhanced by the sensitive use of advanced computer technology," has earned plaudits for Kim and Peabody voice student Hyunnah Yu, who has performed it three times in Baltimore this year. "What the piece did for me was perhaps an opening up to an exploration of new styles that I can pursue," said Kim, who plans to study composition in graduate school following graduation next spring. "I had never written using Korean traditional forms to this extent." Aside from its cultural collaboration, the piece was an important step in the blending of electronic music with live singers. Kim, writing for voice for the first time, had to determine how to get his computer-generated music to mesh with the expressive nuances of Yu s performance. He chose to pre-record the computer tracks and some of the vocal parts onto tape, using a keyboard and IBM computer. During performances, Yu s microphone is connected to a pitch-recognition device via digital signal processing software. The result is that the notes she sings are automatically recognized, and computer-generated harmonies are provided in real time along with his "orchestra" of computer sounds. According to Wright, "Traditionally, in this field performers had to pace themselves to the metronome-like regularity of the computer s clock, which often resulted in a stilted, lifeless performance. Charles solution was elegant and simple." Kim, who has been a percussionist in the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and the Johns Hopkins Symphony Orchstra, doesn t compose solely for electronic, computer-based performances. He has written for live orchestras, but "I like the feeling of control I have with electronic music. Having your piece read or performed by an orchestra is like giving your child to a day-care center where they know nothing about him." Kim is planning future Baltimore performances of "Does Spring Come to a Lost Land?" and hopes that it will reach Korean audiences, perhaps in churches. His current and future projects will continue to explore a variety of musical styles and computer techniques. "I m proud of my heritage, but I m not willing to label myself as a Korean-American composer. That would mean I would be expected to use Korean styles exclusively," said Kim. "I don t want to limit myself that way." But now that he s embraced his Korean heritage, he won t turn his back on it, either. "Combining Western and Korean traditional styles in my music is an experience I d like to pursue again." Kim s academic achievements are significant, too. Carrying as many as 22 credit hours per semester, he is a regular on the Dean s List and has been nominated (with four other undergraduates) for USA Today s 1995 All-USA Academic Team. He also finds time to polish his computer skills as a system administrator for Peabody Academic Computing. One of but four students currently pursuing dual majors from Peabody and the School of Engineering, Kim has a perspective on Hopkins life that few other students have experienced. "I like the blend of the two schools, but neither is a very relaxed environment," he explained. "At Hopkins we re all neurotic. Everyone is concerned about GPA, especially in engineering, and at Peabody everyone is concerned about practicing."
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