Composer and pianist JooWan Kim began his formal training in composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.M. in composition in 2003. He continued his education in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, from which he received a M.M. in 2006. JooWan founded Ensemble Mik Nawooj in 2010.
CVLTartes: Given the state of mainstream culture that permeates how we consume media, how would you introduce your activity to a stranger?
JooWan Kim: I’d say it’s a new kind of concert music that merges classical and hip-hop. Or say hip-hop orchestra.
Was it the way you listened to music that enabled you to learn to play?
I think it was when I heard Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 at the age of ten that totally blew my mind. I was so impressed by the coherence and impact of the music and to find out he was deaf when writing it was the icing on the cake. Until that point, I wasn’t serious about music at all.
Please, share with us your first memories approaching the piano! What makes this instrument so special to you?
It wasn’t special to me at first, just a normal overeducation of a Korean kid along with Tae Kwon Do and other extracurricular activities. The aforementioned change at ten is what made everything different. I also heard that a bunch of physicists has had a transformational experience around that age which made them commit to the study of science. Who knows? Puberty affects people differently.
Can you pinpoint a particular moment that made you dive into creating and playing with these hip-hop sounds?
I wanted to get out of the oppressive aesthetic of concert music which (I felt) was not working in the world at all and wrote a protest piece combining chamber music and hip-hop for the composition department concert (was doing my graduate studies then). My objective was to piss off the teachers which I succeeded but to my surprise, the audience loved it and I got a big write-up in a respected newspaper.
Afterwards, my MC at the time suggested I write an album and I spent the next six months writing an hour of music that I didn’t understand (I didn’t even like hip-hop then). Then I immersed myself into the classic hip-hop albums and had a conversion experience while listening to “Straight Outta Compton”.
Dr. Dre and N.W.A. have baptized me in the river of hip-hop and I was reborn as a free musician; I had found a way out of the cult of concert music and their insane endeavor of “creating a new language of music” to “push the music forward”.
Take me through your sound design process. Is this a quick process, or something you might obsess over and re-visit?
When I write the music, it’s a pretty conventional composition process as in I write the piece on the desk. Used to even use pen and paper without the aid of a notation program, a practice I longer continue after a couple of big commissions for larger ensembles.
Nowadays, I write on the computer and send the horrible-sounding MIDI mockups which my MC Sandman hates then let him come up with the rhymes as he suffers through the masochistic ritual of writing lyrics on what is slightly better than the 8 bit Nintendo sounds.
We are living in an age of decadence where disruptive changes are rare and growth is achieved by fake productivity of clever financial maneuvers.
Together with reflecting on the talents of other artists, you have created a fanbase for hip-hop and classical music. Does the conception come first or does the song evolve naturally?
Concepts come as I write the piece and they’re pretty loose. It’s when Sandman fills in the general idea of the piece with his rhymes that the pieces are complete. The music is of course done but as to the nature of what I do, it depends on the quality of the rhymes.
Diversity of sound in hip-hop/classical music is indispensable in creating a more innovative – and cooler sounding – future for everyone. What does it mean to play and live in the millennial generation of music artists?
A lot of the stuff I’m into usually doesn’t align with mainstream culture, so it feels like I’m outside most of the time. This is both good and bad; it’s good that I can be independent but bad that some people find what I do too foreign.
Your project is not hip-hop in the conventional sense, and in this regard will only suit so many ears. How would it be served best?
It’s neither hip-hop nor classical. It’s something new. The underlying principle of what we do is Method Sampling, a way of sampling foreign rationales and reframing them to come up with a new system. I came to realize this by trying to recreate the hip-hop beats using only classical techniques and instrumentation. When you go through this reframing process, what you end up with isn’t an exact replica of the thing you want to copy but something different. This was my ah-ha moment which led me to see the ubiquity of Method Sampling throughout history as well as the present time.
We are living in an age of decadence where disruptive changes are rare and growth is achieved by fake productivity of clever financial maneuvers. I believe that Method Sampling will break this cycle of decadence by rendering many novel prototypes and breakthroughs in various spheres.
How do you assimilate the influence of the people in your band?
I give them the music and tell them to play. They listen to me because I pay them. (laugh)
When you are not busy creating, which other artists do you follow or listen to?
A lot of classical music and hip-hop. Some Korean music I grew up listening to (absolutely not the K-pop that all the teenage girls love, FYI).
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
This is a great question. I know it’s quite a bit but exactly how much I’m not sure. Especially in the U.S. where subgenres of music coincide with the subcultures to which people claim memberships to.
Perhaps a more important question might be what kind of commonality can we render using the differences in perception of the sound and culture?
I think we’re already too focused on the differences and the challenge for the future is the emergence of a new ideological/cultural frame we can share together.
When you perform live, how do you want your audience to feel as they leave the show?
That human beings are still able to create new music and systems. That generating values and new ideas can be as revolutionary as burning things down.
What do you hope to do with your art in the future? I mean, do you have any special goals?
If we do this right for the next five to ten years, we’d be able to transform the concert music field and perhaps the performing arts at large so that the new composers and ensembles can truly connect to the modern audience. We think that we are taking the first step in this new direction.