Kim Hyo-young’s Music Combines the “New” and the “Now”


Saenghwang and Piri Player Kim Hyo-young
Kim Hyo-young’s Music Combines the “New” and the “Now”

These days, the traditional music scene mainly revolves around the idea of “auteurism.” Today’s most popular artists no longer simply “play” music; they “make” it to accommodate their respective instruments, and they inspire composers to personally tailor pieces according to their preferences, as if placing an order. Saenghwang and piri player Kim Hyo-young seems to embody the quintessence of such individual creation in today’s performing arts.
Up until only a few years ago, the gugak scene was in an era of melodies and harmonies. The haegeum’s singing melodies and the harmonies of the gayageum’s strings were all the rage. Now, however, trends are shifting to tone and sound. Perhaps that’s why the peculiar sound quality of the yanggeum and the saenghwang are being spotlighted. Yet the scene’s repertoire of known saenghwang pieces and capable performers is insufficient to satisfy this new trend. That is why Kim Hyo-young attracts so much attention when she writes or releases a new piece for the saenghwang. In addition to the saenghwang, she also plays the piri and the taepyeongso, and is a gifted composer. We met with Kim to discuss what she’ll bring to PAMS 2016.

Writer(Song Hyun min) and Kim Hyo-young © Lee Ganghyuk

▲ Writer(Song Hyun min) and Kim Hyo-young © Lee Ganghyuk

Will this be your first PAMS(Performing Arts Market in Seoul) ?

I visited a few events in the past, because I’m interested in performing overseas. I even set up a private booth in 2010, but to no great success. At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted or what I wanted to show people.

How does it feel to be selected for the official roster? What do you hope to achieve this time?

I want to play my music for PAMS’ Korean and overseas delegates and see if they deem me fit for international audiences. Lots of artists play overseas through personal connections or on their own accord, but many of their concerts end up being one-time gigs.
On the other hand, there are artists and ensembles that use PAMS as a platform from which to leap into the international market.

As a fellow musician, what do you think about when you see such artists?

When you look at musicians and ensembles that perform around the world, there’s something special about them. Of course they have a unique flair or are exceptional ensembles, and their music is always outstanding. For example, when the group Jambinai first formed, they gave the impression of being something fresh, that they’d one day “make it big,” so to speak. Same with a group called Gongmyeong. Groups like that also have a distinct musical personality. Focusing on the unique traits and sounds of gugak instruments, they’ve crafted their own style. Conversely, my music is so varied that it sometimes feels like I have no clear identity. Thus, the upcoming PAMS 2016 is a chance to sit down and have a healthy look at the questions, “How do I present myself?” and “How will I appear to them?”  

You can play the piri and the taepyeongso and now have your own artistic patent on the saenghwang. You write many of your own saenghwang pieces, which is a great boost to your repertoire. What have industry insiders been saying about your recent creative endeavors?

Since holding my first solo saenghwang concert in 2006, my repertoire has been constantly changing. When I first debuted, many people said that my listenership would be confined to Korean audiences, as that’s when I played more mainstream stuff like tango music. Lately, however, I’ve been performing pieces that call for experimental and intricate ensembles. People now view my music with a completely different perspective. In Korea, there’s debate over whether or not my music can be considered “Korean.” When I’m abroad, however, it feels like people approach my music as if it’s truly one of a kind

© Kim Hyo-young

▲ © Kim Hyo-young

What do you find most appealing about the saenghwang?

Well, first off, it has a really unique look, doesn’t it? Whenever I play abroad, people always look at it with fascination. I’ve heard people compare its musical quality to the “sounds of heaven,” but, depending on how you play, it can also release the “sounds of hell.” I try to capture these qualities as much as possible when I compose. For impromptu performances, the saenghwang is much more adaptable than the piri. I’m proud to say that I play both. I believe that’s what sets me apart.     

What has been your most memorable performance overseas?

This past May and June, I played at the Carrefour International concert at the Le Phénix in Valenciennes, northern France. They had invited artists from Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Iran to play the traditional music of their countries, and we ended up collaborating. The concert’s theme was world exploration through music. When I read articles about it later on, I discovered that people had paid more attention to the piri than to the saenghwang. I played a duet with an Iranian tanbur player, and it must have gone well, for we got invited to perform again the next year. I also took part in the 2015 House Concert’s European tour. Collaborating with percussionist Laurent Marius in Lyon, France, was a totally new experience. Yet throughout this whole process, I think it’s important to preserve the musical traditions of your home country. It makes me happy to think of how deep my musical roots are. Playing abroad has allowed me to rediscover my musical traditions and to reflect on them.              

Young gugak artists have recently taken advantage of some residence programs to network with musicians from around the world. Have you ever signed up for an artist residency?

In 2014, I stayed in Paris for three months through an artist residency called Cité Internationale des Arts.I met a French jazz vocalist, a pianist, and a saxophonist. Meeting new musicians leads to creating new music. I collaborated with them to produce a few satisfying pieces. But it’s hard to meet such people again after returning to Korea. 

When looking at Korean artists who perform overseas, they usually either perform their own repertoires in concerts and festivals, or they collaborate with local artists. Which path would you prefer?  

I welcome all opportunities to show what I can do. I’m eager for chances to show the world my music as well as for collaboration opportunities with new artists. At the Carrefour International event I mentioned earlier, I did an impromptu saenghwang performance to complement a traditional Cambodian dance. Personally, I enjoy adapting my music for dance and theater. Musical unions based on differences and disparities, assimilating with others while still preserving my musical essence, have always been enjoyable to me. During a performance called HaUnDaGiBong— meaning summer clouds form a strange mountaintop, co-hosted by the 2015 House Concert and the National Gugak Center, I teamed up with dancer Lim Hee-yeong for a performance titled “Improvisation.” That was also a very memorable experience.     

© Kim Hyo-young

▲ © Kim Hyo-young

What are you planning on performing at the upcoming PAMS 2016?

I’m a musician who plays the saenghwang, the piri, and the taepyeongso, but I plan on highlighting the saenghwang this time. I’ve prepared a solo, a duet with a daegeum player, and an ensemble performance with a pianist and percussionist. In my solo pieces for the saenghwang, titled “Gozu-Neok” and “Saeng,” I also plan on exhibiting my improvisational abilities as well as introducing some pieces written by Park Gyeong-hun, who has collaborated with me on various projects over the years. Although native to the Asian region, the saenghwang is fairly well known worldwide. That’s why I want to offer a saenghwang performance that only a Korean musician could provide.   

You cover the realms of both performer and composer. Which do you prefer?

Composition isn’t my area of expertise, so it’s difficult for me to produce good pieces and it’s a long process. That’s why I haven’t written that many pieces so far. But the pieces I have written contain the very essence of my musical identity, which is of great personal significance. But even if you’re playing something composed by someone else, it should be “your piece.” You should never perform anything without your unique musical essence. When a composer listens to my music and tailors a piece for me, I witness an exclusive musical creation, and the composer and I both grow through the experience.         

Kim Hyo-young © Lee Ganghyuk

▲ Kim Hyo-young © Lee Ganghyuk

With PAMS going on, October is surely going to be very busy for Kim Hyo-young. The Jeonju International Sori Festival is on October 2, and “The Sounds of Kim Hyo-young’s Saenghwang” will be featured at the Bukchon Nakrak Festival on October 8. Her music will span the traditional sanjo style as well as her personalized style of improvisation. Furthermore, October will see the release of her third album, which contains pieces that contain both mass appeal and musical mastery.
Kim’s hectic schedule is a reflection of her unparalleled efforts to reveal the saenghwang’s potential. It shows that the saenghwang is gaining popularity and is entering a new era of blending into various genres and concerts. In the center of this transition stands Kim Hyo-young.  



Song Hyeon-min (music critic)
Song Hyeon-min (music critic)
Song listens to music and writes about it, immersed in the world of music while constantly going back and forth between his desk and various venues. Song contributes mainly to Auditorium, a performing arts monthly, and is a regular guest on KBS 1FM (93.1), where he gives listeners updates on the performing arts industry. He received the 13th Gaeksuk Art Criticism Award.