Photo by Pat Mazzera. Design by Raoul Ollman
“I grew up in Korea. I ate kimchee for twenty years, ok? So, what else is new?” says critically-acclaimed composer JooWan Kim.
Although Kim recognizes his ethnic background as a significant factor in his personal and artistic development, he is all about the music. “I wanted to create music that works in the world, that is sophisticated and is not abiding by any cultural bias,” said Kim, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from South Korea when he was 21.
As the composer for Ensemble Mik Nawooj, Kim writes the music for every instrument in the band. And the final product is something quite extraordinary:
This Friday December 21st, Kim and his ensemble will be jamming and rapping all through the night of the apocalypse at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA -- playing songs from his album about the end of the world, The Great Integration: A Chamber Hip Hop Opera.
Kim describes his style as “pop music with classic technique”. Similarly, his manner of dress is simple, monk-ish -- although he rejected actual monkhood despite seven years in a Daoist temple. This zen-like appearance however, contrasts with his aggressive position against avant-garde fundamentalist musicians.
“He should f------ die. He should be decapitated,” said Kim about atonal French composer Pierre Boulez. Kim instead prefers the music of György Ligeti, whose music appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Kim's strong opinions come after years of training in the country’s top musical institutions, namely Berklee College of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory. It was clear during our interview that Kim was knowledgeable about a prodigious amount of music -- and that he became philosophically opposed to the “art music” that seems much admired in musical academia.
Says Kim, “if you create something, some theory, or new way of organizing music, and if it sucks, it’s over. There’s no application of that. Because the application of that itself, is for you to hear it, and get some sort of reaction. What else is there? Is music going to make you grow wings?”
Kim also had some thoughts about common practices among aspiring Asian American musicians:
“What I’m trying to say to mainly Asians, who believe that, ‘Oh it’s cool to be hip hop now, so I’m gonna be thugged out.’ Or, ‘It’s cool to be jazz; I’m going to try to be Charlie Parker.’ Why are you doing that? Just study the technique, and do what you want and create something new.”
And be sure to check out the plethora of other events at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. Though primarily a respected meeting space for Chilean American and Latino American affairs, it also provides opportunities for up and coming Asian American performers in their monthly Go! Ohana shows.