Mondays with Morgan: Gayageum virtuoso DoYeon Kim in NYC debut as leader

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos reviewed Korean gayageumist DoYeon Kim’s triumphal debut as a bandleader in her new home of New York City.

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DoYeon Kim on stage wearing pink outfit and playing the gayageum
DoYeon Kim. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

At a packed Roulette Intermedium on 29 June, the first thing one saw was an austere projection – one of parchment, emblazoned with Korean gayageumist DoYeon Kim’s origin story.

“Born in 1991 on June 24th at 2 p.m. in Seoul, Korea,” it began, as the off-stage gayaguemist sang in her swooping, bracing tenor, with seemingly thunderous significance. The script went on to name her parents and the location of her birth. “This name is for the person who leads the wave,” it concluded: “And Kim Do Yeon will tell her life story tonight.”

At the Downtown Brooklyn non-profit performing arts venue, which hosts bleeding-edge experimental sounds, one might understandably expect something as serious as a heart attack. Right then, the slideshow flipped, and so did Kim’s demeanour.

“To the audience here tonight, please put your cell phones on silent mode – but feel free to take lots of photos and videos!” Kim chirped, suddenly jocular, as the severe script rolled on verbatim: “Let’s make lots of small talk at the afterparty!”

What may seem to be a conspicuous vibe clash isn’t contrived or put-on. In a casual conversation, Kim is bouncy and bon vivant, radiating quantum sweetness; once you dig a little deeper, it’s clear she also possesses a white-knuckled intensity.

As such, this music featured oases of relative tranquillity, punctuated by dramatic heavings and lashings of violence. Regarding the latter: where does that come from? Could it be the traditional Korean music in which she’s steeped? Or the Black American pioneers she connects it with, like Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton?

“I actually never, ever thought about it that way,” Kim tells LondonJazz in an interview a day after the programme, titled Existence. “It’s just about me. Because I was denied my existence, I’ve got some anger or grief that’s come about: Don’t deny me. Don’t deny my existence.”

What’s this denial of her very existence? It directly relates to thickets of stubborn, patriarchal Korean tradition that left her feeling utterly unmoored.

“My father’s side of the family – old people – they only wanted a boy, and I’m a girl, and the only child,” Kim says. “So, they were really disappointed, and they kind of ignore me… they never welcomed me.”

Accordingly, “I’m very intense. It’s just who I am,” Kim continues. (She has fresh magenta streaks in her hair, applied that day to “change my mood.”) “The powerful kind of music I’m doing – that’s my colour.”

Within Existence, Kim led an ensemble featuring saxophonist David Leon, flautist and piccoloist Laura Cocks, saxophonist and clarinettist Yuma Uesaka, bassist Brandon Lopez, and percussionists Tomas Fujiwara and Satoshi Takeishi. As for Kim, she played a 12-string gayageum – a traditional Korean zither-like instrument – as well as two 25-string models.

Kim also danced – as per the first composition of the programme, “Seungmu (Dance of the Korean Monk)”, a slice of traditional Korean musical language rearranged for her purposes. After the band played their way through the audience, long sections of her brightly-hued costume sailed into the air to the loping music.

DoYeon Kim dancing on stage wearing bright yellow and pink robes with a turquoise coloured hood covering her head and face. Musicians in the background
DoYeon Kim. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

“The seungmu – I’d never learned that dance before, but recently, I went to Korea, and took a lesson and practised myself,” Kim says. “That one is really meaningful for me, because the dance [represents] the monk before they leave the monk life and go to secular life.”

“Normally, they only wear white; it should be white, red or black,” Kim says of traditional outfits for seungmu. “I think because of that trauma, how I choose the colour is very loud: I’m here, I’m here. Even like my music: I’m here, I’m here.” Kim employs the primal word again: “It’s all about my existence.”

Kim initially put herself on the map as the first gayageum player to be accepted to New England Conservatory in Boston, a private music school that specialises in jazz and contemporary improvisation. 

Not only was her instrument unconventional in this Western academic context; she’s pretty much the only improvisational gayageumist in her mould out there today.

Back in 2020, her startlingly “out” onstage collaborations with drummer, composer and 360° musical visionary Tyshawn Sorey turned heads. Since then, she’s appeared on albums by artists like alto saxophonist Jim Snidero (on his 2020 Project-K album, an ode to Korea) and bassist and composer Nick Dunston, on his 2022 trio album Spider Season.

During this time, Kim was still living in Boston; before she moved to New York for good, she made occasional appearances in the city. Since she landed in Brooklyn, though, she’s appeared at the Vision and MATA festivals, as an accompanist in mostly improvisational contexts.

DoYeon Kim singing on stage wearing bright pink robes
DoYeon Kim. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

Existence displayed Kim’s gifts as both a composer and improviser. After “Seungmu (Dance of the Korean Monk),” Kim shed the costume and the ensemble performed “Kim Juk-Pa’s Sanjo,” a reflection of the titular gayageumist’s take on the 19th-century form, whose name literally translates to “scattered melodies.”

“Her life was very creative,” Kim says of Juk-Pa, the granddaughter of gayageum master Kim Chang-Jo, the architect of the sanjo style. “There are so many ups and downs; she even tried to kill herself, and she lost her voice.” As per her connection to Juk-Pa: “She had so much grief in her life, and I have so much grief in my life.” 

The piece ended with a slamming drum-off, in which Kim joined in: “I put all my sorrow, and then some,” Kim says of this section. “I purposefully take off the gown, and say goodbye to my dream.”

From “Kim Juk-Pa’s Sanjo” came a solo improvisation – like on the last piece, Kim played the 12-string gayageum. In the programme book, Kim explained that this section reflects her leap from the conformity of Korea to the individualism of America, where she absorbed the art of improvisation and realised the gayageum could be utilised in non-traditional contexts. 

“This piece pays homage to that process of discovery,” she wrote, “through which I started to define my own artistic identity.”

Backed with light brushwork, Kim progressed from a spare gayageum exploration to a spare groove, whose pace quickened. Featuring haunting microtonal overtones, this improvisation featured a particular cry characteristic of traditional Korean music.

“The notes start from my right hand but end with my left hand,” Kim told GRAMMY.com in 2021. “So I always think that the note is alive, and about how I’m going to shift it to another note. Cooking it. That’s very important.”

“That sound is representative of Korea,” she added, imitating a trembling, crying note. “I think that’s representative of Korean grief. We’ve had lots of wars and were occupied by Japan, so that vibrato is all about history, you know? It’s about the [depth] of grief we had.”

From there, Kim and company moved on to a group improvisation, laced with spectral scapes of her bow and haunting trills by the horn section. Powered by her 25-string gayageum, the performance built to a hair-raising tempest, followed by a whiplash halt. 

In the course of the piece, Kim seemed to explore every physical dimension – and limitation – of her instrument; she sawed at it with a Pakistani box; slammed a hinged section to echoing, percussive effect; and even slammed on the strings like a drum.

“I felt limited and frustrated when I played 12-string gayageum,” Kim says, drawing a thread back to an earlier point in her evolution. “All my frustration was there, and I ended up just hitting all the strings.” At the piece’s end, Kim delivered a shattering vocal turn, bringing home the themes of grief and loss and destabilisation.

The final piece was a Kim composition: “The Beat of Distant Thunder.” As Kim also explained in 2021 in the aforementioned GRAMMY interview, Korean music has “no harmony concept”; with this idiom, Kim slouches towards such by exploring the liminal possibilities of microtonality. As such, this closer felt like a drunken boat – topsy-turvy, listing between worlds, akin to Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

DoYeon Kim at the end of gig on stage with all the other musicians in a line
Full line-up from gig. Photo credit: Morgan Enos

As Existence ended, and a standing ovation ensued, an effervescent Kim thanked the audience almost too much – explaining that Korean people are particularly fond of “thanks.” Despite the onslaught she’d wrought, she didn’t project an iota of self-seriousness, as she thanked audience members, clad in pink, clutching a gifted bouquet.

“I was very excited. I was so ready,” Kim says of her opening salvo as a leader in her new home of New York City. “My mood was go-go-go mode.” She’s planning more local performances, including another with Sorey – a key collaborator who did much to establish her in this world.

“Kim Do Yeon will tell her life story tonight,” she intoned at the set’s beginning. But that story is just beginning.

LINK: DoYeon Kim’s website

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