Electronic music leaps boundariesWith a huge blond mane coiled into a chignon, multiple piercings in his ears and face and heavily bejeweled fingers and arms, Kim Dong-sup sports a look that stands out even in Hongdae, which is known for its underground clubs and decked-out clubgoers.
Yet it’s Mr. Kim’s music that truly sets him apart. Along with a synthesizer and a contrabass, he plays the theremin, an instrument that uses the frequency of air waves.
His unusual electronic music has gained a following in Europe and Japan, and in Korea, he has worked with local underground artists on his experimental music.
The theremin was the world’s first electronic musical instrument, invented in 1918 by a Soviet scientist named Leon Theremin.
The instrument, which looks like a box with two antennae sticking out, has no keys, strings or pipes; it doesn’t even need to be physically touched to produce sounds. The musician varies the noises by waving his or her hands close to the antennae.
In the 1960s and ’70s, bands such as Lothar and the Hand People and Led Zepplin used the instrument, but it never really caught on with musicians until the 1990s, when interest in electronic music started to pick up.
Mr. Kim, influenced by his artistic mother, a traditional Korean dancer, grew up playing violin and painting in school. When he wasn’t accepted into Hongik University, he decided to pursue his own musical career and studied under Korea’s grand masters of jazz, such as percussionist Kim Dae-hwan, saxophonist Kang Tae-whan and performance artist Shin Chul-jong.
It was in the mid-1990s when Mr. Kim accidentally came across the intriguing sound of the theremin while Web-surfing. “The pitch was definitely higher than that of the cello and sharper, between the viola and violin, yet closer to the electronic sound of the synthesizer,” he recalls.
He says he was deeply moved by masters of modern music, such as Kraftwerk, Philip Glass and Brian Eno, and he began to pioneer his own world of electronic music.
His performances in Korea were at first limited to small concerts in underground clubs and bars, but soon the Korean press took note of his unusual, impromptu performances.
Frank Ludwig, an art director based in Germany, introduced Mr. Kim to a Western audience. Since then, he has been invited to perform at Munich’s Tollwood Festival, the Tangente-Demarrage Art Festival in Montreal, and Mont-St-Hilaire in Canada.
During a recent stay in Seoul, he rolls up a sleeve to reveal a tangled dragon. He unbuttons his shirt to display two Buddhist archangels facing each other on his chest.
“The pain of tattooing is excruciating ― like having your flesh cut out with a razor. When I perform in Europe, I often take off my shirt, and I thought these mythical Asian images would be great. Everyone else there has tribal images, you know. I’m going to do it until my entire body is covered with tattoos,” Mr. Kim says, smiling.
Known outside Korea as “Kingdom-Soup” (phonetically similar to his Korean name), he released his first CD album, “Oz Aurora: The Death of Techno” in 1998, which is no longer available.
His second, two-CD album, titled “Digital Sagunja [Four Elements of Korean Paintings, Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo],” embraces various sound data, from the crooning voice of a Korean male shaman, electronic pitchikatto and chimes that echo and overlap to create a dream-like sequence of beats. He hasn’t set a release date for his latest album.
Mr. Kim says electronic music can be expressed not just in sounds but also in events, such as stories and paintings.
“I’d like to paint and perform the sound I hear,” he says.
To articulate his feelings in other media, he has collaborated with other artists, such as the novelist Lee We-su and mime artist Yu Jin-gyu at the Korean Experimental Art Festival in September 2003.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Mr. Kim about his music and how he came to create his latest album:
Q. What was the most memorable concert?
A. The best concert ever was after I finished a concert in Tollwood Festival in Germany last year.
My protege, Rudi Hilfer, and I went to a rundown apartment we rented out for rehearsal. We had our equipment set up and began to play together.
But I couldn’t enjoy the music because he was not into the music. He played as if he were playing for some future audience, like what I would do if I were to play for certain people, or hung up on some past concerts.
I got so angry and frustrated; he got angry and frustrated. So I told him to speak German to let his anger go, and I spoke Korean to let my anger go. I yelled at him, “If you cannot make just one person, me, happy, then you cannot make a group of people happy.”
He cooled down, and we began to really collaborate on the music together. He would spin and adjust the music, and our arms would cross over, and I picked up the music and so on.
We really got down on it and became high. Suddenly, the large window near us burst open. The front yard of the apartment was a cemetery.
So I told him, “See, we get high together on our music, and now ghosts want to party with us.”
How do you make a living?
I’m often invited to festivals and concerts. Also, I get contracts with corporations, which pay handsome amounts of money. They pay so much that I can live on the money for a year or two.
Because my music is progressive and avant garde, event organizers in Korea introduced me to corporations that were looking for an artist who can promote their image.
I’ve worked with Mercedes-Benz, Maxin and LG mobile phones. For some artists who get such offers, the corporate jobs can take precedence over their own work. But if he knows his priorities as an artist, [the collaboration with a corporation] can be harmonious.
Tell us about your next album. Your motto is “no replays, no recordings.”
Music performed live is the music of freedom. It’s for everyone to share feelings and energy, so it’s done once and that’s it. Studio-made music is a solitary performance, which can be heard by individuals.
My new album is not going to be heavy dance music but a series of sounds I’ve collected over the past few months.
Before I went to sleep at night, I left my synthesizers and computers and keyboards on. So every time I heard music during the trance-like state between sleeping and waking hours, I would get get up in the dark and play the sound. I didn’t do anything to it and just recorded all the music on the album.
Also, I approached familiar electronic sounds from arcade games and computer programs and then take them on to another level ― a musical world. A couple of scores start out like the sound of Galaxy, the very popular computer game, you know.
by Ines Cho