KIM: Violin Concerto / Dialogues / Cornet
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Earl Kim (1920-1998)
Violin Concerto Dialogues Cornet
Earl Kim was born in 1920 in Dinuba, California andstudied with Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch, andRoger Sessions. He was a professor at Princeton from1952 to 1967 and at Harvard from then until 1998, andwas the recipient of numerous awards and commissions.
He died of lung cancer in 1998.
As a composer Earl Kim was a master craftsmanand an unabashed romantic. He had a deep familiaritywith the language of Western classical music but alsofound inspiration elsewhere in Korean folk-song, aJapanese rock garden, the Javanese gamelan, a musicboxlullaby, the whirling dervishes. Despite the varietyof his sources his pointed and economical voice isalways unique and recognisable, his music alwaysbeautifully made and immediately appealing.
Kim was never one to accept the ordinary. Forinstance he adapts the serialism invented by his teacherArnold Schoenberg to suit his affective or dramaticpurposes. In Enough, a melodrama from Kim's secondevening-length music/theatre piece on texts by SamuelBeckett (Narratives, 1979), Kim attaches two-notefigures to each new important pronoun or noun in thenarrated text until the crucial word 'enough' is reached.
At that point in this bleak landscape, he has completed atwelve-tone row. The first six notes of that row are thenused in the instrumental interludes between each sectionof text. That same six-note array (hexachord) appears inother pieces in Narratives helping to unify the entireevening; it is also the pitch collection found mostfrequently in Schoenberg's diatribe against tyranny, theOde to Napoleon Bonaparte.
In several of his best-known pieces Kim refines thistechnique even further by constructing the discourse outof a series of musical palindromes (mirror images).
Dead Calm from Exercises en Route, Kim's firstmusic/theatre piece on Beckett texts, is the most famousexample of this technique. In the Violin Concerto,written for Itzhak Perlman in 1979, the opening'sheavily muted string chords are palindromic. The firstchord of that series provides the three notes for theopening solo melody which itself is palindromic. Theensuing section has three parts, a rhythmically vigorousexchange between solo violin and orchestra with pitchesdrawn from successive six-note groups, a gamelan-likeorchestral interlude that employs an inversion of theopening three notes, and finally a return to the exchangesection with the pitch groups in reverse order, all ofwhich yields another large-scale palindrome. Rigorousas these structural underpinnings are the musical surfaceit supports - still, pulsating, pale, colourful, lonely,crowded - is beguiling in its variety.
As Milan Kundera says about one of the charactersfrom his novel The Joke, 'he was never satisfied withreaching the mind, he had to get at the emotions...' Inthe Violin Concerto, the Episode in Part 2 features anextraordinarily touching arioso violin line over anundulating two-note accompaniment. It is a reflectionon the opening gesture of the piece, but heretransformed into a tender, soaring lullaby, an adoringfather's song for a newborn daughter. (Kim's seconddaughter was born in 1978.) The hexachord at work inthis melody (three major thirds separated by a half step)is often heard in Kim's music, making consistentappearances at kind, affirming moments in theemotional narrative of his pieces. As Kim is bold withsentiment in the Concerto, he is bold with instrumentalvirtuosity. The solo violin's relationship with theorchestra shifts constantly between modernistic equalpartner and traditional virtuoso acrobat. That virtuosor??le is especially prominent in the scalar passages inVariation 2 (in thirds, octaves, and tenths), in the fiercecadenza at the end of Part I, and in the final excitingscalar passages of the piece. Married to a violinist, Kimknew his Paganini.
Juxtaposed lyrical and angular stretches alsopopulate Kim's much earlier concertante piece,Dialogues for piano and orchestra, a compositionwritten in 1959 as a result of a Fromm Foundationcommission. The notion of dialogue is apparent fromthe first moment; an opening melodic figure built ontwo alternating intervals is subsequently heard inalternating appearances between the solo piano and theorchestra. Variations on this opening figure expand theunderlying interval to a major third. At that point adiatonic scale in the upper strings introduces acharmingly innocent piano passage built on the samesix-note array later used in the 'arioso' section of theViolin Concerto. Given the freely atonal ambience ofthe previous music, this diatonic passage, howeverlogically prepared, is a surprise. Here the notion ofdialogue has expanded to include a dialogue betweenstyles.
In Dialogues, as in all his music, Kim reachesbeyond intellectual satisfactions to the real and theemotional. At the climax of the piece the orchestraconvincingly mimics the alternating drone of anambulance siren, a sound that for Kim embodied theinsecurity and horror of war. (Kim was a combatintelligence officer in the Army Air Force, one of thefirst Americans to fly over Nagasaki after the bombing.)In retrospect the listener realises that the abstractopening material was simply the seed that would growinto the very tangible and menacing image at the centreof the piece.
Kim's ability to manoeuvre between stances andstyles while maintaining the integrity of his voice isremarkable. He often asserted that Mozart's greatstrength as a composer was that he could go anywhere,any time. One of the most compelling scenes in Kim'sevocative setting of Rilke's poem of love and war,Cornet (1983), describes a feast that turns into anevening of dance and allure. The six-note serial arraycommon to both Kim's Narratives and Schoenberg'sOde provides the initial material for a supple Viennesewaltz that whirls about until it cadences miraculously inE, the underlying tonic of the entire piece. That cadencesupports one of the most romantic lines in the narrative:'From darkling wine and thousand roses the hour flowsfoaming into the dream of night'. In this episode, one ofthe sixteen episodes Kim chose from the originalpoem's 24, Kim manages to dovetail the essential antiwarmessage of the piece with a vivid description of thebeauty and heartbreak of adolescent eroticism.
Cornet is somewhat of a departure for Kim. All ofhis work from the mid-1960s until the late 1970s sets, oris influenced by, texts of Samuel Beckett. Beckett evenlurks beneath the surface of the Violin Concerto; therhythm and ethos of Part 2 of the Concerto are inspiredby Beckett's play Cascando. Rilke, dreamy and obliqueat times, is nonetheless more immediate and direct thanBeckett. Where Kim might have held back a centralconcrete musical image in earlier work, he beginsCornet with one of the authentic seventeenth-centurybugle calls that generate much of Cornet's material.
Similarly direct is the clanging, hair-raising music forthe military scenes. Throughout this later period ofKim's compositional life, his music is instantlycommunicative. It almost seems as if the trajectory ofhis earlier forms (abstract beginnings leading to moretangible images) is recapitulated in the trajectory of hiscareer.
Since Kim is best known for his music for voice,such as Where grief slumbers, Now and Then,Earthlight, finding a recording of his music withoutsinging is rare. His fixations on voice and narrative grewout of Kim's initial musical experiences, learning thepoetry and folk-songs of his immigrant Korean parentsand joining his mother in listening to radio broadcasts ofoperas. He has said that hearing a performance of Un beld?¼ at the Hollywood Bowl was what finally convincedhim that music would be his life's work. Without asingle sung note, Kim still manages to sing from theheart in each of the three