Nahyum Kim's compositions are simultaneously wild, emotional and restorative, with elements inspired by her research on psychological disorders and music therapy. Tackling everything from solo piano, electronic music and wind quintets to opera and orchestra, Kim's music is as dynamic and inquisitive as the inspirations behind them. While her work has gained international recognition, she is also an accomplished teacher, scholar and critic. We are excited to share an interview with this multifaceted artist.
Please introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
My name is Nahyun Kim. I’m a composer, pianist, and professor of music. I’ve been teaching at Kansas City Kansas Community College since 2010. I have also taught at UMKC, local middle and high schools in the KC area, as well as at Stony Brook University in New York and many music schools in the NY area. I frequently attend national and international conferences, master classes, workshops, and festivals where my music is selected and programmed for performances. As a scholar and critic, I also enjoy research and giving presentations on the subject of musical theater and world music, especially Asian music.
I’m a classical music composer. My music is considered modern and new ‑‑ what some may call “abstract.” My music is often described by musicians and listeners as energetic, exhilarating, dramatic, colorful, thought-provoking, adventurous, and inventive! UMKC composition faculty, Chen Yi describes my music as always carefully designed pitch material with rich imagination in timbre and instrumentation.
As a composer, I always incorporate progressive experimental use of extended instrumental techniques, taking them beyond their special-effect value, and using them to develop very detailed, emotional, and expressive narrative themes. Thus, I build my own distinctive techniques and styles with a personal vocabulary.
I’m fascinated by this connection you make about the relationship between writing music and mental disorders, cognitive science and psychology. Many of your pieces refer to some kind of health disorder in their title (“Hypochondriasis,” “ADHD for Flute and Piano,” among others). Talk about this relationship means for you as a composer.
I’ve always been interested in psychology and music therapy, which has led me to study and research these subjects. Once, I had the opportunity to attend a medical conference focused on mental disorders, which made me think more deeply about describing these types of conditions and how to incorporate them into my music. Over the last five years, I have been fascinated with and have explored the cognitive science and psychology related to mental disorders. My recent compositions try to depict various symptoms and conditions associated with these illnesses, while attempting to express the feelings of the patient. I believe that writing pieces for particular instruments can create a striking coloristic palette for the musical portrayal of the specific mental disorder.
What is your writing process like? What tools do you use?
My compositional process begins with researching and investigating the subject (mental disorders). For example, currently, I have been investigating delusional disorder; it’s association with schizophrenia, and how to depict this illness compositionally. After gaining some knowledge, I SINCERELY attempt to understand and feel what the patient must go through. Then, I express those feelings through music. Next, I explore the possibilities of specific instruments and their individual abilities to offer timbres, sonorities, and effects (incorporating non-traditional, innovative, and experimental performance techniques), which will successfully illustrate my depiction and create the best sonic experience.
My way of composing is old–fashioned. I don’t use my computer to compose. I always need my mechanical pencil, eraser, and reams of staff paper. It makes me nervous without enough supplies right next me. And then, I use notation software to make a final score.
How do you overcome creative blocks?
I workout! I love physical activities such as Pilates, ballet, boot camp, and yoga etc., as well as my own workout at the gym. Among all of these, my favorite activity when I confront creative blocks is to go hiking in the mountains. I’ve gone to the Rocky Mountains, the Smoky Mountains, White Mountains, and Buffalo National Forest etc. I love to explore all U.S. National Parks (especially mountains), which are included in my bucket list. I can’t, however, take a break for very long during the semester because of my workload. And also living in KC, there are no big mountains around! I take ballet and workout classes in order to clear my mind. Recently, I have really enjoyed practicing Ashtanga yoga. If I have to take a quick break at my office, it may sound weird, but I clean or organize things around the house. Hahaha!
What music are you currently listening to? Who really inspires you?
Well, I listen to all kinds of music: classical, Broadway musicals, jazz, pop, and world music etc. There are too many performances to see in Kansas City such as KC Symphony, UMKC Conservatory concerts, Lyric Opera, KC Ballet, Harriman Jewell Series, The Friends of Chamber Music Kansas City, NewEar etc., and I usually explore other works by those featured composers. We are living in such a great time period with technology and resources; we can find almost everything to listen on YouTube and SoundCloud etc. You can enjoy and explore more and more music as much as you want. There are too many great composers -- I can’t name just one. I’m usually inspired by an interesting or unfamiliar sound that strikes me; it doesn’t matter what genre or instruments. Inspiration comes from noises, animal sounds, sounds of everyday life, tools, or even nature etc. Any unusual, attractive, or curious sound motivates me. (Sometimes it helps me to create a specific sounds effect for my research – especially to represent symptoms…) Any sonic experience can give me a reason to write.
What inspires you the most about new classical music in Kansas City?
The Kansas City musical scene is vibrant!
Opportunities abound, from strictly musical scenarios to collaboration with artists of other disciplines such as painters, dancers, writers, and actors etc. New works are well-received by local audiences and composers themselves are very supportive of each other.
It’s inspiring to be part of such a diverse community of talented, positive, and encouraging musicians. Kansas City provides an exciting atmosphere and a welcoming home for new music.
Nahyun Kim's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh
The Portable Nietzsche by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
Pure by Maria Callas
The Tempest by Thomas Adès
String quartets and duets by Gyorgy Ligeti