Dong-Won Kim is a master percussionist from South Korea. He has studied various forms of traditional Korean percussion music for three decades, including farmer’s drumming and dance, shamanic music, and Pansori accompaniment, and has performed throughout Europe, the U.S., Canada, Japan, and many other countries. He's also a member of cellist Yo Yo Ma's multi-national Silk Road Project.

Korean percussioniust Dong-Won Kim  ©2014 Brett Delmage
Korean percussioniust Dong-Won Kim ©2014 Brett Delmage
His instruments include the jang-go, an hourglass-shaped drum with hide-covered ends; the buk, a round leather barrel drum; and bronze gongs.

But he's gone beyond that tradition – creating new possibilities in jazz and creative improvised music. And that's the type of music he'll be playing on Friday with GigSpace in two duo concerts with Juno Award-winning percussionist Jesse Stewart.

Kim created a notable stir with his inventive performances in several appearances at the Guelph Jazz Festival. He has played and recorded with Stewart both in Guelph and in Ottawa.

He's been living in Ottawa since mid-September, working as Carleton University's musical artist-in-residence for the fall term. He's taught weekly lessons in Korean rhythms, but also lectured on the theory and practice of improvisation and musical performance. His lecture topics have included “Rhythm for Designing Space”, “Composition in Improvisation”, and “Movement in Sound, Sound in Movement”. editor Alayne McGregor interviewed Kim on Monday about Friday's concert, what he's been teaching at Carleton, and how he approaches music – but also about his experiences as a political prisoner in Korea in the 1980s, and how that solidified his determination to become a musician. This is an edited version of our conversation. What's it been like being in Ottawa?

Dong-Won Kim: Good! I'm very much enjoying being here in Ottawa. I really enjoy it. It's been a little longer than two months so far, and one more month to go. How did you first start studying traditional Korean percussion music?

Kim: Learning wasn't that affordable when I was a young boy. I came from poor parents. And my musical experience was from singing Christian hymns at church with everybody. But I fell in love with the Korean traditional drumming and performing arts when I was a university freshman. It was in 1984. My major was technical engineering, but accidentally I saw a humble performance to welcome that year's freshmen. I was really fascinated by the heartbeat kind of drumming sound. That was the beginning. Did you continue studying engineering?

Kim: No, actually the tuition fee for the next semester I couldn't make it, so I had to take a pause of the studies. And then, in this case, at that time I had to immediately go into the army. Conscripted for mandatory service?

Kim: Yes. But due to my physical condition, they shortened my service time, which was 14 months. And then when I came back from military duty, I started to play more seriously. Like a serious hobby, something like that. And who did you study with?

Kim: The local instructors. They were not very professional, but later I found a really amazing grandmaster of Korean farmer's drumming tradition. So I moved to his place. How long did you study with him?

Kim: My residence with him was 4 or 5 months at the beginning, but I regularly visited him and learned from him for the next few years. Could you describe farmer's drumming?

Kim: The farmer's drumming tradition is very strong in Korea. And every village had a farmers' association. The village farmers, they communicate with each other and they discuss some big matters with each other, and, most importantly, they work together. They look after each other, and they work together on the rice fields. Because working on rice fields cannot be an individual work. You need lots of water and lots of manpower. You have to work together. Today we work together on Tommy's rice field. Tomorrow, Daniel's place. Something like this.

But it's spine-breakingly difficult, hard work. So when the villagers go to the rice fields, from the village to the rice fields, some of them, three or four of them, play the drums. They play marching rhythms, and while all the village people are working on rice fields, some of them still play drums to encourage the hard workers. And then at the harvest it became a big carnival, a very big village carnival. So it's a feast and banquet, and then they play drums through the night. So this tradition has been at least hundreds of years, so every village had their own very unique rhythms. Two thousand, three thousand different rhythms, and their own way of playing and enjoying it. And it's not only about drumming, it's drumming and dance. They play drums with the dance together. How did you learn shamanic drumming?

Kim: I learned Shamanic drumming later from another master. Actually, shamanic music is much older than farmer's drumming, because the history of shamans is tens of thousands of years. Korean shamanism originally came from Central Asia, the Mongolia, Siberia area. So our culture is quite different from Chinese because Chinese culture mostly comes from mainland China, but Korean culture originally comes from Central Asia. So that's why our language is very different, [in its] grammatic order and language. And what about Pansori accompaniment?

Kim: Pansori is an acting and singing tradition in Korea. There is only one singer and one drummer. I learned the Pansori drumming in 1988, right after my prison time. It opened a whole new level of musicality to me. Because Pansori is such a fascinating art form. Why?

Kim: It's a one-man opera, acting and singing. It tells a story, and to tell the story, normally it takes around five to sometimes eight hours of singing from the beginning until the end. There are many roles, many characters, many circumstances, many emotions, and following the story is just fascinating – although you know the story but, when you listen to the story, your imagination related to the story is just flying away. It's really fascinating, especially the vocalization all time, so it's very unique. I love it! Let's talk about the time you were jailed. I understand you didn't ever play music at that funeral ceremony – you were about to play music and the police arrested you?

Kim: Yes, right. You had it all planned out and they stopped the ceremony before it started?

Kim: That's right. Why did the police react so violently?

Kim: Because the victim was killed by policemen with a tear gas gun and the young victim was killed during a protest against the government. And we – I mean the public – decided to hold a funeral ceremony in public space, not a private area, public space. We were expecting to have lots of gatherings who are willing to mourn the loss together with us, and also could show our anger, our reasonable anger towards the dictatorship. The police troops they decide to block and interrupt all the funerals. So you were jailed for how long after that?

Kim: Not very long. 80 days, almost three months. When you're arrested they beat you up first, to make you frightened. And then they start the questioning. They question some things: why were you there? Who is behind you? All these things. Basically, they try to make you scared to death.

And then they offer me, 'OK, this is your first time to be involved in this political activity, so if you write a letter of regret, we will set you free.' It was their proposal. And the other university students who were locked up at the same prison cells at the police station, they all wrote the letter of regret: 'I'm so sorry. I was so stupid. I'm not going to do it again.' This kind of letter.

But I couldn't write it, because I didn't want to dishonour the innocent victim. I thought, if I write the letter, it means I abandon him. So I couldn't do it. I refused to write the letter and then they start to treat me much more seriously [laughs ruefully].

That's why I had a spine injury. It was not very serious, but it kept on because the sciatic pain it came and it hurt me for more than 20 years. That's why I had six spine surgeries.

And they prosecuted me. And the prosecutor, he asked the judge to lock me up for three years in prison. The judge pronounced that I will have a criminal record. I have to show it at immigration. Whenever I travel to Canada I have to show it: “a violation of the law on assembly and demonstrations.” That was the first thing, and then the judge sentenced me to one year in prison and then a two-year stay of execution and release. But you got out faster than that?

Kim: Yes. I spent almost three months at the jail. How did you survive that time? Was there anything particular you did?

Kim: In the beginning, it was very difficult. I would have to say especially the first month. I couldn't sleep properly because of pain and fear and anger. And they never turned off the light in my solitary cell. [sighs] And the solitary cell is very small, 4 by 6 feet.

About a month later, finally my mother could give me some books. I had been asking her, please give me some books. My mother tried to give me some books, but they [censored] the books [because of their] content. And so only one book could come in. It was Asian philosophy.

And one line, one sentence from the book became an arrow to my heart. It said, “Everything in the universe is related”, something like that. And I start to think about that term. If it's true, what is my relationship with the dictator? And the policemen who beat me? And the prosecutor who yelled at me and beat me, 'You dirty communist'? And what is the relationship between me and society and the innocent victim? All these things.

And, to make a long story short, I found myself. I decided I am self-poisoning by the fear inside and the anger. And, on the other side, the people who cursed me, the dictators or the policemen – actually they were like me. They were also human beings. They have their lives. They have their families. They just have their roles. And I started to have a sympathy about them, maybe empathy.

And then I think that playing music could be my voice towards society. And then the mind-raging anger and sorrow and fear start to [go down]. And then I could sleep properly without having nightmares later on. It was a good experience. The Silk Road Project? How did you end up playing in that ensemble?

Kim: The Silk Road Project was founded by Yo-Yo Ma in 1998. And since then he has commissioned renowned composers to write music for the Silk Road Project. His concept is music between the Silk Road area and Western classical music. That kind of harmony. One Korean composer wrote a very interesting piece, and he asked me to play on it. That's how I got involved in playing with the Silk Road Project and Ensemble. And you've been playing with them since?

Kim: Yes. I have played with them many times. Probably almost 3000 times since the year 2000. But lately, you know, they have a budget problem (of course). It's a gigantic project and it's very difficult to maintain the size, and most of the performers are still from North America, and I'm living in South Korea, which is very far, so... I play once a year, something like that, nowadays. How did playing with the Silk Road Project influence your music?

Kim: First, I could learn how to respect difference, and how to value the difference, and how to deal with the difference. And if I know how to deal with the difference, the difference is another blessing – and the difference is opening new gates to a new world. But if somebody has a fear of difference, they provoke some problems, like we have been doing for thousands of years against each other. He has a different religion, she has a different colour [laughs ruefully]. But I learned how to respect and value and deal with difference. It's simply beautiful. Since you've been at Carleton University, you've been doing masterclasses and other classes with students? What approach have you been taking? What topics have you covered?

Kim: I considered my role in doing the residence is guiding students to approach their music from different angles. I want to stimulate them to see their music from different angles, by understanding Korean traditional music concepts or philosophies. And so by introducing all those Korean traditional music concepts and philosophies, and also by introducing how do I play improvisation, or what improvisation means to me, these kind of ideas, I try to guide them to see their music in different ways. Your masterclass, you called it “Seeing Korean Music Through a Cup”. What does that mean?

Kim: The “cup” is a metaphor. Every music has a structure, which is like the shape of a cup. But within the structure, within the beat, within the notes, within the different pitches, there is an empty space, which is like a space inside a cup. And in Korean traditional music, there are many uncertain musical possibilities which are going on within the notes and within the beat. So, metaphorically, I asked them to see their music through a cup. One of your lectures was called “Homage to Silence”. Can you tell me about that?

Kim: It's basically a similar idea. In Korea, one of my masters, he once told me that, 'Dong-Won, don't waste your notes. You don't have to be anxious to play many notes.' It was his suggestion. And one of the best ways not to waste my notes is considering the space between the notes. And also when I play music in space, sometimes I could make the musical notes or music more spiritual.

This workshop was held on Remembrance Day, November 11 – so we had a moment to think about what is the silence? What is the quietness? And how can we be thinking of space when we play music?

We tried that. So the students brought their instruments, and we played improvisations together by adopting that concept. What's been the students' reaction to the lectures you've been giving?

Kim: They like it. I do love discussion – they give me very interesting questions and I respond to it, and then we play music together, and then after that everybody makes comments. They have been enjoying it very much. How do you approach concerts like those you're doing this week with James McGowan [on Tuesday] and Jesse Stewart [on Friday], when you're playing primarily improvised music?

Kim: You mean musically? I listen carefully. I listen carefully first, and then – you know, I'm an improviser and I play improvisations by giving up my favourite musical achievements.

If my improvisation style is rigid or uptight or stubborn, I cannot make communication with other improvisers. And if I just repeat my successful musical achievements or my favourite practices on the stage over and over again, I cannot be an improviser. I'm just a masturbator! I don't like it. So, to be able to make that brilliant instant communication with other improvisers, I always try to give up my favourite things. And also I play improvisations by disassembling and reorganizing my previous practices. And it allows me great freedom to communicate. In an interview you did in Guelph in 2010, you said that you always have a little bit of composition in your improvisation. How does that work?

Kim: I'm a very well-trained Korean traditional percussionist, so when I play – even if I play some full improvisation, nothing planned and I always try to give up my previous favourite things and I always try to disassemble something – but the Korean traditional musical elements which I have been studying during the last 30 years are there. It's like a DNA. It's like a musical DNA.

So, a few days ago, I performed with Jesse Stewart at the open house-warming party of the Korean Cultural Centre downtown. It was a 15-minutes long short performance, but one of the audience [members] came to me [afterward] and told me it really sounds like Korean. But I said no, it was not Korean because I did not play any typical Korean rhythms. But to their ears, it really sounded like something Korean.

So that's the composition part. In the Guelph interview, you were also talking about certainty versus uncertainty in creating improvised music. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Kim: Personally, I want to tell musicians that uncertainty in music could be as beautiful as certainty. As a Korean and a Korean traditional musician, I have the concept of ying and yang, this kind of ambivalence. Also in our tradition, we try to make art or music in very natural beauty. And the natural beauty means that in nature there is no fine art. Nature is beautiful as it is. And nature has no intention, although a volcano explodes or an earthquake tsunami is coming, a snowstorm is coming, nature has no intention. It's just as it is.

And I think that the nature of music has also uncertainties. But the Western classical music history, they have a long history of trying to get rid of uncertainty from the music.

In improvisation, we can discover the beauty of uncertainty. So that's why I suggest to the audience to see the uncertainty of the music and how can we deal with it. Had you played with James McGowan before?

Kim: No, but he carefully approached me and carefully suggested to me, shall we experiment to play together something? So, in a school studio, we played, the two of us, and experimented a little bit. And he really liked it! And he immediately booked a place.

It's going to be my second duo concert with a pianist – Lee Pui Ming was the first [read the review of that concert].

James McGowan comes from a more classical tradition of piano. That's an interesting combination.

Lee Pui Ming was very wild: it was a real, real performance. I really liked that vitality. But James McGowan is quite different – and it made me think. His musical approach to his instrument, the piano, made me think. When you play with Jesse Stewart, you're both playing forms of percussion. How do you give each other space to work?

Kim: A few days ago, when we performed at the Korean Cultural Centre, I told the audience that Jesse and I are both percussionists. Normally we could have a jurisdiction problem, I told them. But Jesse, he's not an anxious drummer – an anxious drummer [is one who] wants to deliver many, brilliant, different, subdivided notes, all the time. He's not like that. He has a great sense of producing space, and then also he knows how let his percussion instruments sing, like waterphone and singing bowls. And so it allows me – we can sing together, with our percussion instruments or with our voices. And also sometimes we can go very rhythmical.

So, in the beginning, it was challenging, but it became more comfortable. Are you likely to do any chanting or vocalizations as well?

Kim: Yes. What are you doing for your last month in Canada?

Kim: I will perform with Jesse Stewart on December 4 at the Korean Cultural Centre, another duo concert. And then Jesse suggested I play together with [baritone saxophonist] David Mott at his place [in Prince Edward County] on December 10. So I will leave Ottawa on December 10 and I will play there one night, and then I will go to Toronto, spend a few days there, and then I will go back home. And do you have any plans once you get back to South Korea?

Kim: In Korea, I have a teaching job. In January, I'm going to have a very big workshop, with my university students. I'm expecting 300 students to join me. And then I always have some big projects.

But I've really had an intensive year in 2016, so hopefully I could be relaxed next spring. And my toes are already crossed, I'm very wistful, hopeful to come back to Canada.

   – Alayne McGregor

Dong-Won Kim and Jesse Stewart will perform in two concerts, at 7 and 9 p.m., on Friday, November 25, at GigSpace, 953 Gladstone Avenue at Loretta, Tickets for each concert are $20.

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