About this Recording
8.559226 - KIM: Violin Concerto / Dialogues / Cornet
English  German 

Earl Kim (1920-1998)
Violin Concerto • Dialogues • Cornet

Earl Kim was born in 1920 in Dinuba, California and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch, and Roger Sessions. He was a professor at Princeton from 1952 to 1967 and at Harvard from then until 1998, and was the recipient of numerous awards and commissions. He died of lung cancer in 1998.

As a composer Earl Kim was a master craftsman and an unabashed romantic. He had a deep familiarity with the language of Western classical music but also found inspiration elsewhere in Korean folk-song, a Japanese rock garden, the Javanese gamelan, a musicbox lullaby, the whirling dervishes. Despite the variety of his sources his pointed and economical voice is always unique and recognisable, his music always beautifully made and immediately appealing.

Kim was never one to accept the ordinary. For instance he adapts the serialism invented by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg to suit his affective or dramatic purposes. In Enough, a melodrama from Kim’s second evening-length music/theatre piece on texts by Samuel Beckett (Narratives, 1979), Kim attaches two-note figures to each new important pronoun or noun in the narrated text until the crucial word ‘enough’ is reached. At that point in this bleak landscape, he has completed a twelve-tone row. The first six notes of that row are then used in the instrumental interludes between each section of text. That same six-note array (hexachord) appears in other pieces in Narratives helping to unify the entire evening; it is also the pitch collection found most frequently in Schoenberg’s diatribe against tyranny, the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte.

In several of his best-known pieces Kim refines this technique even further by constructing the discourse out of a series of musical palindromes (mirror images). Dead Calm from Exercises en Route, Kim’s first music/theatre piece on Beckett texts, is the most famous example of this technique. In the Violin Concerto, written for Itzhak Perlman in 1979, the opening’s heavily muted string chords are palindromic. The first chord of that series provides the three notes for the opening solo melody which itself is palindromic. The ensuing section has three parts, a rhythmically vigorous exchange between solo violin and orchestra with pitches drawn from successive six-note groups, a gamelan-like orchestral interlude that employs an inversion of the opening three notes, and finally a return to the exchange section with the pitch groups in reverse order, all of which yields another large-scale palindrome. Rigorous as these structural underpinnings are the musical surface it supports – still, pulsating, pale, colourful, lonely, crowded – is beguiling in its variety.

As Milan Kundera says about one of the characters from his novel The Joke, ‘he was never satisfied with reaching the mind, he had to get at the emotions…’ In the Violin Concerto, the Episode in Part 2 features an extraordinarily touching arioso violin line over an undulating two-note accompaniment. It is a reflection on the opening gesture of the piece, but here transformed into a tender, soaring lullaby, an adoring father’s song for a newborn daughter. (Kim’s second daughter was born in 1978.) The hexachord at work in this melody (three major thirds separated by a half step) is often heard in Kim’s music, making consistent appearances at kind, affirming moments in the emotional narrative of his pieces. As Kim is bold with sentiment in the Concerto, he is bold with instrumental virtuosity. The solo violin’s relationship with the orchestra shifts constantly between modernistic equal partner and traditional virtuoso acrobat. That virtuoso rôle is especially prominent in the scalar passages in Variation 2 (in thirds, octaves, and tenths), in the fierce cadenza at the end of Part I, and in the final exciting scalar passages of the piece. Married to a violinist, Kim knew his Paganini.

Juxtaposed lyrical and angular stretches also populate Kim’s much earlier concertante piece, Dialogues for piano and orchestra, a composition written in 1959 as a result of a Fromm Foundation commission. The notion of dialogue is apparent from the first moment; an opening melodic figure built on two alternating intervals is subsequently heard in alternating appearances between the solo piano and the orchestra. Variations on this opening figure expand the underlying interval to a major third. At that point a diatonic scale in the upper strings introduces a charmingly innocent piano passage built on the same six-note array later used in the ‘arioso’ section of the Violin Concerto. Given the freely atonal ambience of the previous music, this diatonic passage, however logically prepared, is a surprise. Here the notion of dialogue has expanded to include a dialogue between styles.

In Dialogues, as in all his music, Kim reaches beyond intellectual satisfactions to the real and the emotional. At the climax of the piece the orchestra convincingly mimics the alternating drone of an ambulance siren, a sound that for Kim embodied the insecurity and horror of war. (Kim was a combat intelligence officer in the Army Air Force, one of the first Americans to fly over Nagasaki after the bombing.) In retrospect the listener realises that the abstract opening material was simply the seed that would grow into the very tangible and menacing image at the centre of the piece.

Kim’s ability to manoeuvre between stances and styles while maintaining the integrity of his voice is remarkable. He often asserted that Mozart’s great strength as a composer was that he could go anywhere, any time. One of the most compelling scenes in Kim’s evocative setting of Rilke’s poem of love and war, Cornet (1983), describes a feast that turns into an evening of dance and allure. The six-note serial array common to both Kim’s Narratives and Schoenberg’s Ode provides the initial material for a supple Viennese waltz that whirls about until it cadences miraculously in E, the underlying tonic of the entire piece. That cadence supports one of the most romantic lines in the narrative: ‘From darkling wine and thousand roses the hour flows foaming into the dream of night’. In this episode, one of the sixteen episodes Kim chose from the original poem’s 24, Kim manages to dovetail the essential antiwar message of the piece with a vivid description of the beauty and heartbreak of adolescent eroticism.

Cornet is somewhat of a departure for Kim. All of his work from the mid-1960s until the late 1970s sets, or is influenced by, texts of Samuel Beckett. Beckett even lurks beneath the surface of the Violin Concerto; the rhythm and ethos of Part 2 of the Concerto are inspired by Beckett’s play Cascando. Rilke, dreamy and oblique at times, is nonetheless more immediate and direct than Beckett. Where Kim might have held back a central concrete musical image in earlier work, he begins Cornet with one of the authentic seventeenth-century bugle calls that generate much of Cornet’s material. Similarly direct is the clanging, hair-raising music for the military scenes. Throughout this later period of Kim’s compositional life, his music is instantly communicative. It almost seems as if the trajectory of his earlier forms (abstract beginnings leading to more tangible images) is recapitulated in the trajectory of his career.

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 without singing is rare. His fixations on voice and narrative grew out of Kim’s initial musical experiences, learning the poetry and folk-songs of his immigrant Korean parents and joining his mother in listening to radio broadcasts of operas. He has said that hearing a performance of Un bel dì at the Hollywood Bowl was what finally convinced him that music would be his life’s work. Without a single sung note, Kim still manages to sing from the heart in each of the three pieces presented here. He demonstrates the sure command of language, instrumental colour, and form one would expect from a master composer while stepping outside and beyond those competencies to produce a music that movingly addresses the human condition.

Paul Salerni


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