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Monday, September 21, 2009

Remembering Earl Kim

My previous post about Leon Kirchner at Harvard reminded me of an interesting story about the late Harvard composer Earl Kim.

Kim was born in California in 1920 by immigrant Korean parents. He studied at the University of California at Los Angeles, and at Harvard University. As with his professorial colleague at Harvard, Leon Kirchner, Kim's principal teachers included Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions.

Several of my teachers had Earl Kim as their professor at Princeton University in the 1950s and 60s. He was said to have been a fantastic instructor.

Kim was also a fine conductor and pianist and performed his own music as well as standard lieder repertory with sopranos Bethany Beardslee and Dawn Upshaw. I believe he conducted an opera performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute with a Harvard ensemble.

I heard Earl Kim premiere one of his elegant and intriguing theatre works with narrator/actress Irene Worth at one icy-cold Boston evening at Harvard's Loeb Theatre in 1975. It was a monologue titled "Eh Joe" based on text by the poet/dramatist Samuel Beckett. Kim's violinist wife, Martha Potter was involved in that performance, and at one point she created an interesting effect by bouncing a conductor's baton off the violin strings. It was a unique and delicate sound.

My recollection involves a transcontinental flight from Boston to Amsterdam in the late 1980s. I was flying to Holland with my wife on a vacation to see family. I recall it was a Northwest Airlines direct flight on a DC10. At one point I got up to walk back to the rest room in the center cabin. I looked over to the center isles and saw composer Earl Kim, his wife Martha Potter and their grown daughter sitting together. Professor Kim had a pad of music paper on his lap, and beside it a hand-written sheet of text. I watched him scribble notes on the page as he read through the text. It was a single vocal line of music. Kim was totally transfigured on the subject of his composing. He didn't look up or around the cabin. But he persisted working with all of the distractions around him - including some mild turbulence - even though tourist class is a less than ideal environment for composing.

I spied on Kim as he composed for as long as I could without drawing undue attention to myself. Given his deep thought and creative focus, I chose not want to interrupt his work and start up a conversation.

While waiting for my turn at the in-flight lavatory, Martha Potter and her daughter joined behind me in line for the facilities. I really should have started up a conversation with them, but just said hello and smiled choosing to remain anonymous.

After the plane landed, everyone went their own way. I suspect that the Kim's had a connecting flight to another destination since I didn't see them in Schiphol's baggage or customs areas. But I will always remember that I was privileged to watch Earl Kim in the act of composing music. Even with all of his experience, he did not compose with the ease and speed of Mozart. He struggled, erased, and revised just like the rest of us. Composing for most musicians is difficult and painstaking work.

Earl Kim died of lung cancer at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday November 19th, 1998 at the age of 78. I recall that day, since I had phoned my teacher Don Martino about something routine, and he was upset and distraught over the news of his former teacher and current colleague at Harvard's passing. He told me about Kim's death and relayed the cause. Apparently, everyone at Princeton in the 50's and 60's was a compulsive chain smoker (including Martino). Even after quitting, there is still an increased risk of adverse health problems. It's hard to say, but perhaps a number of prominent composers from that generation would have survived longer if had they had not gotten addicted to nicotine.

Think of all the new pieces that might have been written.