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Interview with Kim Gwang-min: the Sentimental Musician

In celebration of the International Jazz Day designated by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on April 30th, various events are coming up soon. Jazz seems to have been gaining in popularity recently and as a reflection of this, we are able to listen to more live jazz music then ever before. Jazz pianist Kim Gwang-min is one of the contributors of Korean Jazz’s recent popularity. Although many fans have been anticipating Kim Gwang-min’s music for the International Jazz Day, unfortunately the public will not be able to see him this year because of his busy schedule. For some Kingos who might be devastated to hear this news, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) met Kim Gwang-min, one of the representative Korean Jazz pianists, who lives with the belief that “music is love”.

Pianist Kim Gwang-min

Q1. Can you introduce yourself, please?

Nice to meet you Kingos. I am currently a Jazz pianist and composer. After graduating from Myongji University, I went to the United States (US) and graduated from the Berklee College of Music. I completed my master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music and, I am currently teaching practical music at Dongduk Women’s University.

Q2. After graduating from Myongji University in 1986, you enrolled in the Berklee College of Music and became a musician. Tell us about your journey of becoming a pianist.

I started playing the piano at the age of three and practiced a lot since then. Although I temporarily stopped playing the piano for a while since I was nine, I was still in love with music and the piano. Anyway, I wanted to continue practicing piano and make it a profession, but because of my father’s severe objections, I eventually majored in trade. Some time before graduating, I finally got permission from my father and went to study music abroad. Still keeping the dream of playing music, I had done a lot of piano work outside the campus since I was a junior. I made a lot of Commercial Message (CM) songs and participated in the production of several singers’ music as well. When I graduated, I was worried about whether I would be able to make a living out of music or not. Since I just wanted to play music so badly, I am glad that I chose to follow music.

Q3. The songs in your albums are beautiful, but some of them have sad melodies. What inspires you when you write your songs?

Music comes out of me by itself when I empty my mind. I think my memory is one of the most inspiring things. As I produce music, every experience and event I have experienced throughout my life becomes a motif. It is all about me and stories related to me. Since I was young, I have felt that sad music is more truthful than any other type of music. Since music comes out of me, as I told you, and because I like sad music, I naturally tend to write low-spirited melodies. Many people around me used to say “I am depressed, I might be bipolar” after listening to my music. They also said that my songs are always sad even if they have a fast tempo (Laughter).

Q4. You have nicknames such as “Peter Pan” and “the Childlike artist”. Why do you think the public calls you by those nicknames?

Maybe it is because I am not married yet? (Laughter) Many have said that I am still living with a child’s heart. It seems to be related to my hobby, too. I really like to assemble or paint plastic models. I even wanted to have a job related to plastic models before I decided on a career in music. I think all these factors might make me seem more youthful and childlike, just like Peter Pan.

Jazz, Unpredictable Music

Pianist Kim Gwang-min

Q5. Did you decide to become a jazz pianist while attending Berklee College? How did you start to be interested in jazz?

It was in high school when I was first introduced to jazz. At that time, jazz was not very popular and few people listened to it. After listening to the fusion jazz genre in high school, I thought it was amazing. Even though I loved and wanted to play jazz, it was too difficult. Therefore, I went abroad to study more about jazz and really fell in love with it.

Q6. Jazz seems to be a steadily growing genre, in terms of popularity. What do you think is the charm of jazz?

Jazz has an improvisational aspect. It is an important part of jazz that musicians are able to improvise their music on stage. Usually people do not understand this point well. There is an episode that shows the improvisational charm of jazz very well. One day, I appeared in a program called the Master - Music Coexistence (Mnet), and for the rehearsal, I recorded the same song five times. Then the program writer approached me in surprise saying, “You played the same song differently every time.” Isn’t that funny? In this way, various songs can be played differently according to the player’s feelings at any given moment. Moreover, jazz music has very distinct chords compared to those of other genres.

Q7. You are considered to be the person who caused the jazz boom in Korea in the late 1990s. Although the jazz genre has become much more popular today, only a few people listened to jazz at that time. Did you make much of an effort to make people become familiar with jazz?

When I first started to play jazz, it was neglected in Korea. It was totally different from the US or Europe, where I studied music. In the West, contemporary music and practical music were already considered to be the mainstreams of music. While it played a key role worldwide, many music schools in Korea did not even have practical music departments. It was really hard for me to play jazz in such a situation. As soon as I came back to Korea, I hosted Wednesday Art Stage (KBS), and that played a decisive role. It became a mediator that allowed people to listen to jazz and become interested in jazz. Unlike before when people did not have any interest in jazz, jazz got more and more popular as it was exposed on TV and became a genre to be heard more widely.

Q8. You seem quite comfortable and relaxed when you play piano. What do you think about when you play?

I always try to empty my mind when I perform. A musician should not be aware of the moment he or she is playing music. All you have to do is to listen to the sound coming from the instrument. Music is not what you do but what comes out of yourself. A musician should feel at one with the crowd. It is wrong to think that I am playing and the audience is listening. Once I realize myself playing the piano, the music can be said to be broken. When you hear the sound from the instrument, a beautiful world will unfold at that moment.

Kim Gwang-min: Present and Future

Q9. You were a host of the program Wednesday Art Stage for more than 500 episodes over 13 years. Before that, you have concentrated on composing and playing the piano. How did you get a chance to start appearing in television programs? Also, what has changed since you started to work on TV?

I started hosting the Wednesday Art Stage by chance. The director of the program knew my old friend Yoo Jae-ha (musician), and for that connection I became a host just because I was famous in the domestic music industry. Even though the program was broadcast at dawn, I was not a professional television host and made mistakes, lots of people enjoyed the program and liked me as a host. Eventually, they came to listen to jazz, too. As I said before, I tried to let people know more about jazz through this program, and it really made a big contribution to jazz in Korea today. From then, many famous musicians also came to Korea to perform in public, and more people became interested in jazz.

Q10. What kind of music do you want to make?

I love jazz, but I want to get to know other genres too such as rock music, challenging myself with its exciting tempos. I have been making very lyrical and melancholy music so far, but I also want to make some rhythmical music. Of course, the unique sadness that my music has will not disappear, though. Moreover, I am planning on releasing new albums. I have been too lazy recently, so I should work harder than ever. I want to play in public with more diverse genres of music soon.

Pianist Kim Gwang-min

Q11. You are currently a pianist and a professor to many future-musicians at a university. What do you think is necessary for the growth of Korean jazz music?

Jazz musicians should strive to draw the public’s empathy as it can make them feel jazz is closer to them. Music is love. Music is the mirror of your mind. Music is also passive. It happens naturally. Music should also touch people’s minds. If it cannot move peoples’ minds, it cannot be said to be good music. Lastly, musicians should unfold their jazz beautifully and naturally, and not dig into it academically.

Q12. What would you like to say to students who want to be jazz musicians?

There is so much beautiful music out there. It is important to listen to various types of music, even if it is not jazz. There are also many different worlds with various types of music that you can explore. Of course, it is nothing to do with a sense of duty. If you love and enjoy music, it will become natural to listen to good music. Moreover, I hope that all students will enjoy their lives, not pressure themselves, and find their real interest area at a young age rather than sticking to something they do not like. Korean students are especially very busy trying to achieve something when they are young. I think it is important to spend time relaxing when they are still young. In this way, they will be able to explore and find out what they want to do by themselves.

박신영  sgtlsdud@naver.com

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