The Haegeum Touch

It was a week of vacation that transformed into a vocation, for Soo-Yeon Lyuh. Thingamajigs, on the other hand, is glad about the convenience of travel in the 21st century - for otherwise, Pacific Exchange 2017 would have been a different story.

We announced late last year that the master performer of the haegeum, Soo-Yeon, had joined us as our first Resident Artist. However, we wanted to know how it all happened; how someone who lived in the culturally rich towns of South Korea, discovered the world of new music.

We sat down with Soo-Yeon, and heard it all. 

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Soo-Yeon grew up trained in the ritualistic, traditional studies of Korean music on the Haegeum. She spent many years in Seoul National University to perfect her art and eventually became a member of the National Gugak Center. There, she played as part of the new music troupe for 12 years and developed an interest and expertise in contemporary Korean music. 

"I thought only Korean music was out of pitch."

In the year 2011, she carried her lessons to University of Hawaii as a visiting scholar. It was the first time she met many renowned international performers. Two of these artists collaborated with Soo-Yeon to compose music for her haegeum. Although the compositions were written by traditional Korean composers, she noticed that they were different. She was inspired by this insight and when she returned to Korea a year later, she converted all the inspiration into a concert called 'Beyond the world'. Around the same time, she began to teach at the International Gugak workshop. These workshops expanded her international exposure further, because a number of foreign musicians were part of the 2-week program. The young Soo-Yeon taught these music maestros to play the haegeum. Little did she know that two of these forerunners in the world music scene - Henry Kaiser and William Winant, will go on to be her future collaborators.

Soo-Yeon Lyuh and Phil Dadson (New Zealand) on a break from their practice sessions for Pacific Exchange 2016

Soo-Yeon Lyuh and Phil Dadson (New Zealand) on a break from their practice sessions for Pacific Exchange 2016

"people here respect my culture, my music and are open to it."

It was the year 2015 when during a week-long vacation, Soo-Yeon discovered, among many other things, a process that would transform her future . She arrived in the west coast with a couple of international connections but without any expectations. Henry Kaiser, whom she had met in the workshop in Korea, arranged a concert and a recording session with some well-known musicians. Like anyone would feel around experts and in a new environment, Soo-Yeon was worried. But her apprehension only added more character to what she was about to delve in.

Henry Kaiser is a great lover of Korean music, and he explained to her that the work that they were about to create was based on Korean traditional music. This gave her the start she needed, and to this day, she feels grateful for her first opportunity to practice improvisation. She returned to Korea and released a CD with music based on the session. But by that time her musical energies had already started to pull her back to the bay area.

"one week entirely changed my future plans."

Soo-Yeon recounts that after she completed her doctorate in 2013, she traveled extensively in order to pick a music-focused city to continue her work in. She chose Toronto, New York and LA. Today, as she makes music with some of the most unusual musicians, she is amused that San Francisco Bay Area didn't even feature in that travel list.

She attended a few concerts in UC Berkeley Feb 2015 and realized that her Haegeum had a place in bay area's new music world.  

Soo-Yeon Lyuh with Thingamajigs Performance Group

Soo-Yeon Lyuh with Thingamajigs Performance Group

"not-together is also improvisation.

She moved to the bay area in September 2015 as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. However, it wasn't until late that year when an email got her acquainted with Thingamajigs. Introduced through a common friend, the members of Thingamajigs Performance Group and Soo-Yeon decided to put together The Crossing - a special concert that's based on different improvisation rehearsal sessions. Both the group and Soo-Yeon have a lot to say about how the rehearsals were transformational - both for the artists and the music that they created.

Edward (one of the members of Thingamajigs Performance Group) views the collaboration as a bridge between two cultures - one deeply traditional and the other immersed in the spirit to explore new music. Soo-Yeon found the sessions as the foundation for her to become the improviser that she is today. The continued work helped her gain insights into the art of improvisation and made her comfortable in this unique expression as an artist.

Thingamajigs and Soo-Yeon took the association further when she performed with Phil Dadson of New Zealand in Pacific Exchange 2016. By that time both sides became aware that this would go beyond a few performances. 

Today, she is the first Resident Artist of the organization and among many other ongoing projects, she will curate Pacific Exchange 2017.

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"I want to be      an educator."

The fire to grow catches on for most of us. And it is no different for Soo-Yeon Lyuh or Thingamajigs. While the artists here are intrigued by Korean traditional music rituals of Sinawi that turn into performances, Soo-Yeon discovers new ways to create her music with the help of alternate tuning systems. 

When we asked how she saw her future - without a breath, she expressed her desire to improvise more and every day. Additionally, she is captivated by the curiosity, creativity and the exploratory nature of students in the bay area. Hence, she wants to grow as an educator too. 

Thingamajigs is fortunate to have found a Performance Artist, Teaching Artist and a cross-cultural Resident Artist - all rolled into one generous human being called Soo-Yeon Lyuh.

Catch her in a live performance on Feb 3, 2017.