Kim: Where Grief Slumbers

Program Note

Earl Kim (1920-1998)
Where Grief Slumbers (1982)

Apollinaire's poem, "It's raining," in which the words form delicate chains of raindrops, and a verse from Rimbaud's, “Le bateau ivre,” translated by Beckett—"I have dreamt the green nights drifts of dazzled snow"—were the two initial sources of inspiration which resulted in the song cycle Where Grief Slumbers. Images of rain, snow, sea, and the calm black waters of the river that cradles Ophelia are coupled with reflections on departure and farewells.

—Earl Kim

The twentieth century yielded a powerful explosion of musical points of view. Many composers embraced increasing complexity as a way of capturing the statistical, overcrowded, ambiguous, and combative nature of modern life. But others, such as the late American masters Morton Feldman and Earl Kim, believed strongly in the power and poignancy of even a single sound; Rather than embracing chaos, they strove to reduce musical thought to a refined, precise essence. To Kim, a carefully shaped musical idea, heard and understood in all its aspects and implications, had the power to be as intricate as the most frenzied outburst. Earl Kim was born on January 6, 1920, in Dinuba, California, the third son of immigrant Korean parents. He studied in Los Angeles and in Berkeley; his main teachers formed an impressive triumvirate, all of them deeply knowledgeable about the European tradition: Arnold Schoenberg, one of the seminal figures of twentieth-century music; Ernest Bloch, the lyrical Swiss emigré; and Roger Sessions, a rigorously thoughtful and complex American pioneer.

Kim eventually moved to the East Coast, where he taught at Princeton before becoming the first Korean-American tenured professor at Harvard. He achieved international stature as a composer, earning numerous honors, including commissions from the Fromm and Naumberg Foundations, grants from the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, and awards that included the Prix de Paris, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, and the Mark Horblitt Award of the Boston Symphony. He was composer-in-residence at a variety of international festivals, including those of Aspen, Marlboro, Tanglewood, Gaudeamus, and the Wellesley Composers Conference.

Kim was deeply attracted to the human voice; most of his output features it. He found frequent inspiration in the songs of Franz Schubert: Out of often spare means, with great harmonic sensitivity and minimal melodic embroidery, Schubert fashioned complete and compelling expressive statements. For his texts, he turned most often to the works of Samuel Beckett. The reclusive writer was famously difficult about granting permission to composers to set his words to music; Kim was one of only a handful of composers to receive his consent. In Beckett's words—with their permuted repetitions, beautifully crystallized images, and subdued, enigmatic tone—Kim found an aesthetic parallel to his musical visions. Kim responded sympathetically to Beckett's life-view: that we strive to keep going, taking ourselves seriously in spite of our ephemeral, perplexing existence.

—Adapted from writings by Anthony Brandt and Paul Salerni