Cover Story: Korea

By 
Mark Small

K-pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video has made history by logging more than a billion YouTube views, skyrocketing the South Korean singer and his horsey dance to worldwide fame. In many cases, fame is regional, but Psy (who attended Berklee from 1999–2000) brought exposure to a new level when his song swept the globe so rapidly. He has also brought more attention to other Korean pop (K-pop) artists. Psy’s mercurial rise only heightened my sense of intrigue as the date approached for a long-planned trip to Seoul along with Berklee President Roger Brown to meet some of the many Berklee alumni fueling the music scene in the East Asian nation.*

Since 2010, South Korean musicians have represented the largest group of international students at Berklee. Some 250 are currently enrolled, and over the past three decades, nearly 600 alumni have attended. Korean alumni returning home have had a major impact on the Korean music scene as singers, instrumentalists, songwriters, composers, recording engineers, producers, and music educators. It was impossible to meet with all of Berklee’s top Korean alumni, but my late-October trip to Seoul offered a glimpse of how they have collectively influenced Korean music and musicians.

 

Korean Prototype

Tenor saxophonist Jung, Sung-jo appears to be the first Korean student to have enrolled at Berklee. By the time Jung arrived in 1979, other Korean students had registered, but none had completed a semester. “When I was in high school,” Jung recalls, “I saw the Berklee ads in Down Beat magazine and read that Toshiko Akiyoshi [’57], Sadao Watanabe [’65], and Richie Cole [’67] had gone there. I was busy touring the U.S. backing Korean singers when I decided that I’d take time off and go to Berklee.”

Jung earned his degree in professional music by 1983. He returned to Korea bearing the first copy of the Real Book Korean musicians had ever seen. “Everyone made a copy of it,” Jung says. He became part of the Seoul music scene, appearing regularly at jazz clubs and playing saxophone on some 40 recordings and 50 film scores. In 1995, he was named the conductor of the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) Pops Orchestra. For the next 10 years, he led the group in local performances and tours of America, Japan, Europe, and Russia.

Like other alumni who followed him to Berklee and returned home, Jung was anxious to share what he’d learned. In 1988, he became a pioneer in Korean jazz education by offering the first courses in jazz theory at Seoul Institute of the Arts. Recently, Jung studied at New York’s Queens College and taped weekly lectures about his experiences for students back at Seoul Institute of the Arts. Jung hopes to return to the Berklee campus and warmly acknowledges the influence of faculty members Greg Hopkins, Barry Nettles, Phil Wilson, and Bill Pierce. “I’ll always be thankful,” he says. “Berklee was where I learned to be a musician, educator, and conductor.”

Jung’s positive report on Berklee became widely known to younger Korean musicians thirsty for knowledge about jazz and popular styles. Korean alumni refer to Jung and others who came to Berklee during the 1980s as the “first generation.”

 

The “Ancient Ones”

Sitting in the café of Seoul’s Grand Ambassador hotel, guitarist Han, Sang-won ’88 recalls that when he arrived at Berklee in 1984, he found only two other Korean students on campus. At 21, he was playing instrumental funk and rock around Seoul with American and English musicians. “Then I had a chance to visit the United States,” Han says. “I came to New York hoping to form a band, but it didn’t go well. So I went to Boston to see a friend and visited Berklee. I saw a lot of musicians there that I wanted to play with.”

Concerned that her son was just drifting around the U.S., Han’s mother gave him an ultimatum: “Enroll at Berklee or come home.” Han enrolled. And during his first semesters, he negotiated a steep learning curve.

“I’d never seen a Real Book before I got there and didn’t know how to play jazz,” Han says. “[Assistant Professor] Jerry Cecco invited me to play in his ensemble despite the fact that my ratings were so low. Jerry had served in the U.S. military and was stationed over here. I think he had a fondness for Koreans.” Faculty member Jim Odgren also encouraged Han. “He let me into his funk ensembles, even though I couldn’t play over changes.”

Han thrived at Berklee and earned the moniker “The Funkmaster.” He played with soon-to-be drumming greats Tommy Campbell ’79 (John McLaughlin), Aaron Scott ’85 (McCoy Tyner), and Zachary Alford ’87 (David Bowie). Graduating in 1988, he returned home, and a Korean record label offered him a lucrative recording contract. Han tapped American friends, including New York studio bassist Will Lee, and drummers Bob Moses and Tony Smith for the project. After the album’s release, Han gigged around Seoul playing clubs and studio sessions. (By now he’s played on 150 albums.) In 1994 he started teaching guitar at Seoul Institute of the Arts, the first Korean school to offer a popular music curriculum. He’s currently a professor at Howon University, a top institution for music.

“Teaching wasn’t something I’d planned to do,” Han says, “I just wanted to play. But I also wanted to share what I had learned at Berklee and from playing for years.” By now, I have taught the basics to about 5,000 students. Some have gone on to Berklee and they’ve returned to teach others what they learned.”

During the 1990s, a buzz about Han and his peers took hold among younger musicians. Fellow guitarist Steven Ohm ’06 says, “When Sang and his friends returned and started playing great music, people began asking where they had learned those styles.

“We looked up to them, and called them wonroh—the ancient ones or ancestors. If Sang-won and others hadn’t gone to Berklee, many other Koreans might not have either. I went to Berklee because of him.” Ohm has continued the tradition of passing the torch by launching IDRM, an online music school.

 

Career Reinvention

During the past 15 years, several Korean pop artists with established careers opted to put things on hold and attend Berklee to acquire new skills. Among them are songwriter Kim, Dong-ryool and vocalists Choi, Sung-soo, Jang, Hye-jin, Yangpa, and most recently, Lee, Sujin (a.k.a. Seomoontak).

After releasing his first CD in 1983, Choi, Sung-soo ’00 became a popular singer/songwriter known for penning wistful, chart-topping ballads that connected with Korean listeners in a big way. His many accolades include a Golden Disk Award in 1987 and appearing on the Top 10 Singers of the Year awards for the next two years.

“At that time, ballads were a very popular Korean musical form,” Choi says. “But by 1995, the rap artist Seo, Taiji had become famous. Before him, there were no Korean-language rap artists. I saw that Korean music was changing. It was harder for me to have a hit.”

Choi decided to attend Berklee to burnish his skills. “At first, I took performance and songwriting courses because I was a singer/songwriter. But writing lyrics in English was very difficult for me, so I became a professional music major.”

After receiving his degree in 2000, Choi returned to Seoul. But the ballad style he was known for had waned, there was a new emphasis on dance music. So Choi adapted and began mixing in jazz, classical, and musical theater styles with his ballads at concerts. He also released a series of compilation albums of his top songs. In 2008, he became the CEO of Yedang Art TV cable station. He appears frequently on TV shows, including the live concert program EBS Space Gong-Kam, and the talk show Are You Going with Me?

Like many returning Korean alumni, Choi is a sought-after educator and has taught at several Seoul institutions. He currently teaches courses on music history—including early and contemporary jazz—at Jangan University.

An enthusiastic advocate for Berklee in Korea, Choi served for a year as the president of the local Berklee alumni association in Seoul. While he enjoys a successful and ever-evolving career, songwriting and performing are his main interests. “I plan to do more TV and teaching,” Choi says, “but my goal is still to write songs and sing.”

 

Foreign Exchange

Yangpa ’02 captured the attention of Korean pop listeners in the mid-1990s as a teen idol with her powerful delivery of romantic ballads. In 1997, a song from her self-titled debut album topped the charts, sold 800,000 copies, and netted multiple awards. Her subsequent albums also soared up the charts. With a career firmly on the upswing, Yangpa surprised her fans by accepting a scholarship to study at Berklee in 1999.

“It was time for me to go to university,” Yangpa says. “But I knew my career would make attending a university in Korea difficult.” To comprehend Yangpa’s dilemma, just imagine Justin Bieber taking a hiatus to attend an American college.

“I needed a break and I wanted to study music properly,” she says. So Yangpa chose Berklee. “It ended up that I didn’t get to have a real private life at Berklee, though. Students as well as teachers knew that I was a star in Korea.” Yangpa had come to Berklee at the same time as another Korean former teen star, singer/songwriter Kim, Dong-Ryool ’04. A story on the two in a major Boston newspaper trumpeted their arrival.

While in Boston, Yangpa released the recording “Letter from Berklee.” After two years, she returned to Korea. Before completing his studies in film scoring, Kim, Dong-ryool released the album Hope, which combined the sounds of the London Symphony Orchestra and traditional Korean percussion. Today, Kim continues to release critically acclaimed albums and is a popular TV and radio host.

Conversely, Yangpa encountered contractual problems with her label, and since her return to Korea, has issued new albums only sporadically to her still-loyal fan base. The Korean pop music machine is fixated on youthful stars, and Yangpa was no longer a teen sensation. “These days, people begin careers at 11 or 12,” she says. “I am older now, and I had a hard time with my contract when I was in my 20s.” Now a 30-something, Yangpa is negotiating offers from CJ Entertainment (a major Korean distributor) and American record label Interscope. “I was a ballad singer when the Korean market was dominated by ballads and dance music,” she says. “Now there’s a lot of hip-hop, electronic, and other music out there. My tastes run toward rock, but I’m not quite sure what I’ll do next.”

 

"I Am a Singer"

Jang, Hye-jin ’04 began her ascent as a Korean pop star in 1991 after the release of her debut album, Always in My Dreams. Her husky alto voice and emotional delivery drew in many fans. Throughout the 1990s, she released a string of albums and hit songs and kept a busy schedule with TV and concert appearances. Pondering her future, she decided she needed to know more about music. Friend and Berklee alumnus bassist Chang, Ki-ho recommended that she attend Berklee.

“I had been a professional for 10 years before I came to Berklee,” Jang says. “I’d wanted to go there for a long time after looking into it.” Once on campus, Jang was immediately recognized by fellow Korean students. “My English didn’t get that much better, because they all wanted to hang out with me and we spoke Korean,” she says with a smile.

Jang majored in professional music, and studied piano, arranging, and more. Among her professors were Danny Morris (groove writing) and Donna McElroy (voice). After Bill Cosby handed her a diploma at Berklee’s 2004 commencement ceremony, she returned to Seoul.

In 2011 she reached a career high point when she competed on the Korean TV show I Am a Singer. Unlike American Idol or The Voice, all competitors on the program are established professional singers. The visibility heightened her fame and requests for more concert and TV appearances poured in. “I turn down a lot of TV offers,” she says. “I want to remain a musician rather than become a TV celebrity. But if the show is more about music than entertainment, I’ll accept the offer.”

In addition to her performing career, Jang also devotes a lot of energy to education. A faculty member at Hanyang Women’s University in Seoul, she spends four days a week teaching voice and ear training and directing a vocal ensemble.

Lee, Su-jin (whose stage name Seomoon Tak) is an unusual artist in K-pop; when her debut album, Asura, came out in 1999, Korea had few rock singers—especially female rockers. Seomoon Tak is known for her gutsy and agile voice (visit www.youtube.com/user/333mtak ). To date, she has released seven CDs, and her latest, Victoria, is her first self-produced outing. Sales of her albums for BMG Korea total nearly 1 million units. After more than a decade as a successful concert and recording artist, Seomoon Tak came to Berklee in 2010.

“I felt that I needed to learn how to communicate better with musicians and engineers,” she says. “I hadn’t had any musical education before Berklee, so I came to learn how to express my ideas.” Seomoon Tak is an MP&E major, but she is also honing her vocal chops.

Like Jang, Hye-jin, she was chosen as a contestant for I Am a Singer. In mid-2012, she took a leave of absence from Berklee to return to Seoul for the show’s latest season. There were significant benefits for Seomoon Tak to compete. “Lots of people watch this show,” she says. “Also, we’re asked to sing songs by other artists, so I am singing in styles other than what I’m known for.” Seomoon Tak is a finalist, and a win could boost her career to new heights.

After the show’s conclusion, she plans to make a new album and then return to Berklee. “I don’t know how long it will take,” she says, “but I want to get back to finish my program.”

 

Music for the Screen

With 30 movies on his résumé, Lee, Jaejin ’00 ranks among the topmost film composers in Korea. Before attending Berklee, he played piano and sang. But despite winning several prestigious music competitions, he decided against majoring in music when he enrolled at Hanyang University. After graduation, he turned his attention to contemporary music. A brochure for Berklee picturing one of his musical heroes (Pat Metheny) inspired Lee to apply to the college. He became a film scoring major only after prodding from his piano teacher, Assistant Professor John Arcaro. “He heard my compositions and recommended that I become a film scoring major,” Lee says. “John was not only a piano instructor but also a mentor.”

In 1999, while Lee was still a Berklee student, a friend in Seoul connected with him and said that a Columbia University graduate needed music for his short film. The score that Lee completed in one day led to an opportunity to score the feature film Peppermint Candy by famed Korean director Lee, Chang-dong. Lee, Jaejin took a yearlong leave of absence from Berklee and returned to Seoul to score it. The venture paid off when the film won several festival awards and its director hired him to score his next film as well. After 13 years of composing for features, Lee is firmly established with Korean filmmakers and pens two to three scores annually.

The hardworking Lee is not just riding the wave of his success though, he’s digging deeper into his field. Currently, he is completing master’s degree studies at Korea University in film for journalism and communication. “I want to better understand what makes people react to a film. What makes them experience surprise, cry, and laugh? Music is a big part of that.” Lee is also teaching students about film music and hopes the master’s degree will offer further opportunities to teach.

He’s also planning to form a production company that will enable him to take on more film projects. “I’ve been handling all the music issues in my projects by myself,” he says. “In Korea, the composer also does the work of a music supervisor. So I take on the responsibilities for all the music in a film. It’s difficult to write everything I need. I’m hoping to build a team to compose and arrange with me, as [L.A.-based film composer] Hans Zimmer has done with his company Remote Control.”

Despite having few spare hours, Lee makes time to regularly gather Berklee film scoring alumni for discussions about the business. While in Seoul, President Roger Brown and I attended one of their dinner meetings. Young alumni such as Nam, Yunhee ’11, Yoon, Sunghye ’06, Hwang, Hyesook ’06, and Hwang, Sunkyun ’10 are composing for documentaries and industrial projects. Cho, Sun-han ’11 is working with a music director at EDU Broadcasting, and Chong, Jeehoon ’06 is writing music for theater productions and films as well as teaching.

Sadly, I couldn’t connect with another alumnus, Kim, Jungbum ’08, during my Seoul visit, but his label, Stomp Music, passed along several CDs. Kim has scored a handful of films and released CDs and singles with his band Pudding and under the nom de plume Pudditorium. Kim’s soundtracks for the films Project 577, My Dear Enemy, and Love Talk reveal an artist capable of writing and playing piano with authenticity in a number of genres, from traditional and Dixieland jazz to funk to Latin styles to electronic dance music and New Age piano improvisation. He’s someone to watch.

 

TV and Musical Theater

Pianist, composer, arranger, and TV host Yoonhan ’06 graciously made time for our interview on a busy day just before he dashed off to the sound check for a concert at a venue miles outside of Seoul.

Yoonhan is a rising star with a multidimensional career. A film scoring major, his training in arranging and orchestration comes in handy when he writes two charts weekly for the 30-piece orchestra on the TV show he hosts. MBS (one of the four major national TV and radio networks in South Korea) airs Beautiful Concert on Sundays, with Han serving as the musical director and pianist as well as the show’s MC. “Playing in front of people is not as hard for me as being an MC,” Yoonhan confesses. “This is the first time I’ve done this. Everything is on a teleprompter, but I memorize my lines so that it won’t look like I’m reading.”

After finishing at Berklee in 2006, Yoonhan returned to Korea, fulfilled his two-year mandatory military service and then launched his career. Representatives from Stomp Music spotted him at a music competition and signed him to a management contract. So far he has released two albums on Stomp’s imprint featuring his original vocal songs in English and Korean as well as his jazzy piano stylings.

Last year, Yoonhan played the role of Ishmael four nights a week in a musical production of Moby Dick (based on Herman Melville’s novel). “It was tough,” he says. “I sang, acted, danced, and played piano.” The show is a new dramatic form in Korea called an actor-musician musical where cast members perform on stage in all four capacities.

Yoonhan is also developing his career as a concert attraction and headlines regularly. Some of his concerts are presented in collaboration with fashion designers. “That’s pretty interesting,” he says. “It’s like a blend of Maroon 5 and Victoria’s Secret.”

Despite having a packed schedule, Yoonhan has carved out time for further education, anticipating that one day he will teach. He is currently finishing Ph.D. studies at Sangmyung University and writing his doctoral thesis on the music of Keith Jarrett.

With talents and opportunities that could take him in different directions, Yoonhan will continue with TV for now. “The show is fun,” he says. “There are so many more artists I want to work with.” He also hopes his concert appearances will take him to audiences in Europe and America.

 

They Write the Songs

Kim, Jung-bae ’00 and his wife Kim Yeon-jung ’99 (aka Kenzie) have penned a number of chart-busting songs for K-pop artists. Kenzie has a coveted position as a staff songwriter for S.M. Entertainment, one of the three major labels in Korea. Together, they have collaborated on many hits for such K-pop idols as Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, Shinee, and others. The two met at Berklee and married in Seoul in 2004.

“I got to know her when she was an MP&E major, and I played guitar on a project she was engineering,” Jung-bae recalls. “She later asked me if I could write some music for a project.” Kenzie is very good at sequencing and making beats, and as it turns out, Jung-bae has a knack for lyric writing. “It’s funny,” he says. “She’s the big songwriter, but if you Google her songs, my name always shows up first because I wrote the lyrics.”

In addition to collaborating daily with Kenzie, Jung-bae also has a full schedule teaching at Seoul Jazz Academy, Seoul Arts University, and elsewhere and just released Santa Monica, his second jazz-rock instrumental album (available through iTunes). “I teach every day and write on my laptop in between classes,” he says. The couple has a unique system for working remotely. “If she needs a chord progression, I’ll come up with something and e-mail it to her. Later, I’ll play guitar on her demos.”

Jung-bae attributes the inspiration for much of K-pop music to recordings by the Backstreet Boys, ’NSYNC, Britney Spears. “In Asia, audiences love the dancing and music together. In K-pop, it’s all about the show.” But Jung-bae notes that there is also much musical variety within the genre. “After all the success Psy has had, we want to show everyone that there are other sides of our music: good melodies, good singers, and good players. I’m hopeful that more attention will come to Korean music and musicians.”

MP3 Star Power

Cho, Jung-hun ’99 is widely known as Korea’s groundbreaking rap artist Cho PD. (His stage name blends his last name and an abbreviation for the producer role.) After three years as a business major at Parsons College in New York, Cho PD decided to develop his abilities as a singer and drummer and transferred to Berklee. Soon afterward, his career blew up.

“After one month at Berklee, a friend of mine helped me upload MP3s of my music to the Internet, and things took off,” he says. Cho PD’s first song was “Break Free” and its lyrics were shocking to the Korean audience. In 1992, Seo, Taiji was the first artist to introduce rap in Korea. To get radio airplay, Taiji’s music conformed to government censorship rules and was far removed from American rap in language and attitude. But, in 1998, Cho PD skirted the censors by offering his songs on the Korean equivalent of America Online rather than through terrestrial radio. In so doing he was able to include expletives in his music, pushing the boundaries. People noticed.

“Break Free” took hold after a buzz started in Korean newspapers and TV network news reports. “People were talking about my music,” Cho PD says, “that was a good thing. I uploaded eight or nine songs that all became hits.” Free, peer-to-peer trading of Cho PD’s songs continued until the end of the year. A savvy businessman, Cho PD figured out how to monetize his music.

“Everything happened quickly—in three months. A lot of companies wanted to sign me, but I produced my songs and released them myself. I only signed a distribution deal. After that I started my own label.”

Cho PD gathered other artists to his imprint, with Psy among his first signings. (Psy is now on another label.) Cho PD had a good run as an artist, but found himself aged out of the K-pop demographic by 35. “Last year, doing TV appearances with other K-pop stars, I saw that I was the oldest singer in the studio,” he says. ChoPD (who could still pass for a college student), retired from the stage to launch his own production company, Brandnew Stardom Entertainment (now just Stardom Entertaiment). He just built a new recording studio in Seoul and is now the executive producer for a variety of K-pop artists. One of his acts, Black Pea, is currently making waves.

Stardom currently has 50 employees and Cho PD is negotiating with Sony Music in Tokyo to break his artists in Japan. “I want to produce good music that is loved by the public, “he says. “I’m looking for real talent in progressive music.”

 

Jazz Devotees

Jazz pianist Cho, Yoon-seung ’00 is more cosmopolitan than many of his peers. Born in Korea, he lived with his family in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during his teen years. Cho’s father, Cho, Sang-kook, a touring jazz drummer, moved his family there after playing in the country. Consequently Cho’s piano style was shaped by Latin jazz influences and the tutelage of Berklee faculty members Hal Crook and Paul Schmeling as well as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Cho spent two years working with Hancock and Shorter at the Monk Institute after earning his Berklee degree.

Cho’s impeccable technique, broad stylistic palette, and musicality keep him in demand in Seoul as a sideman for concerts, recordings, and TV appearances. He’s a member of Choi, Sung-soo’s World Music Ensemble among others, and leads his own groups too. Like many Berklee-educated musicians in Seoul, Cho is also involved in education and teaches three days a week at Jangan University.

Cho’s current focus is on cultivating an indigenous jazz style. “K-pop is getting a lot of attention now, but I hope to develop ‘K-jazz’: incorporating traditional Korean music elements with jazz,” he says. “I think it’s possible.”

Cho has written the material and will soon record it. He’ll collaborate with bassist Hwang, Ho-kyu ’05 and drummer Lee, Sang-min ’06. In addition to bass, Hwang will play Korean traditional stringed instruments, and Lee will add traditional percussion instruments. Cho is already booking festival performances of the new material.

Cho is a model for the motivated contemporary musician. “I studied performance rather than composition,” Cho says, “but I’ve gotten to write a lot of string arrangements for songwriters Choi, Sung-soo and Lucida Fall. But I believe musicians have to go beyond just playing and writing music. They should also do their own promotion, create blogs, and really manage their careers.” Optimistic about the potential of K-jazz, he has bought Internet domain names for K-jazz and other variations on the name. “My two future goals are to become a great producer and to develop the K-jazz project. It won’t happen in one year. Maybe it will take me 10.”

 

Performer-Professors

Chung, Won-young ’89 is an influential piano teacher and performer in Seoul. He started playing classical music at six, and decided to attend Berklee after his friends—songwriter Min Kim and guitarist Sang Won-han enrolled. Studying piano with Dean Earl at Berklee was Chung’s first exposure to jazz. It became his passion.

After earning his degree in professional music, he returned to Seoul in 1990 and began playing various gigs with singers and as an instrumentalist. He is presently finishing his sixth album featuring original music that straddles jazz and pop styles. He has also contributed his music to movie soundtracks and served as a judge on the popular music audition show Top Band.

Teaching is also an important part of Chung’s career. He teaches two days a week at Howon University, and has guided many young students—including 16-year-old prodigy and current Berklee student Chaeree Kaang.

“Young musicians come to me and want to play like Hiromi or Brad Mehldau,” Chung says. “Both of those artists are great, but that’s not where students should start. It seems easier for young players to develop technique rather than feeling. I have them play the blues very slowly and listen to earlier players like Dave Brubeck or Thelonious Monk. Musicians need to keep returning to the roots of the music.”

Another jazz pianist and educator is Im, Mi-jung ’04. A former student of Chung, Won-young and other Berklee alumni, Im, took their advice and continued her jazz studies at Berklee with Joanne Brackeen. Im is now a professor at Seoul’s Hanyang Women’s University and recently released a new album featuring the music of Benny Golson.

Typically, Korean universities feature more instruction on pop styles than jazz. Im teaches jazz to her students and is sanguine about the future of the genre in Seoul. “There is not a large jazz audience here yet,” she says. “Musicians love it, and there are a number of clubs where jazz musicians play. Maybe the audience will grow when a real Korean jazz star like Herbie Hancock [emerges]. We’re waiting for a person like that.”

 

Jazz Expats

Pianist Song, Young-joo ’01 and drummer Lee, Sang-min are temporary Korean expats working as jazz musicians in New York. They play with various American artists and work together on occasion. They also stay plugged into the scene in Seoul, returning periodically for big gigs and recording sessions.

Song arrived in New York in the fall of 2001 (just before the 911 attacks). She graduated from Berklee as a performance major and was in New York in a master’s degree program at Manhattan School of Music. After completing that program in 2004, she returned to Korea and began touring extensively with K-pop artists Kim, Dong-ryool, Yangpa, Rain, and others, as well as teaching.

In addition to her pop music work, Song headlined for her own jazz gigs and released seven albums for Sony Music Entertainment/Korea. Last year she won a 2012 Korean Music Award in the jazz performance category for her latest CD, Tale of a City. The disc showcases her formidable skills as a pianist and composer.

“For about six years, I did a lot of pop gigs in Korea,” Song said in a phone conversation from her New York apartment. “I played for tours and recordings and was also teaching at Korean universities. But then felt I had to go back to America to refresh and challenge myself.”

She returned to New York in 2010. “It was my plan to stay one year and then return to Seoul and teach. But at this stage in my career, I don’t want to settle down yet.”

Song currently leads her own trio in gigs at Manhattan’s Kitano and Blue Note jazz clubs and at Small’s in the Village with such jazz exponents as saxophonist Mark Turner ’90, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummers Marcus Gilmore and Kendrick Scott ’03. She’s brought American musicians back to Seoul for special concerts, too.

She’s found survival as a jazz musician in New York difficult, but being part of the Big Apple’s jazz scene exhilarating. “I play with so many great jazz musicians all the time. If I go back to Korea, things would be better for me financially—and I know I can go back anytime. It’s a sacrifice to be here. I’ve got an artist visa, and so for now, I just want to stay here playing and writing.”

 

Master Recorder

Since earning his Berklee degree in MP&E Hwang, Beyong-joon ’99 has become one of Korea’s top recording and mastering engineers. Upon earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Seoul National University, Hwang enrolled at Berklee as an MP&E major at 27. After an introduction by the late Berklee professor Robin Coxe-Yeldham, Hwang became an intern at the Boston-based recording company Soundmirror. It turned out to be a career-defining alliance. Back in Korea in 2000, he helped Soundmirror open a Seoul facility. Hwang still works periodically with the Boston team on projects in the U.S., Korea, and other countries. In fact, Hwang and Soundmirror’s Boston team won a 2011 Grammy award in the Best Engineered Album, Classical, category for recording the opera Elmer Gantry.

Hwang does a range of freelance projects at his own studio, frequently with Berklee alumni. “Lots of Berklee people have been very successful in the music scene here,” he says. “It’s fun working with them. There’s a great synergy.”

I met Hwang at an October Seoul Berklee alumni gathering, and he was excited to introduce me to his former classmate, Kio Chang ’99, who has enjoyed a spectacular career as a hit songwriter, bassist, singer, and more. Among other things, Chang has served as a chief consultant to the singers onthe TV show  I Am a Singer. Chang called upon Hwang to master his latest jazz-infused album, Chagall Out of Town 2.

“To date, I’ve mastered about 2,000 albums and recorded or mixed a few hundred more,” Hwang says. He also worked on the soundtrack for the now-classic Korean film Gwanghae.  His newest venture was founding a record label. “It’s focused on authentic Korean traditional music and some new music based on traditional music,” Hwang says. He’s released three surround-sound super-audio CDs to date. “I want to preserve the authentic sound of Korea with as natural a sound as is possible and share it with people around the world.”

 

Shaping Future K-Pop Careers

While only in his early 30s, Jang, Young-chan ’05 has hit the ground running in a career bridging K-pop and music education. An accomplished songwriter, Jang has written songs for major K-pop artists, including Rain and Hyori Lee, and composed music for Korean TV dramas. While serving his mandatory two years in the Korean army, he wrote an official army song. Titled “Overcoming Myself” (sung by K-pop vocal star and fellow soldier Park, Hyo -shin), the tune offered Jang a chance to serve his country through music.

After graduating from Berklee, Jang was anxious to share his knowledge. In 2006, he began teaching music at home to 10 young students. “After I got back to Korea, I really wanted to help the young generation learn,” he says. The effort grew, and in 2009, Jang received government certification to operate Seoul Music High School (SMHS) as an official, nonprofit institution. Enrollment tops 150 students now, with young musicians drawn primarily from Seoul, but also includes one from Japan and another from North Korea.

The school received a publicity boost after becoming the model for a popular primetime Korean TV show Dream High (similar to the American show Glee). “People now think of our school as Dream High,” Jang says. “It’s gotten harder to get in. We accept one out of every 10 that apply.”

Among his 42 faculty members, Jang has brought three Berklee alumni aboard as deans. They include “Grace” Hey, Suk-oh ’06, the dean of composition. She majored in contemporary writing and production at Berklee, and in addition to teaching, she writes instrumental music for TV, radio commercials, and more. Eunmi Seo ’06, dean of piano, played classical music and contemporary gospel tunes at her church as a youth and came to Berklee to pursue jazz. “Ryan” Jeehoon Chong ’06 is the dean of MIDI production. A film scoring major at Berklee, he coaches SMHS students on making beats and actively pursues composing gigs after hours. Alumnus Tim Lee ’04 helped establish the school in its early years and has since worked as the director of education planning at Seoul’s M Academy.

In addition to music, SMHS students take academic courses in math, science, history, English, and physical education, and receive a diploma at graduation. During our visit, President Brown and I were treated to a concert by some impressive student musicians and a tour of the school’s recording studio and classrooms.

Some SMHS alumni are already succeeding in K-pop, including the r&b boy band Shinee. With K-pop’s appetite for young teen stars, Jang is poised to offer his students and the industry what they need. “I am an educator but also a producer,” Jang says. “I give students opportunities to assist me on some sessions. When I produced Rain, I had students singing on the song’s chorus. Student arrangers have also helped with my music for TV dramas.” Jang’s future plans include establishing a production company and a record label to enable students to release their own music. 

Jang’s efforts at SMHS also involve a humanitarian component. “We do fundraising for scholarships to help those who want to attend but can’t afford the tuition,” Jang says. “We have one student here from North Korea. He escaped to the south and had no money, but we made a way for him to get support. We thought it was important for him to have a chance for a better life after all he’d been through.”

 

Conclusion

Korean musicians are finding their place on the world stage as Seoul becomes a key cultural center in Asia. While I met many high-achieving alumni during this visit to Seoul, schedules did not permit meeting other rising stars—including  Bom Park ’08 of the group 2NE1. The trip confirmed that Berklee’s Korean alumni are making a significant impact in their country.  They take pride in being educated musicians and hold out the promise that solid musicianship and other relevant skills will undergird their nation’s contemporary music for years to come.